In the tense days of this nation’s twin gas crises in the 1970s, one automaker dominated U.S. roads with diesel cars: Mercedes-Benz. The automaker says that between 1975 and 1985, a majority of its cars sold here were diesels, hitting a peak of 80%.
Since then, that number has shrunk to a modest 6%. Yet the diesel engine has come a long way since the soot-stained versions from 30 years ago. Although many still have a distinctive idle not unlike your kid’s school bus, they are unquestionably cleaner, quieter, and more efficient.
Mercedes is now looking to boost interest by making these oil-burning engines more affordable. It’s in the process of bringing to the U.S. market for the first time a smaller, four-cylinder diesel engine that’s been selling well throughout Europe since 2009.
The first of its vehicles to get this power plant is the 2013 GLK250 BlueTec, Mercedes’ compact crossover SUV. Highway 1 recently spent a day testing one on the freeways and scenic back roads of Malibu to get a sense of this motor’s viability. After 80 miles of testing, it’s clear that if you’ve had your eye on the GLK, the diesel model is the one to choose.
The evidence is in the numbers. The all-wheel-drive GLK250 BlueTec starts at $39,495, a cool $500 less than its AWD gas counterpart, the GLK350. Yet the BlueTec gives you 33% better combined fuel economy despite weighing about 250 pounds more.
The GLK250 is rated at 24 mpg in city driving and 33 mpg on the highway. Mercedes says drivers can go up to 515 miles on a single tank of gas; enough to drive from Los Angeles to Tucson with a smidge left over. In our day testing the model in mixed driving, we averaged a healthy 27 mpg.
What’s encouraging about those numbers is the BlueTec never felt underpowered. Yes, its 200-horsepower rating is 102 less than the V-6 in the GLK350. And the diesel is a second and a half slower from zero to 60 mph.
But the BlueTec benefits from that tasty side effect of diesel engines: torque. It has a stout 369 pound-feet, nearly 100 more than the V-6.
These numbers are courtesy of the GLK250’s 2.1-liter, twin-turbocharged inline four-cylinder diesel engine. It’s the same engine that Mercedes will introduce this fall in the recently refreshed E-Class sedan. Like the GLK orientation, the E250 BlueTec will be the lowest priced version of the E-Class available.
This engine is a smooth-running delight. It has ample power whenever you need it, and from the plush, leather-lined cockpit of our loaded tester (yours for an eye-watering $57,635), you’d be hard pressed to know what was under the hood was anything other than the gas engines us ‘Mericans are so used to driving.
The rest of the diesel driving experience was near identical to that of the V-6 powered GLK. The BlueTec model comes with the same seven-speed automatic transmission that matches its engine for silky performance. Though no sports car, the GLK handles its mass as well as any of its buyers need it to.
The vehicle’s dimensions don’t change at all, so you’re still riding in a tidy but practical package. The back seats fits those 6'2" and under with plenty of head and legroom, though the small door openings make access a bit tight. The rear seats fold flat for extra room, though interior and cargo space trail competitors like the Audi Q5, Lexus RX, and BMW X3.
The GLK’s exterior also remains unchanged, save for the different badging and a set of unique wheels. Mercedes gave the entire GLK -- which has been on the market since 2009 -- a thorough makeover for 2013. The updates included new front and rear bumpers, wheels, headlight and taillight designs, and a slightly modified cabin.
Buyers seem to have noticed. Despite selling a respectable 29,364 units in 2012, sales of the new version are up 26% year to date from the same period last year, according to Mercedes. And this doesn’t include the interest in the diesel GLK250 BlueTec, which went on sale in April.
Mercedes said it expects about 10% of GLK buyers to opt for the BlueTec model. Given how this model only adds to the GLK experience with negligible compromises, color us surprised if that number doesn’t end up higher. This is the GLK you want.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times