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Mercedes’ compact ute a homely beast

If ever you needed a reason to shoot out the light in your garage, may I present the 2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK 350, a vivacious and elegant little ute disguised as a vandalized Subaru Forester. What’s the deal here?

The exterior is a veritable food fight of odd angles and curious proportions, fender swells and dissonant accent lines, and all of it buttoned by a hilariously oversized, nay, desperate grille. The GLK suggests nothing less than a Dadaist collage of the company’s styling portfolio pasted onto a matchbox.

I understand Gorden Wagener, Mercedes’ new chief of global design, was trying to synthesize the blustery outdoor looks of the vast GL and the C-class compact sedan, upon which the GLK is mechanically based. I say leave the synthesizing to Dr. Hofmann.

Oh yes, looks matter. The premium compact SUV segment (luxe-cute-ute) was once the sole domain of BMW’s X3, which debuted in 2003. With rising fuel prices and cultural disapproval prompting suburbanites to downsize their vanity, manufacturers are diving into the segment like it’s the last lifeboat of the Andrea Doria: Acura RDX, Infiniti EX35, Land Rover LR2, the new VW Tiguan and the soon-to-drop Audi Q5 and Volvo XC60. Any and all are prettier than the GLK, in the way Einstein was smarter than his dog.

Well, how about the interior styling? The GLK has one of the strangest dash assemblies I’ve ever seen -- a thick, angular aluminum section intrudes between the upper and lower console sections as if one dash is being pushed through the other dash’s birth canal. Shouldn’t Mercedes be handing out cigars or something? The center-stacked climate and audio controls are the same functional but not particularly gracious bits from the C-class sedan; the overall tactile experience from the driver’s seat is one of stiff and durable cost-conscious plastics and coated foam.

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So as the GLK -- priced at $33,900 to start for the rear-wheel-drive model -- rolls into showrooms this month, it has already lost the segment’s swimsuit competition. Good thing it’s such a little gem mechanically.

Basically a C-class in Vibram hiking boots, the GLK has the C’s die-cast solidity and innate sense of soundness. The chassis is stiff and utterly without noise or flex. The doors and liftgate close with a Stuttgart-worthy whoompf. By my built-in sound meter, the GLK offers the quietest cabin ambience of any of the luxe-cute-utes. Wind noise is likewise attenuated, even at supra-legal speeds.

Behind that Godforsaken grille is the same silky 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 as in the C350, lashing 268 ponies to the seven-speed automatic transmission. Our test car was equipped with the 4Matic all-wheel-drive option ($2,000) as well as an “appearance” package including 20-inch, 245/35 Pirelli Scorpion performance tires (a little bit of overkill on the tires, but certainly that’s forgivable). Indeed, our thrombosis-red tester had nearly every option ticked -- rear-seat DVD system, Harmon Kardon sound system, power liftgate, and on and on. Total: $51,175.

The tensed eagerness and muscularity of the 3.5-liter V-6 power plant, the transparent gearshifts, the lovely resonance at high rpm -- all of that which is true in the C sedan is true in the GLK. This is what a gasoline-powered Swiss watch would sound like. Output is 268 hp at 6,000 rpm and 248 pound-feet of torque from 2,400 rpm all the way to 5,000 rpm. Combine that mesa of torque with the multitude of gear ratios and you get virtually uninterrupted delivery of linear acceleration at any reasonable speed and rpm. Just chime down to the engine room.

However, there’s no denying the 421 extra pounds in steel and glass the GLK must horse around (compared with the two-wheel-drive C350 Sport), and so the GLK is slightly less quick than the sedan (6.5 seconds to 60 mph vs. 6.1). The GLK also doesn’t get particularly good fuel economy either: 16 city, 21 highway. But all of the little luxo critters are thirsty.

And here we come to the GLK’s trump card. Later this year Mercedes plans to offer the GLK with the company’s massively torquey 3.2-liter V-6 diesel with Bluetec emissions control, the company’s second California-legal diesel. That vehicle should improve mileage to about 22 mpg city/30 mph highway, by my estimates.

There is also no denying the extra 12 inches of height that the GLK imposes on the C-class chassis, and there are moments that you feel the higher center-of-gravity pulling at the GLK in unhappy ways. But for the most part, the GLK handles beautifully. The body motions are well-damped, the roll rates are moderate, and the GLK manages to keep its tail down in hard braking so that when you get back on the gas at the apex of a corner you don’t get a big weight shift that takes weight -- and cornering grip -- off the front wheels. The steering is well weighted and precise, and really quick; the GLK has the same steering ratio (2.8 turns, lock-to-lock) as the C sedan.

Meanwhile, the ride quality is quite good, even with the crazy Pirelli Scorpions wrapped around the wheels.

Personally, I would prefer the C-class over the GLK: better fuel economy, better handling and better styling by parsecs. That said, the GLK certainly did grow on me. I was able to get two large child car seats in the back with no trouble. The upright seating position offers a nicely commanding view of the road (and the hood, alas).

And it might just be that -- like other quirky styling exercises, such as the old Gelandewagen or, yes, even the Subaru Forester -- people might read the GLK as endearingly awkward, ugly cute.

It has always worked for me.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2010 Mercedes-Benz GLK 350 4Matic

Base price: $35,900

Price as tested: $51,175

Powertrain: 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 with variable valve timing; seven-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive

Horsepower: 268 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 248 pound-feet at 2,400-5,000 rpm

Curb weight: 4,036 pounds

0-60 mph: 6.5 seconds

Wheelbase: 108.5 inches

Overall length: 178.2 inches

EPA fuel economy: 16 miles per gallon city, 21 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Park in the dark


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