Mercedes-Benz has not made all that many missteps over the past decade of vehicle development, especially when you consider its remarkable product resurgence and subsequent sales explosion.
But the one decision it came to rue was not producing a car called the GLK in right-hand drive, and thereby allowing its German rivals to dominate sales in the compact luxury compact SUV market — one of the fastest-growing segments of all.
They didn’t make the same mistake twice, though. The new Mercedes-Benz GLC, as the GLK’s global successor is called, is now in Australia and ready to make up for lost time. Standing in its way are the segment-topping Audi Q5 and Land Rover Discovery Sport.
Then there’s the BMW X3. While the Audi tops the charts, there’s really no pound-for-pound rival to the GLC that is quite as well-matched as the Bimmer — the company’s third most popular model.
Where the German-made GLC shares its MRA architecture in large part with the C-Class, the US-made X3 makes liberal use of bits from the 3 Series. The rivalry here goes more than skin deep, and cuts to the core of these nemeses from Stuttgart and Bavaria.
Mercedes will be hoping the GLC mimics the C-Class and comes to lead its segment in the sales race (just like it did in its first month on sale). BMW will be hoping for the opposite. We’re here to explore which brand is more deserving of your money, and why.
The cars we’re testing are mid-level petrol-fired variants that sit right in the sweet spots of their respective line-ups: it’s Mercedes-Benz GLC 250 versus the BMW xDrive 28i.
Price and equipment
The first shot to make body contact in this duel of titans goes to Mercedes-Benz. At $67,900 plus on-road costs, the GLC 250 undercuts the $74,600 X3 xDrive 28i by $6700.
In fact the GLC 250, which sits above the $64,500 GLC 220d and below the $69,900 GLC 250d, almost exactly bisects BMW's base X3 xDrive 20i and their 28i as tested here. If you shop off the sticker alone, the Benz will have your attention.
For some context, these prices are between $20,000 and $25,000 above what you would pay for a top-of-the-line Mazda CX-5 Akera that offers similar space and lots of equipment, without the premium badge.
To provide further contrast, both of these Germans are cheaper than their passenger equivalents, with the GLC 250 narrowly ducking the C250 Estate on price, and the X3 xDrive 28i undercutting the (more powerful) 3 Series 330i Touring.
What about standard equipment? The common features to the GLC and X3 variants tested are extensive, as you would expect.
Both cars gets screens controlled by toggles mounted ahead of the console (an 8.8-inch screen in the BMW, versus a 7.0-inch on the Benz), satellite-navigation, cruise control with braking, reverse-view camera with 360-degree overhead viewing, all-round parking sensors, electric tailgates, USB/Bluetooth and DAB+, leather seats and two-zone climate control.
The BMW comes with the ConnectedDrive suite with traffic data, emergency calling and cloud-based service data, but it’s the Mercedes that really takes the specs up a notch.
Despite being the cheaper car, the GLC offers extras over the BMW including LED Intelligent Lights (rather than the BMW’s Bi-Xenons), 20-inch alloys (rather than 19s), active parking assist, keyless entry/go, blind-spot monitoring and active lane assist. You also get radar cruise.
To option these on the BMW, you’re looking at circa- $10,000 extra including luxury car tax. And the X3 is the pricier car already. We suggest you mention this to your dealer and haggle.
Being German luxury cars, both the GLC and X3 come with long lists of available options; 38 on the BMW and 16 on the Benz.
We won’t bore you with all the details, but just for a taste of what's on offer, the BMW came with the $3000 panoramic sunroof, while the Mercedes had the Vision Package with a two-pane sunroof and heads-up display, priced at $3990 (a HUD on the Bimmer is $2000). Also on the Mercedes was the COMAND package that features a larger 8.3-inch screen and the upgraded 13-speaker/590 watt Burmester sound system ($2990)
Both of these cars have the full suite of front, side and head protecting airbags for all occupants, a pair of Isofix anchors in the rear seats and five-star ANCAP safety ratings. Both make excellent little family cars.
Verdict: A resounding win here to the Mercedes, because even when optioned up to the nines, it was still cheaper, and better equipped.
The parallels to the ever-lasting 3 Series v C-Class battle are never more evident than in the cabin layouts. The GLC is all glitz and glamour, while the X3 is all Germanic austerity and function over form. But which is better?
The BMW X3 has the driver-focused instruments of a passenger car, albeit one with the higher driving position that SUVs offer. The chunky steering wheel (finished in iffy urethane), metallic paddle shifters and basic analogue instruments are pure 3 Series.
The absence of keyless entry — where the door handles respond to your hand while you leave the key fob in your pocket — is a notable point of difference to the GLC.
But unlike the 3 Series LCI (Life Cycle Impulse) in higher grades, you don’t get a heads-up display as standard ($2000 option), meaning you don’t get a digital speedo. Nevertheless, the X3's ergonomics are fantastic, with everything in easy reach and a cinch to figure out.
As with all BMWs, you get the iDrive multimedia system controlled by a circular dial with shortcut buttons. The orange-lit ventilation controls are swathed in tasteful black plastics, while the 8.8-inch screen is properly embedded rather than propped on top of the fascia.
As usual, the iDrive system is simple to operate and generally logical with simple but solid graphics, while the Professional Navigation setup is excellent. Some cool features also include a system that shows your on-road camber, and power/torque delivery gauges.
Pictured: Mercedes (top); BMW (below).
The materials, again in typical BMW fashion, are austere and low-key, but exude quality. The plastic buttons feel Lego-like, the dials are damped, the dash and doors are trimmed in squishy plastics and leather, and the fit-and-finish is beyond bulletproof.
The aluminium highlights and tasteful wood-printed bits on the transmission tunnels and in the doors do add a sense of the upmarket, while the seats are super comfortable and trimmed in hardy and easy-clean leather. Storage in the front comprises big door pockets, good cupholders, a phone/wallet cubby under the fascia, and a felt-lined hidden area next to the driver’s knee. But for all these perks, it lacks any sense of occasion. The glovebox is small, as is the centre console.
Hop into the Mercedes GLC and it’s a study in contrasts.
The sense of classical modernity from the C-Class abound. Where the X3 evokes feeling of Teutonic simplicity and modesty, the GLC is all glitz and glamour.
The way the sculpted, soft dash wraps around the instrument binnacle and bleeds into a silver accent that divides the upper portion from the lower... is more art than car. As is the tactility of simple aeroplane-style ventilation switches.
The Mercedes-Benz infotainment system still isn’t as user-friendly as BMW’s iDrive though, with fewer shortcuts for navigating menus. But the Mercedes' COMAND screen has the better graphics, the HUD is fantastic and the Burmester speakers look incredible, even if the X3’s system was at least a match, sound-wise.
In this and most other ways, the X3 matches or wins on substance but loses on style.
In the Merc, we still aren’t fans of ergonomic oddities such as the "codpiece" hand rest ahead of the rotary dial, or the column gear shifter. The seat adjustment switches on the doors are classical Benz, though.
As with the X3, the GLC gets excellent partitioned door pockets — the Benz also gets rubber inlays — and Mercedes adds to this a better console, a better glovebox, and a lovely covered storage area recessed properly in the fascia.
Onto the rear seats.
First, there’s bugger-all in it dimensionally. At 4657 millimetres front-to-rear and 1661mm ground-to-roof, the BMW is a whole 1mm longer than the Mercedes and 22mm taller. But at 2096mm, the Benz is 7mm wider than the BMW, and it has a 63mm longer wheelbase.
The key points to these vehicles are their higher roof-lines that give more rear space than a typical wagon, and their raised ride heights that make entry/egress and the loading of items easier on your core.
However, neither is really wide enough to seat two child seats with an adult in the middle, and neither has sliding/tilting rear benches.
In the BMW X3, the solemnity of the design carries over into the rear seats, but there’s very ample space for two large adults in terms of headroom (even with the optional sunroof) and legroom, while outboard visibility is also excellent.
The centre seat is tight and raised as usual, as the driveshaft tunnel eats into space. The rear bench is trimmed in the same hardy leather as used in the front, and is long in the base, but also quite flat. The same stuff lines the armrests in the door, which inhibits elbow room.
Under them are expansive door pockets, supplemented by a flip-down ski port with covered cupholders. Amenities include rear air vents with temperature adjust and overhead touch lights. There are two flimsy map pockets set against the hard plastic seat-backs that aren’t friendly on knees but are easy to clean for parents.
The Mercedes-Benz GLC has similar space in the rear seats as the X3, meaning it’s a comfortable place for two adults, or three kids, to kill time. Like the BMW, it has outboard ISOFIX hard points (obviously, being European).
Its rear bench is not as bluff as the one found in the C-Class, and in terms of headroom it’s about on a par with the X3. However, its narrow side windows mean you don’t have the same feel or airiness as the BMW, while you sit a little more "propped up" on the seats and the legroom is not superior like the longer wheelbase might suggest.
As is typical for the brand, the small details — think the vents, switches and speakers — are properly luxurious, while the dual-pane sunroof has an even greater sense of occasion than the one in the BMW. The little switches mounted above the wheel arches in the boot serve to fold the seats flat and are superbly easy to use, too.
In terms of storage, you get big door pockets and a hidden, felt-lined area in the ski port.
If you twisted my arm, I’d prefer to ride in the backseat on a long trip in the BMW, which is just that bit lighter, easier to see out of and has a little more under-thigh support. But it's close.
Another important metric in these cars is cargo capacity. Both have electric tailgates, and cargo areas that are taller and easier to access than the average wagon. They both have 550 litres with the rear seats in use, which is about 150L more than a CX-5.
The seats in each fold relatively flat, liberating flat loading areas (1600L in the BMW, no figure available for the GLC) with low floors that are easy to throw gear into. The maximum payload in the BMW is 590kg, and in the Mercedes it’s 665kg.
Both cars get a 12V outlet, cargo rails with moveable anchors, netting, hooks, cubbies and under-floor storage. Only the Mercedes offers handles in the rear to drop the middle seats, which is a small feature that we find essential.
Verdict: Once again, it’s probably just in favour of the Mercedes, purely for the sense of occasion and the sense of ‘classical modernity’. But the BMW grows on you, and its timeless design will stay fresher down the track. We prefer its back seats too.
At last, a clear win to the BMW.
Both of these cars use familiar 2.0-litre turbo-petrol engines, each used widely across a range of passenger cars. But one is not like the other.
Both the X3 and the GLC have the same torque figure of 350Nm, available in both from around 1200rpm out past 4000rpm. But there’s a big power gulf — 180kW at 5000rpm in the BMW and 155kW at 5500rpm in the Mercedes.
When you factor in the kerb weights, which are almost identical at 1740kg (BMW) and 1735kg (Benz), it’s not too surprising that the X3’s 6.7-second 0-100km/h sprint time undercuts the GLC by a not-insignificant six-tenths.
In reality and away from the spec sheets, the BMW feels notably punchier both down low and into the mid-range. It’s a crisp and responsive unit with a rorty exhaust note that leaves the GLC feeling a little flat-footed by comparison. The GLC is anything but slow, but its engine lacks the sweet, crisp note of the BMW’s and that extra tenth of gusto off the line.
BMW claims the X3 will drink 7.2 litres per 100km on the combined cycle, which undercuts the Benz (7.5L/100km). In actual urban driving, both cars registered double digit consumption. The tanks are 67 litres and 66L respectively.
If fuel savings are your absolute priority, and you do a lot of long distance driving, you might consider the diesel versions of each — the GLC 250d, or the X3 xDrive 20d/xDrive 30d.
Both vehicles come standard with automatic transmissions. The BMW has the familiar eight-speed ZF unit used across a number of its models, while the GLC gets a new 9G-Tronic nine-speed unit that moves it on from the seven-speeder in the C-Class.
Make no mistake, the nine-speed unit in the GLC is better than the 7G unit in the C-Class, though it retains the unergonomic column shift layout and there’s the occasional brief hesitation. But in Australia, where our speed limits are low, nine ratios is a gimmick, as are the paddle shifters behind the wheel.
The BMW’s eight-speeder remains the class benchmark, in terms of the imperceptible nature of its shifts, its smoothness and linearity in urban surrounds, and its slickness in more dynamic driving.
Both the GLC and X3 come with various driving modes that adjust the calibration of the throttle and gearbox’s tuning to make the cars more sporty, more fuel efficient or somewhere in between. Each system is fine.
Both models are all-wheel drive. The 4MATIC system in the GLC and the xDrive system in the X3 are each permanent AWD systems (rather than purely on-demand) with a nominal rear axle bias, which can redirect torque as required under slip.
The Mercedes-Benz can be optioned with an Off-Road Engineering Package ($3490) in tandem with air suspension that gives you a surprising level of off-road ability.
The system comprises up to five programs. "Off-Road" mode is automated for easy off-road terrain such as gravel or sand tracks. "Incline" boosts climbing capabilities. Should the vehicle get stuck, the "Rocking Assist" program offers a last resort by raising the driving level by 50 millimetres and the upping wheel-slip control thresholds. The fourth off-road program, "Trailer", is designed for optimum trailer towing off-road.
But in reality, neither of these are designed to be bush-bashers.
Verdict: The BMW gets points on the board.
Ride and handling
If there’s one area where BMW tends to take the chocolates, it’s in making the best handling car in its class. But do SUV buyers really care about sportiness? Is the GLC actually the cushier car here, as its reputation might suggest?
Both cars come with all-round independent suspension, monocoque construction and electric-assisted power steering. You can option a trick air suspension system on the GLC for $2490, which softens the way the cabin feels over corrugations.
On the BMW X3, you can option Dynamic Damper Control for $1900, which gives you the ability to add or subtract firmness from the dampers to make it more comfortable or sporty depending on mood. Note that BMW just made the adaptive dampers standard on the 3 Series as part of the latest LCI, and we urge them to do the same with the X3.
The X3 is a little on the firm side for an SUV, meaning it rebounds from bumps faster but doesn’t give you much in the way of SUV-style cosseting softness. That said, it’s never jarring or overly busy or uncomfortable — just firm.
The BMW also rolls on 19-inch wheels, meaning there’s not much rubber insulating you from bumps and patched surfaces. It also uses run-flat tyres that tend to be a little firmer because of stiff sidewalls.
This slavery to style means it picks up and transmits sharper bumps into the cabin, and while this is fairly well controlled, it doesn’t simply dismiss pockmarked roads like you might expect an SUV to.
In terms of handling and body control, the BMW X3 remains the best thing this side of a Porsche Macan. Yes it’s firm, but it stays so flat in corners and turns in with such veracity and balance. If you like the odd blat on a weekend, this is your SUV of choice.
The Mercedes-Benz GLC is agile for an SUV, but compared to the BMW, it trades some of that pliancy for a little more roll in corners. In this way, it’s more of what you’d expect from an SUV, and reminds one of the comparison between a 3 Series and C-Class.
That said, it rides on even bigger alloys than the X3, meaning there’s more of that slight harsh edge or brittleness over sharper bumps.
The speed-sensitive steering system in the Bimmer is typical for the brand; super involving, feelsome and confidence-inspiring. The Mercedes has a much lighter system that isn’t as sharp on-centre as the BMW’s, though you can add resistance via a button. Nevertheless, it’s typically disconnected compared to the sporty BMW.
Both are equally easy to twirl around town as well, because their steering lightens up as needed. The respective turning circles for these two cars are 11.8m (Mercedes) and 11.9m (BMW), which are both fine for SUVs of these dimensions.
Verdict: Tough call. Each car here plays up to its brand reputation, and the likely preferences of its target "core" buyer. The BMW is perhaps the better balance, because its slightly firmer ride is never uncomfortable, and it steers and handles better.
So the BMW is more expensive to buy, but what about running costs?
Both the BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz get three-year/unlimited kilometre warranties, with full roadside assistance. Both also have excellent 12-month/25,000km service intervals (whichever comes first).
With both brands, you can purchase a fixed number of services and roll the costs into your car payments, meaning after this one-off charge you won’t pay for servicing over the term.
Verdict: About par.
This wasn’t a particularly hard twin-test to write. The BMW certainly lives up to its sportier reputation, and has the better engine and transmission combination to boot. It also has an austere but timeless cabin design and perhaps the better rear seats.
In short, if you’re a BMW person, this car stays true to the brand values.
But the Mercedes-Benz GLC is the fresher and better SUV for now. It’s roomier inside, more affordable, notably better-equipped and offers ‘proper’ luxury brand glamour, which is the whole reason for buying one of these rather than a perfectly good mainstream offering.
Click on the Photos tab for images by Tom Fraser.