How have we come to define ‘sports’ in motoring terminology? Is it style? A capability? A degree of special purpose? And what is a ‘coupe' today? Is it door count? A profile silhouette? A roof contour? Or what really is meant by ‘Sports Utility Vehicle’, aka the SUV, even though, at a gut level, you know what it is and what it’s meant to do in spite of fairly inaccurate classification?
Thus, faced with the prospect of a ‘double-sport utility coupe vehicle’, specifically the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLC Coupe, it’s easy to be skeptical of what exactly it is and does, let alone if it’s any good. I imagine that, somewhere in Stuttgart, there’s a product planner and marketing manager having a good laugh together (though the joke was probably first bandied around in Munich about BMW’s X4).
Today, definitions are loose, interpretive to a degree – who thought ‘shooting brake’ would ever be a five-door coupe wagon, for instance? – and what largely matters is whether a concept feels any good to the buyer. And while Mister Skeptical here initially approached the GLC Coupe with a turned up lip and folded arms, its strange and unorthodox manner (mostly) won me over. At least, that is, in some configurations.
After first impressions around the Aosta Valley, in the Alps in Northern Italy, at its international launch, the mid-sized sporty SUV feels about ‘right’ for what I think it’s trying achieve.
The GLC Coupe works not through boldly venturing motoring’s wilderness fringes, but because it gels together elements that, pragmatically, shouldn’t mix at all.
Appearance wise, it’s sending all the right messages in the metal, even if the core design itself isn’t exactly adventurous or mould-breaking. It’s not merely a ‘GLC with a mullet’, as it’s been stretched 76mm in length, is 37mm lower in height, and its dropped, sloping roofline is complemented by a more laid-back windscreen and A-pillar. When sat on 20-inch wheels – 19s will be the entry point for Aussie versions – the squat stance is accentuated by an extra four centimetres of body width. At the risk of offending its designers, there’s something a little Macan-esque about it when viewed from certain angles.
The slanted, single-louvre ‘diamond pattern’ grille marks further separation from the ‘regular’ GLC, but it’s really the massaging in the proportion where the Coupe loses that typical SUV dumpiness. Add the its reasonably compact medium size (with its 4.73m total length) it looks properly sporty in a manner in which hefty, large ‘performance’ SUVs tend to struggle. It looks smart and upmarket in the rear, too, which features slim LED taillights and, unsurprisingly, robs liberally from S- and C-Class Coupes.
Like the exterior, the interior treatment delivers large on the sports-premium vibe if very much minted in Mercedes-Benz design convention. The essentials – the floating infotainment screen, the Comand console controller and its software systems, the switches, vents and instrumentation – vary little from the GLC which, itself, carries forth from C-Class. The key changes are in conspicuous areas, such as the flattened-ish-bottom paddleshifter steering wheel and deeply bolstered front sports seats. In the second row, the front seat design is mimicked in the outboard locations for a faux two-plus-two look though, in breaking with coupe tradition and sensibly so, the rear seat accommodates three passengers.
Of the five variants available to sample at the international launch, we drove the 250 petrol and 250d diesel versions due to launch locally later this year, as well as the 350d oiler slated for a mid-2017 Australian release (we skipped the 300 and 350e hybrid, both yet to be scheduled for Oz). All felt suitably premium in cabin materials and quality, though each was nicely optioned in Euro spec: double-stitched Artico trim work, and either proper leather (250d) or nothing-spared ‘designo’ diamond-patterned nappa leather (250 and 350d). The regular cowhide is excellent and befitting the ‘executive sport’ brief, while the top-spec (and likely optional across the range in Oz) trim is, frankly, supremely supple if a bit aesthetically over the top.
Final specifications for Aussie versions have yet to be revealed, though it’ll likely mirror the regular GLC fairly closely and the entry 220d will almost certainly get manmade Artico seat trim and none of the fancy dash and door stitching. Point is, it remains to be seen if the local release variants will feel quite so premium, or what cabin niceties will require a liberal ticking of the options boxes.
Yes, if you opt for the coupe, you’re trading off space for rear passengers and luggage for ‘sportiness’ relative to the regular GLC. If you’re chasing maximum volume, shop elsewhere in the GLC and GLE lines. The second row only really fits two adults in long-haul comfort, but that's more a ‘mid segment’ issue than one of the coupe format. There is a generous cutaway in the rear ceiling, but with my 175cm frame my hair still brushes the headlining. Frankly, I didn’t find it a bother, and knee, elbow and shoulder room are all ample in back.
The real sting is in the load compartment. Volume is 491 litres with the rear splitfold seats in play, and 1400 litres with the second row stowed. By comparison, the ‘regular’ GLC offers 550/1600L, while a C-Class Estate offers 490/1510L. The main inhibitor is height: the sloping, electrically operated tailgate just doesn’t allow much of it. So while it’ll swallow numerous small objects effectively, it’s ability to load bulky object with the second row in place is limited. That said, our 350d consumed enough junk to keep three Aussies on the road for a week while still allowing the retractable cargo cover to close. The load lip is also 40mm lower than that of the ‘regular’ GLC.
With its SUV-ness addressed, ‘sportiness’ comes into question once the subject of kerb weight is raised. In its more lightweight iterations – 250 and 350 petrol – the all 4Matic all-wheel-drive range starts at 1785kg, then jumps to 1845kg for the diesel fours (220d and 250d), 1915kg for the diesel V6 (350d) and a hefty 2040kg for the petrol-electric hybrid (350e). If you believe ‘sports car’ means ‘lightweight car’, as is convention, you might have a philosophical issue with this weight...
The Coupe rages its battle against the weighbridge with some exclusive dynamic enhancements. Firstly, there’s a choice of three suspension systems: a standard ‘sport’, adaptive air (Air Body Control) and adaptively damped steel-sprung (Dynamic Body Control) set-ups. Secondly, there’s a retuned, quicker-ratio (15.1:1 against 16.1:1) steering system. And, thirdly, there’s expanded Dynamic Select drive mode functionality, added Sport+ and influencing the tuning of the powertrain, suspension, steering and the all-wheel-driven control.
Probably the least at home with the sporting brief of our three test cars is the 250d, our example sat on 19s and was fitted with air suspension. The clatter from the 150kW 2.1-litre diesel four at idle – more noticeable outside the car than in – doesn’t sit well with the theme, although whether off the mark or on the move the 500Nm on tap delivers strident shove.
Our drive loop of essentially urban and highway cruising suits this car’s spec – it’s very quiet and ride is supremely compliant. But there’s not much sportiness to write home about. This powertrain and suspension combination best suits the normal SUV format, where the big dividend is unstressed drivablilty and a 5.0L/100km combined consumption claim that's close to achievable in the real world. In Comfort, it can float a little too much at highway speed – despite an automatic ride height drop of 15mm in the process – but there are enough options in the drive mode trickery to dial in some solidity to the driving experience.
Our second tester, a 250 petrol version sat on 20s with adaptive steel suspension, is a more convincing pitch of what the GLC Coupe is trying to achieve. And it only takes a short 50-kilometre sprint up into the twisty Alpine roads near the Swiss-Italian border to demonstrate dynamic mettle beyond the ‘regular’ GLC stock.
The road via the commune of Saint-Denis and sat under the gaze of the famous Matterhorn massif is narrow, steep, full of hairpins and blind curves. There’s not much room for inaccuracy let alone error, particularly on a warm summer’s Sunday when it’s overrun by ‘temporary two-wheeled Italians’ of both bicycle and motorcycle varieties.
It’s more than the extra 20mm of tyre width the 20-inch wheel combo offers over the regular 235mm 19-inch stock that’s providing the sort of accuracy Mercedes-Benz’s regular mid-sized SUVs lack. The adaptive steel sprung suspension feels, in a variety of Dynamic Select settings, tauter and more focused than those offered in the air suspension set-up. It’s properly sporty, not merely taut (which it is) and slightly thumping across road imperfections (ditto).
In Sport+, the suspension channels tyre grip impressively, and the ways in which the GLC 250 Coupe clings to its line, shifts its attitude and responds to sudden changes in direction – thanks to sudden two-wheel surprises – really belies the SUV’s weight.
In the right spec, the big coupe is quite satisfying to punt hard on a proper driver’s road. It mightn’t plaster a stupid grin on your face like a real sports car might, but it doesn’t downgrade a crack across thrilling hotmix in a laborious chore like most SUVs do.
And that’s the key separator between the GLC and GLC Coupe worth weighing up with the latter’s extra price – expected to be less than a 10 per cent hike over the current GLC range – and compromised practicality. If you had to bomb across Europe for a week in mixed driving conditions via spectacular Alpine roads, the coupe is more rounded in abilities and holistically the more enjoyable drive for the lion’s share of the trip. It may well prove to be the same case doing a Sydney-to-Melbourne jaunt via the Snowy Mountains.
So there’s newfound sportiness in the breed. However, what’s not in the Mercedes-Benz-branded GLC Coupe mix is performance or high-performance acumen – there are Mercedes-AMG ‘43’ and ‘63’ variants waiting in the wings to fulfill those promises.
What probably hampers the GLC 250 Coupe’s cause is a powertrain that’s workmanlike but not terribly sporty. The 155kW/350Nm available from the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder propels 1785kg with reasonable haste, but the engine’s soundtrack is merely okay, power delivery is flat in the top end, and the nine-speed conventional automatic isn’t the most obedient or eager ally when it’s time to get a hustle on. Its 7.3-second 0-100km/h claim demonstrates that this variant is hardly the rocketship (Mercedes-Benz Australia says it isn’t planning to import the 180kW/370Nm ‘300’ version good for 6.5sec to 100km/h).
The steering is clear, direct and nicely weighted, but the GLC Coupe doesn’t really encourage you to chuck it around too hard because the stability control does have a habit of chiming in too enthusiastically, particularly driving out of tight corners.
For our money, the last variant sampled, the GLC 350d Coupe, is the pick of the three we tested. What it trades in an extra 130 kilos of weight (1915kg kerb) it makes up for with its superior 190kW and 620Nm outputs from its 3.0-litre diesel V6 and markedly more urgent 6.2sec 0-100km/h acceleration, be the road ahead straight or curved. Further sweetening the deal is an impressive 6.0L/100km combined average frugality at a cruise, and the big six is also smoother and quieter than the 2.1-litre straight four fitted to lesser 'd' versions.
We’ll have to wait for the second release wave of the GLC Coupe in July next year for it arrive Down Under, but our quick spin suggests that the top-spec diesel will be worth it, depending on where it lands in terms of pricing.
Six months earlier and at the end of this year, though, the 220d, 250d, petrol 250 and Mercedes-AMG ‘43’ will arrive in Oz, most likely with MY17 designation. We look forward to a more thorough and range-complete appraisal once the quartet hits local roads.