As its brand’s best-seller, the all-new 2023 Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class is an important model. Even more so that the small luxury SUV segment is heating up with new and impressive entries such as the Genesis GV70. While the previous-generation wowed when it was introduced seven years ago and remained a strong choice throughout its life, we’re afraid its replacement does not perform an encore act. While the new GLC gains the appointments of pricier Mercedes models, there are numerous functionality irritations and unrefined driving manners that result in an SUV that lands in the middle of the pack rather than leading it.
The new GLC doesn’t look particularly different, despite a bit more width, and tweaked lights and grille. That means it doesn’t stand out as much in a parking lot as the GV70 does, but for someone wanting a tried-and-true look that isn’t overly flashy, it’s not bad. And its rear-drive proportions that correspond with the longitudinal engine and driveshaft down the middle help it look more elegant and stately than some competitors.
Inside is a much different story, where the interior is basically a scaled-down version of what was introduced in the flagship S-Class and EQS models. No, you can’t have the Hyperscreen, but that’s fine. You still get a huge 11.9-inch infotainment screen and a 12.3-inch instrument panel. It’s attractive and responsive, though a little sluggish to fully come to life at start up. But back to the lack of Hyperscreen: without it you get a lovely waterfall dash and a choice of trim, which in our tester was black-stained open-pore wood veneer with aluminum pinstripes. That’s not all, the detailed air vents, technicolor dream ambient lighting, and upholstery most places where that wood isn’t (except for the somewhat low-rent plastic center console), the GLC’s design is mostly very luxurious. Mostly.
What sours the GLC’s interior, just like other Mercedes models, is the insistence on using touch-sensitive buttons everywhere. Car buyers may be wowed by these in a showroom, but they’ll quickly sour on them once they actually use them. They’re on the steering wheel, under the touchscreen and on the door-mounted seat controls: giant single plastic buttons that rely on touch sensors to know where your finger is and your desired selection. The plastic feels cheap at first touch, and the squishy, light actuation when pushing harder is unpleasant. The steering wheel buttons are worse, as they rely on imprecise swiping for functions such as volume. It’s all the more annoying when previous-generation Mercedes had great normal buttons, knobs and scroll wheels instead.
Continuing inside, the front seating accommodations are again a frustrating mix of good and bad. The seats themselves are supportive, particularly with the bolsters, and have good adjustability for the thigh extensions and lumbar. But the driving position has a number of problems. Most notable is the cramped knee room, particularly from the center stack and transmission tunnel. There’s just no room to lean your right leg over to the right. Furthermore, the steering wheel and instrument panel are particularly low, and there isn’t enough adjustment to bring it up. Head and shoulder room are fine, and you can adjust to the odd position, but that doesn’t seem reasonable when buying a luxury SUV.
The back seats are actually better. There’s lots of room in all directions, and the seats are a bit stiff, but nothing unusual. The lack of seatback recline is unfortunate, as SUVs half the price have that, but sadly not unusual for the luxury segment. And for cargo space, that’s fine, too at 21.9 cubic feet behind the rear seat. That’s an improvement of 2.5 cubic feet over the old one, but Mercedes has also been known to short-change its actual cargo space, so it may not be as below-average as the numbers make it seem. With the seat folded, it has a far more competitive 59.3 cubic feet, plus there’s actually a spare tire in the back of the GLC, a relatively uncommon feature nowadays.
The pattern doesn’t change when it’s time to actually drive the GLC. There’s only one engine option for now (AMG versions are certainly just around the corner), an updated turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, similar to before. New is a 48-volt mild hybrid assist for smoother engine start-stop that can keep the engine off sooner and longer. In Eco mode, it can even shut off while coasting for periods of time, seamlessly bringing back the engine as needed. The powertrain is also a bit more potent, with 3 more ponies at 258 horsepower and 22 more pound-feet of torque at 295 total. This part of the car is perfectly fine with good torque and impressive smoothness. You can hear it a bit under strong acceleration, but that smoothness keeps it from being annoying. The electronic engine sound added in Sport mode, on the other hand, is nasally and irritating (Mercedes really needs to work on its fake powertrain noises). Fortunately you can switch that off in the Individual mode, and it’s not present in the Eco or Comfort modes.
The nine-speed automatic transmission is where things start getting worse. It’s smooth enough, but it’s quite sluggish on shifts, especially downshifts. Sport mode wakes it up a bit, but not much. Manual shifting is an option, but it won’t stay in manual mode unless you select that in the settings menu from the touchscreen And if you do that, it won’t go back to automatic unless you switch it back yourself. It’s an OK-enough transmission for slow cruising, but a bit annoying when you demand more hustle.
The stiff-and bouncy suspension is the real sore spot of the driving experience, however. Mercedes notes that the non-adjustable multi-link independent setup at each end has been fully redesigned, but seemingly not for the better. Even over small bumps and dips, it’s always moving around, never feeling settled unless cruising over pristine pavement. It feels like it needs some revised damping to calm the body down. The tires clippity-clop over bumps, too, intruding on the otherwise quiet cabin. That could be a result of the larger 20-inch wheels fitted to our test car, and the standard 18s will probably be quieter, not to mention more comfortable. The handling doesn’t make up for the ride quality. It leans more than it should and feels heavy. There’s no changing the suspension either, since it doesn’t have adjustability. The steering is light and accurate, but has no feeling whatsoever, so there’s no redemption, either. And while it seems we’re harping on this, it needs to be better, because there are both sportier and more comfortable options in this class.
Finally, we come to price. The GLC 300 is one of the most expensive models in the segment. The base, rear-wheel-drive version starts at $48,250, and all-wheel-drive bumps it to $50,250. With options, our test GLC broke $60,000. The Genesis GV70, one of our absolute favorite small luxury SUVs, comes in just under $45,000 to start, and you can get one with the beastly twin-turbo V6 for less than our GLC as-tested. The Volvo XC60 is another compelling choice for less money, and also offers a plug-in hybrid powertrain. The Alfa Romeo Stelvio, Lincoln Corsair and Acura RDX are other strong value plays. Actual car buyers are probably more likely to cross-shop the GLC with the BMW X3 and Audi Q5, but those have their own issues. We’d recommend the above alternatives instead.
On its own, the GLC 300 is fine, but it simply isn’t strong enough in light of an increasingly competitive class. It’s expensive, mediocre to drive, and has an interior that, while pretty, has some odd compromises. None of that was the case when the previous-generation debuted to widespread accolades. Time and a new generation have changed things: This Merc is only for the three-pointed star die-hards.