Considering the popularity of the modern compact SUV, does the venerable compact-executive sedan still have a role to play in the transportation of young South African families?
Whether it’s for our unyielding sense of adventure, the perceived sanctity of a raised driving position or our penchant for mounting pavements, South Africans love their SUVs. From Fortuner to Forester, Tucson to Tiguan, the global trend towards a raised ride height has even seen manufacturers previously bound to building sportscars and grand tourers shifting their attentions (and balance sheets) in favour of this ever-popular, ever-growing segment.
With the likes of Maserati and Bentley joining the fray, other, more mainstream brands continue to explore every possibility and niche associated with the SUV acronym. As Audi prepares to introduce a fourth member to its Q family and BMW continues to reap the relative rewards of sloped rooflines on its extended X range, you do wonder just how the average South African was ever able to transport their family before the advent of the “two-box” raised-ride-height segment. With the recently introduced Mercedes-Benz GLC range quickly finding favour among a South African audience, we parked it alongside the traditionally chart-topping compact-executive sedan on which it’s based to assess whether the humble four-door sedan still has relevance as an “old-fashioned” family commuter.
Sharing the same Modular Rear Architecture (MRA) platform, the hatch-backed GLC is 30 mm shorter than the C-Class. While measuring 197 mm taller than the sedan, some 33 mm of this figure is accounted for by the raised suspension (181 mm ground clearance versus 148 mm) on the SUV cousin. Much of the gain in terms of sought-after interior space in the taller of these two family members is achieved via a 33 mm stretch in wheelbase over that of the C-Class, as well as a significant 80 mm gain in overall width.
And, while the newfound length is gratefully apportioned to rear-passenger legroom, it’s worth noting that accommodation for a third adult in the back of the GLC remains snug. Rather, with two Isofix child-seat bases installed (and their corresponding seats attached), the real appeal of the SUV over the C-Class is that a spare parent can position themselves between the two should comforting their temperamental occupants be required. On the subject of child seats and their tenants: the appeal of raised seating (together with wider rear-door apertures) is that these precious items can be loaded at a more natural height, as opposed to having to lower them into the rear of the sedan. That said, the C-Class remains more than capable of accommodating two Isofix-mounted child seats without compromising front-passenger comfort by adjusting seats forward.
Quality and safety
A carbon copy of one another, both the C-Class and GLC benefit from the sophistication that is Mercedes’ current facia design. Sleek and, for the most part, well put together, it’s a design that successfully manages to complement both the business-class feel of the C and the more purposeful stance of the GLC. The optional, larger Comand Online infotainment screen fitted to our test GLC did, however, add to the feeling of sophistication.
Safety is certainly one of the perceived advantages of SUV ownership, with the feeling that these cars offer a greater sense of security, both in negotiating traffic and in the event of an accident. The crash-test statistics don’t bear this out, though, and whereas the more agile sedan may possibly help you avoid trouble should there be a collision, both the C-Class and the GLC boast full five-star EuroNCAP ratings. The larger car does, however, claim the smallest of advantages in terms of adult-occupant protection (by 3%).
In terms of usability, the GLC driver’s advantage in being able to see further down the road is negated by larger D-pillars and subsequently bigger blind spots. And that’s even before you begin to pack above the luggage tray line. Here it’s definitely worth considering the optional (R5 300) reverse camera on the larger car.
While this same passenger load-height convenience translates into easier access to the GLC’s luggage compartment, the C-Class actually offers more packing space below its boot lid than the SUV underneath its sliding parcel shelf. It’s only once you begin packing above this line (into the rear-view eye line and around where an optional cargo dividing net is required) that the GLC’s packing space trumps that of the C. Furthermore, while the standard 40:20:40-split in the GLC’s rear backrest provides access to up to 1 112 dm3 worth of utility space, a similarly convenient (though admittedly not as versatile) 60:40-split rear backrest in the C-Class remains a relatively affordable (R4 100) option.
Boasting twin-turbocharging in this application, Mercedes’ OM651 2 143 cm3 diesel engine delivers 150 kW and 500 N.m of torque that is available in a narrow band. Mated with a seven-speed automatic transmission in the C-Class, it gains a further two ratios (9G-tronic) in the all-wheel-driven package. Despite this, it’s only on the open road where these additional ratios come into play, with the relatively slick transmissions quick to drop down into the smaller cogs on the smallest throttle input.
Offering satisfactorily brisk performance round town, the GLC’s obvious weight penalty plays a small role when getting off the line compared with the C. Once on the move, though, the larger car is capable of matching the in-gear acceleration times posted by the C250d. Driven line astern on our combined-cycle fuel run, the lighter, more aerodynamic C-Class achieved the better average consumption of the two (5,7 versus 6,3 L/100 km). Boasting suitably uprated brakes, the GLC was able to match the excellent braking times of the C250d.
If the packing advantages of a raised and bloated SUV body style seem obvious, so too does the edge that the lighter, lower-slung executive sedan holds over its cousin in terms of driving dynamics. Not that we are expecting the owners of either of these two 250-designated models to be setting fastest laps in their respective vehicles, but the GLC250d 4Matic (weighing 1 982 kg as tested) is more inclined to pitch and roll in everyday driving conditions than its 200 kg-lighter C250d relation. On the other hand, the GLC offers the more compliant ride quality.
Despite the still relatively low-slung driving position on offer in Mercedes-Benz’s second-smallest SUV, together with a more dynamically inclined 31:69 front-to-rear torque split on the GLC250’s 4Matic all-wheel-drive system (less powerful models feature a 45:55-split), it’s the RWD C250d with its notably lower centre of gravity that is the more precise tool, not only at speed, but also round town.
Test SummaryThe obvious outcome of this test would read that the C-Class appeals to the more driver-focused businessperson who does not necessarily require utility space, with the arguably more playful GLC speaking to a combination of school run and weekend-wanderer duties. However, a closer look at the numbers indicates there's still plenty of merit in opting to keep your driver's seat closer to the ground. Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room ... the station wagon. Unlike other manufacturers, who have given up trying to convince South Africans of the wagon's merits, Mercedes-Benz still offers the C-Class Estate on special order. Splitting the C250d and GLC250d 4Matic on price, the C250d Estate offers a combination of C-Class-like driving dynamics, with levels of loading versatility (including seats folded utility) that mimic those of the GLC. Unfortunately, the manufacturer did not have one available for testing. Our conclusion, then, is yes. That would have to be the inescapably pragmatic answer to the question of whether or not the SUV is a better all-round family vehicle. That said, don't discount the modern sedan; it remains more than up to the job should your desire for driving dynamics have survived the demands and distractions of family life. To be honest, we still think the station wagon is the best compromise… but we've given up trying to convince everyone. *From the October 2016 issue of CAR magazine
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