Behind the Wheel: 2014 Mercedes-Benz GLK 250 (Diesel)

The little SUV from Mercedes that won the right to carry on the name “Keithmobile.”

When my venerable old 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander’s repair costs started exceeding the value of the vehicle itself, it meant that it was finally time to start thinking about a replacement – something to take on the designation of “the Keithmobile-E.”

I had an idea of what sort of car I wanted – basically, something similar to my Outlander, but newer (and maybe a bit nicer). This is basically the “compact SUV/crossover” category, and these days that encompasses a LOT of cars.

I looked at countless vehicles across several model years – I didn’t want anything brand-new, but at the same time I didn’t want anything more than a few years old. It was a long list of vehicles, but I eventually narrowed it down to two – one of which I’ve already reviewed.

The other vehicle – and obviously the one that won out in the end – was a 2014 Mercedes-Benz GLK 250.

GLK 250 badgeIt almost goes without saying that the GLK is a very nice car in all respects – the interior is a very comfortable place to be, and everything is just very well put together and nicely arranged. The particular model I ended up with has all the nice little touches that you’d expect, and though many are becoming fairly standard on new cars these days, they all feel very new & exciting to me since my old car had none of them!

Visibility out of the GLK is also very good (especially for this type of SUV) – certainly no worse than in my old car. Although there is a rear camera, it’s entirely possible to reverse this car without it and not have it be a dangerous guessing game of “what might be hiding in my blind spots.”

Size-wise, the GLK is almost identical to my Outlander – which is surprising since it looks bigger. But it’s the same length, almost the same height, and only 1 inch wider – so it fits exactly into the same spot in my garage. Very handy!

As for technology, the GLK has an easy to use media system with nice easy-to-reach buttons for switching modes (a feature I really like and which some cars don’t have). The built-in navigation is perfectly serviceable – though nothing spectacular.

But now let’s get to the real reason I chose this car – the engine. The are two types of GLK class vehicles – the 350 and the 250. The former has a 3.5 liter V6 gasoline engine, while the latter has a diesel. Specifically, a 2.1 liter twin-turbo inline-4, putting out an even 200 HP and an incredible 369 lb-ft of torque.

This is the reason I went with the GLK 250.

I drove both vehicles before settling on the 250, and while the 350’s engine was plenty powerful, I found that power to be a bit difficult to control. The throttle in the 350 was very fiddly – seemingly dead at first, and then it kicked in with a surge of power that was quite difficult to modulate, especially at slower speeds.

The 250’s diesel on the other hand delivers its power smoothly and without any fuss or bother. Additionally, most of that power is available at lower RPMs – as is typical of diesel engines – and which is similar to where the power in my old Outlander was available.

All that low-end power from the diesel also helps with towing, and the GLK is no slouch there either with a maximum trailer weight of 3,500 lbs – quite a bit more than my Outlander could tow!

Even with the relatively low horsepower for a vehicle of this weight (some 4,246 lbs), the GLK 250 gets up and going like nobody’s business – there is a slight delay right off the line, but the smaller of the two turbos spools up very quickly and power delivery after that is very even. It’s not the quickest thing in the world – in many ways it feels faster than it is – but it’s no slouch, either. Acceleration is steady – one might even say relentless.

Even at highway speeds the power is always there should you need it – just put your foot down and you just ADVANCE and suddenly you’ll find yourself going a lot faster than you meant to be.

All that power gets to the ground via a 7-speed auto which I would describe as “buttery smooth” – in normal driving I can hardly even tell when it’s making the shifts. It also helps that it makes those shifts very quickly, and unlike a lot of cars these days it doesn’t mind moving up & down through those gears at your command. (As a nifty trick, it will even downshift to help control your speed while going downhill – something I’ve never seen any other automatic gearbox do.)

Of course, it also has AWD – Mercedes’ 4MATIC system – so even when conditions get slippery there’s no problem getting all that power to work.

The engine does have variable valve control but there’s no sudden “surge” of power at any point – it is always very smooth and controlled, and (once the turbo has spooled up) very linear.

Even with a heavy AWD system and a rather chunky aerodynamic profile, the GLK 250 still manages to get a very decent 24 city/33 highway MPG – and in practice it does even better. Combine this with a 17.4 gallon fuel tank and the GLK 250 has an incredible cruising range.

On top of this, the GLK is a tremendously comfortable place to be for long periods of time, making it the perfect choice for long-distance road trips. The suspension just soaks up the bumps, but without feeling floaty or disconnected as can happen with too-soft suspension systems. It’s soft enough to make rough roads comfortable, but tight enough to let you attack corners in this heavy SUV with confidence.

As for that diesel engine – I’ve driven several diesel vehicles now (an Audi A4 wagon, a Fiat 500L, and now this GLK 250) and I have to say, they do take some getting used to. With diesels, all the power is generally down low in the rev range – no high revving needed – and the addition of turbos makes things even stranger if you’re only used to naturally aspirated engines. But of course the upside is torque, torque, torque! None of these cars is particularly fast per se, but they are definitely quick!

When used in an SUV application though, I think a diesel is a perfect fit – power to get a bulkier SUV moving, but small enough to be fuel efficient. It’s a shame they aren’t more common (at least here in the US).

The GLK does have a few downsides, though – none serious enough to turn me off, obviously, but your opinion might differ.

Foremost is that rear seat legroom is… not that great. As I said, this GLK is the same length as my Outlander – but the GLK has a bigger engine compartment, so that extra space has to some from somewhere. In this case, that space came from the rear seats (the front seats and cargo area are virtually identical to my old Outlander). It’s not exactly bad, but it’s not great – especially if you put the front seats all the way back. Now, I rarely have passengers (and I don’t put my seat that far back) so this wasn’t a big deal for me – but this might be a major drawback for people who regularly carry more than 2 people.

In addition to the slightly restrictive rear legroom, the rear wheel arches intrude into the rear door openings a bit more than I’d like, which makes getting in & out of those back seats a little tricky at times. It’s not terribly difficult by any means, but it is noticeable. If you have passengers with any sort of mobility restrictions, they won’t be happy in the back of a GLK.

Another minor downside with the GLK is that later model years moved the transmission lever to the steering wheel column. It’s not like the old steering wheel systems of yesteryear by any means, but it does take some getting used to. More than once I found myself reaching down to change gears before remembering it’s now just a tiny little stalk on the steering column.

All-in-all though I think the GLK 250 is a fantastic SUV – the diesel makes it a blast to drive, and although very comfortable it’s still got plenty of “utility” going for it as well. If you’re after a small-ish SUV with some style and comfort, you might want to give a GLK a look!

Behind the Wheel: 2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited

2015 Subaru OutbackRecently, the repair costs on my faithful old 2003 Mitsubishi Outlander started to exceed the value of the car – so it was time to start looking for a replacement.

One of the cars I looked at rather extensively was a 2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited. I wanted something similar to my old car – at least in the same general size & style; not too big or tall – but maybe also a bit nicer. Since Mitsubishi doesn’t make anything like that anymore, Subaru’s offering seemed like the natural choice.

The Subaru Outback has a lot going for it – right off the bat I can say this is a very nice car. It looks quite nice from the outside – not too garish, as many cars are these days – and the inside is equally nice. Subaru has really improved their interior design, even compared to just a year or two ago.

The Outback has plenty of power for a car of its size: 175 HP and 174 lb-ft of torque from it’s 2.5 liter 4-cylinder (horizontally opposed of course – that famous Subaru “boxer” configuration). It’s no race car or anything, but it gets up and moving more than quickly enough.

The Outback also has incredible visibility – especially compared to many SUVs – even the side mirrors were moved down onto the door so you could have just that last little bit under the A-pillar for better forward/side visibility. Rear visibility is fantastic too – no massive blind spots on this thing.

There’s also a fantastic amount of room, both front and back – rear leg room is almost as good as the front – and there’s also a generous cargo area behind the rear seats which gets even bigger once the seats are folded down. As a bonus, the rear seats can be folded down from within the rear hatch area – without having to open the side doors. (Why don’t more SUVs have this? It’s a great idea!)

The Outback is a big car on the inside, but it doesn’t look big on the outside – it’s like the TARDIS of cars.

It’s a surprisingly nimble for a car its size, with a very tight turning radius making it very good as a city car. It’s also very planted on the road (thanks to its low center of gravity), handling tight corners with ease.

The roof rails also have the cross beams built into them (they fold away when not in use) which is a very clever feature – most other vehicles of this type just have the rails and the cross beams are an extra cost.

All that said, there are some downsides to the Outback.

It’s got lots of room, because it’s a LONG car – a full 11 inches longer than my old car – which wasn’t exactly short, either. I had to actually measure my garage to see if this would fit in it – and it turns out it would, but only just, with no room to walk in front of or behind. You also feel that size when you’re driving – especially when changing lanes.

The Outback also comes with paddle shifters, which I just find very… strange. This car only comes with a CVT, and having paddle shifters on a CVT just seems… wrong. They create fake shift points where none exist… why? (I know it’s because people expect that “shifting” feeling, but c’mon…)

Overall, the Subaru Outback is a very nice car, especially for the price. In my mind it competes with much more upscale luxury SUVs in terms of interior. But, the size is a problem – if you’re looking for something “compact” then this is not it. But if the size doesn’t bother you, then the you could do much worse than the latest Subaru Outback.

Behind the Wheel: 2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWD

Behind the Wheel of Toyota’s latest RAV4 – the most “meh” of SUVs I’ve ever driven.

2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE AWDRecently I found myself with the chance to drive the latest Toyota RAV4 for an extended period of time (it was a loaner while my car was in the shop) – and I have to say, I kind of regret it.

The RAV4 I was driving was the very latest 2016 model, but even with all the nice options on this particular car, it just rubs me the wrong way – in all the wrong ways, in fact.

First and foremost, the seating position in the RAV4 is just awful. Maybe it’s meant for shorter people than me, but I’m not particularly tall, so I don’t know. The seat is quite high up, but the roof is (relatively) low, which means getting into the car requires me to duck my head even to get in & out of the seat.

Then, once I’m in the seat, the steering wheel doesn’t come out far enough, and so I have to sit with my legs kind of scrunched up in order to hit the pedals properly, which is not at all comfortable. Then, once I’ve found my seating position, it turns out the steering wheel doesn’t come up high enough – it blocks the top of the gauges.

On top of all that, the roof is very low and my head brushes against it while I’m driving.

As for the engine, the 176 HP 2.5L inline-4 (the only available engine) is plenty powerful enough to get this (relatively) lightweight SUV moving, but the transmission doesn’t seem to want you to get anywhere near that power. As soon as you get moving, it surges up through all 6 of the gears and then stays there – you have to drag it kicking and screaming to get it to go down into 5th or 4th.

That said, it does have one of those “Sport” buttons (with a corresponding “Eco” button, in case you forget that the two are mutually exclusive). However, I wouldn’t ever touch that button because it turns this car from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde – it’s absolutely insane. The throttle instantly becomes very touchy, the transmission suddenly realizes that 3rd and 4th are gears that exist, and the steering gets very tight. It sounds like it might be a fun mode to be in, but trust me – it’s not. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s borderline undriveable in this mode.

On top of that, this car has Toyota’s variable valve timing (VVT-i) which kicks in around 5000RPM and it is INSANE when it does – the whole car just SURGES forward; it is more than a little scary.

And as if that wasn’t enough, even when in “Eco” mode this car gets really lousy gas mileage. I swear, when driving you can actually see the gas gauge moving.

As for the rest of the car, everything else is just… OK. The radio is… OK. The media system touchscreen is… OK. If this car was an ice cream flavor, it’d be plain vanilla.

There are lots of plastic-y bits, though some weirdly placed softer materials on the dash which strike me as rather incongruous, but I suppose it helps make things feel a bit softer and adds padding (both physical and for sound-deadening purposes).

There is a lot of thoughtful storage (typical Toyota style). In fact there’s so much that it almost make this feel vaguely minivan-ish.

Handling is decent – body roll is very controlled – and it feels planted, and of course it turns very well.

The looks are just boring – there’s no two ways about it. It looks like any other compact SUV on the market, with really nothing to distinguish it.

All in all the RAV4 is an unassuming, docile, practical people mover (if you’re not too tall) that doesn’t do much wrong but also doesn’t really do anything right, either. In a sense it is an SUV for people who want an SUV but don’t really care about SUVs.

Christmas Letter 2015

This is the letter that went out with our Christmas cards this year (usually just to family), but it’s been such a year that I thought I’d share it here as well.


2015 christmas cardApologies for this Holiday card arriving late this year – December got away from us, and truth be told, looking back, the whole year was a bit of a jumble!

You’ll notice this year there are no bunnies on the card, that’s because this year we lost our two furkids Gus and Betsy. Gus left us in January after a bout of illness and Betsy did not wake up from the anesthesia after a routine procedure in August. They had been with us for over 10 years and despite the often-costly path of destruction they left on both our belongings and bank account (chewed-through power cords? Check. Hole dug in the carpet? Check. Penchant for expensive organic salad mix? Check. Disappearing into some random spot in the house causing a panic. Check.), we miss them to bits. It’s highly unlikely we will be bunny-less forever, so 2016 may see 2 more bunnies fall into the lap of bunny-luxury at 18 Erskine, stay tuned!

Early 2015 we escaped some of the epically cold NJ winter weather by heading back to Australia in February to celebrate our niece Penelope’s first birthday.  As only Amanda’s sister Kate could pull-off, it was a jungle-themed party complete with handmade animal tails, masks, a treasure hunt, tee-pee and balloons!  It was an exhausting but super-fun day and Penny had a ball. Turns out February is a great time to visit Adelaide as the Fringe festival is on – we caught a few shows and even took the kids through a maze in Victoria Square (OK so the kids were terrified, but the adults had fun!). There were some lovely dinners out with family, strawberry picking at Beerenberg with the kids and trips to the beach. The end result of the trip was that Dexter, now 4 years old, is completely enamored with Uncle ‘Keef’ (much to Auntie’s dismay – she wanted to be the favorite!). Though Auntie was the one who bought all the toys, it was Uncle Keef who would sit for hours tirelessly playing trucks in the sandpit or sit and fixing Dexter’s LEGO toys.

After returning to New Jersey and seeing out the long, cold Winter we embraced Springtime as quickly as we could, with Amanda pretty much camping out at the garden store buying plants. Like carful’s of plants. Pretty much every weekend. By June all the employees at the store knew her by name.  Her war cry became “but there is a sale!” On sale or otherwise, while lots of lovely plants sound like a great thing, Keith often was left to dig the holes needed to put said-plants in the ground, which was a massive undertaking, and as Amanda would time it, was often done in oppressive humidity.  We added some larger plants (skip laurel’s, crepe myrtles, and magnolias) as well as smaller perennials that attract hummingbirds, butterflies and dragonflies. The resulting display this Summer was fantastic and we have 2 hummingbirds that now visit the front garden, and butterflies throughout the Summer.

During late Spring and early Summer we decided to execute Amanda’s Dad’s suggestion that we finish the garage with insulation and drywall/gyprock. This was the biggest project we had ever undertaken and it nearly got the better of us. Six months’ post-project we can look back and be proud of the end-result but it was a tough, tough frustration-inducing slog (and for a long time we wouldn’t even talk about it). Amanda will never forget Keith in the garage at 8pm one Sunday night after working 5 days nonstop, the plasterwork had been sanded and despite extensive use of the broom there was such fine plaster dust everywhere that we needed to get out so we could start to prep for paint. “Why don’t we just use the leaf blower?” Amanda suggested. What a nightmare! Within minutes of firing up the leaf blower the dust curled out from the garage looking like a plume of smoke and debris you would typically see from a building demolition or disaster movie. You couldn’t even see Keith in the garage it was just dust. Everywhere. All over the driveway, the cars, the plants in the front garden!

Late this Summer we were fortunate to have David and Ana (Amanda’s Uncle and Auntie) over for a visit, we spent a lovely day looking at the sculptures at the Grounds for Sculpture here in NJ, we also had some lovely dinners in NYC and even toured Princeton University which was really interesting and not something we would have thought do even do.

Obviously forgetting the fatigue and frustration of the garage project, we decided to build a shed in the backyard (we call it our tiny house). This project took up most of the autumn and quickly became another “this is a lot harder than we thought” experience. We ended up having to hire help with raising one of the walls – at over 9 feet (3 meters) tall and VERY top-heavy we just couldn’t lift it up ourselves. But with help from paid random strangers Amanda found online (that’s a whole other story…) at 9pm we did get the wall up, and now we have a lovely shed that matches the style of the house – and can also act as an emergency shelter if needed.

Amanda has this great habit of injuring herself at the beginning of any large project and rendering herself less than 50% operational usefulness.  So let’s be honest, Keith pretty much built the shed… To Amanda’s specifications of course.

With the shed watertight with a roof, and a promise to each other to take a break from projects around the house, the end of 2015 wrapped up with a lovely Thanksgiving spent with Keith’s Mum and then in early December a 5-night stay on the Caribbean islands of Turks and Caicos (Turks and Caicos is a 3.5 hour flight from Newark New Jersey). While we usually like to get our and explore on our Holidays, this trip we did absolutely nothing but read, swim in the ocean and relax. It was wonderful.

It’s been a bumper year and activity on the house is slowly winding down – Keith’s excited at the thought of less projects in 2016 but Amanda’s parents are visiting and there is that patio paving that needs to be done … so stay tuned!

Happy Holidays! We send you and your family our best wishes for the Holiday break and wish you a wonderful, prosperous and fulfilling 2016.

The Struggle

Every day is a struggle… a different kind of struggle, sure, and varying wildly in intensity, true, but a struggle nonetheless.

Struggles against fear & frustration, loss and abandonment, or even just struggling with getting out of bed or running out of coffee.

Yet it is these struggles that define us. Like the lines that define a picture – without struggles we are just empty space.

Without these struggles, we are just consumption machines; mindlessly turning food into waste heat.

We all struggle – each and every one of us. We face our own struggles, every day, but we face them together.

So take heart, my friends, and struggle on…