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.

Behind the Wheel: My Mid-80’s K-Cars

My first 3 cars were all mid-80’s K-Cars, and since they were all so similar I figured I’d just lump them into a single review rather than try and do them individually.

1985 plymouth reliant1985 Plymouth Reliant

This was my very first car, and though I only had it about 2 weeks, I remember it well. It was a maroon color, with the automatic shifter on the floor of the center console (unusual for this age of car – most automatic transmissions had the shift lever on the steering column).

Although this was an old car when I bought it in 1996, it still ran just fine – and after all, it was my very first car! This was also (obviously) the first car to carry the name “Keithmobile” (I’m not very good at coming up with clever names for things).

Sadly, I only had this car for about 2 weeks before it was totaled in an accident – I was hit side-on by a white late 80’s Ford F-250 quad-cab that ran a red light.

1984 Plymouth Caravelle

"Plymouth Caravelle, 83-85" by 55allegro - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Plymouth Caravelle, 83-85” by 55allegro. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

My second car (the “Keithmobile-A”), purchased in haste after my first car was totaled in an accident – I had just gotten my first job (to pay for the car) and needed to drive to be able to get to work. Unfortunately, because I had to replace my previous car so quickly, I didn’t have time to look around for a good car and had to settle for what was available… Suffice it to say, the Caravelle was not a car I would’ve chosen if I’d had more time to look around.

Although the Caravelle sounded good (on paper), it was in fact a piece of junk. The engine supposedly had a turbo, but it never worked, and the engine itself was barely functional. The suspension was worn out and the brakes were terrible.

One memorable instance with this car was during a major blizzard when school was let out early – I could not get the car to start, and spent quite a while in the parking lot trying to get it going while the snow continued to fall. Once I did get it going (with just 1 headlight working, brakes that were in poor shape and tires that were nearly bald), I had a very, shall we say “exciting” drive home.

I did not end up keeping this car very long, as eventually the repairs required exceeded the value of the car itself.

keith's 3rd car (Keithmobile-B)1986 Chrysler LeBaron

My third car (the “Keithmobile-B”), and the last K-Car I owned. This was a 4-door sedan instead of the more usual 2-door coupe, purchased from a former Chrysler mechanic – which thankfully meant the car was in fairly good shape (for its age).

This was the car that took me to my first year of college (or university as some countries would call it). It was also the K-car I had for the longest period of time – just under 2 years.

One memorable experience with this car was getting stuck in the parking lot at college in winter – there had been some snow, which melted & then re-froze as ice, causing my wheels to be frozen in place. I had to chip away at the ice using a shovel (which I kept in my trunk – always be prepared; especially when you drive unreliable cars!) for what seemed like an eternity before I was finally able to rock myself free. But even then I had trouble getting moving, as the whole parking lot was covered in ice! (These winter experiences are one of the reasons I drive an AWD car nowadays.)

Like all the K-cars I owned, this had a 2.2L inline-4 cylinder engine, and like all the other cars the ride and handling was absolutely pathetic – especially by modern-day standards.

As was common at the time, all these cars were very similar – the Chrysler K platform of the time was used for an astounding number of different cars across all the brands – Chrysler, Plymouth, and Dodge – all of which were virtually identical mechanically speaking; differing mainly in trim & options.

Each one of these cars was over 10 years old by the time I bought it – the newest one being the 1986 LeBaron that I bought in early 1997. All of them had problems to greater or lesser extents – even the most reliable one (the LeBaron) had its share of mechanical issues. But then again, these were also very cheap cars – the cheapest was just $800; the most expensive was only $1,200. So, you get what you pay for, I suppose.

It’s interesting to compare these cars against my current car – especially since my Outlander is (as of this writing) older than any of these cars were when I owned them, yet it is in much, much better shape – both mechanically and appearance-wise.

Still, these were my first cars, and I’ll always remember them.

Behind the Wheel: 1996 Chevrolet S-10

The Keithmobile-C in 2003Continuing the series of Behind the Wheel reviews of cars I’ve owned, we now move on to the predecessor of my current car… which was actually a truck. Specifically, a 1996 Chevrolet S-10 LS Extended Cab 2-wheel drive pickup truck.

This truck was a lot of “firsts” for me:

  • My first non-throw-away car (all my previous cars had been mid-80s K-cars that cost around $1,000)
  • My first car where I had to take out a real car loan
  • My first manual transmission
  • My first new(-ish) car (bought it in 1998)
  • And, of course, my first truck!

I was in college/university (living on-campus in the dorms) when I bought this truck, and having a pickup truck is great when you’re a college student and need to move in & out of the dorms each year. Although it also means that other people might come to you asking to help them move as well!

Still, this was a very good truck for me – very practical, reliable, and with a manual transmission and a small 4 cylinder engine it was also very fuel efficient (good when you’re a poor college student with little gas money!). It also helped that at the time gasoline prices were ridiculously low (remember when gas was $0.89/gallon?).

This particular S-10 was an extended cab, with a small 3rd door behind the driver’s door, and a little fold-out jump seat behind the passenger seat. This extra space was very handy for when you didn’t want to put stuff in the bed of the truck (e.g., in the rain or snow), though it was of little use for actually carrying a 3rd passenger – that little fold-out seat was not at all comfortable unless you were a little kid.

The engine in this S-10 (a Vortec 2200 LN2) was also really great – although not particularly powerful (just 118 hp). Still, when coupled with the relatively light truck body and manual transmission it had no problem moving this truck around. In fact, this truck was surprisingly nimble, all things considered.

The S-10 was also a very fun truck to drive – there wasn’t much horsepower, but it did have plenty of torque (140 lb-ft, specifically) which made it easy to… have fun in ways that my 20-something self found quite satisfying. I did always wish I had gotten 4-wheel drive, though – especially in winter. But the upside was that I learned a lot about how to drive carefully in the snow – despite the 2-wheel drive and no weight over the drive wheels, I never got stuck.

The steering was quite good, especially for a pickup truck – it wasn’t going to win any awards, but it was precise and had a good feel.

The interior of this S-10 was rather spartan by today’s standards, but for the time it was actually quite nice. The S-10 used Chevy’s then-standard instrument cluster and controls, but they were all well-laid out and easily reachable and useable without taking your eyes off the road.

truck's instrument cluster

This particular S-10 didn’t have much in the way of options – no air conditioning, manual wind-up windows, and cloth seats – but again, at the time this was fairly standard for pickup trucks. (It did have a combo radio + tape player, though!)

All in all, this was a tough little truck – hardworking, reliable, and economical – that served me well through all the years I had it. I realize I am looking at this truck squarely through the lenses of the nostalgia goggles, but I really did like this truck quite a lot – I took care of it, and it took care of me.