Crossing Over

While Cadillac's SRX aims for the luxury market, Mercedes' GLK350 bests it with a drive that beats some sedans

By Rhuaridh Marr
October 31, 2013 7:23 AM |

2014 Cadillac SRX 002

The crossover is something of an anomaly. It can't beat a full-size SUV in space or off-road ability, it can't touch a minivan for versatility, and it can't match a normal hatch on fuel economy. It is, however, a hybrid in the most literal of terms -- an amalgamation of these car types into something that supposedly represents the best of everything. But does it? Can a jack-of-all-trades truly be a master of anything? The sales figures and proliferation of models across every marque would seem to suggest yes, so I hit the streets in two crossovers that aim to offer all of the above and a little more -- sporty luxury is the name of the game, here. I tested Cadillac's SRX and Mercedes-Benz's GLK350 across two separate weekends to see if these upmarket crossovers could cut it on the cutthroat streets of downtown D.C., the open highway, the shopping mall car park and, shamefully, a couple of fast-food drive-thrus.

First up was Cadillac's SRX, which tackled a night out at the Kennedy Center, 240 miles of driving to Kings Dominion and Six Flags America, and a grocery run. Picking it up from Hertz at the Washington Hilton, it immediately captivated. Cadillac's current design DNA runs deep in the SRX, with bold, LED headlights and taillights, angular curves and a squat, beefy stance, tempered by swathes of chrome and lighting details, such as small LEDs in the side vents, which add a nice visual drama at night.

Climb inside, over the illuminated doorsills, and the interior will likely surprise you. Cadillac's all-touch center stack is a pretty incredible sight to behold, with no visible buttons and a piano-black fascia broken up by silver strips. These guide you to the touch sensitive areas that activate certain functions, and the theme carries through to the touch-sensitive screen, which controls the majority of the infotainment system through Cadillac's CUE interface. It feels incredibly futuristic, the screen and dash both providing a subtle, vibrating feedback when touched, but it sadly can't hold up to use during driving. The system is too unintuitive to use confidently without looking for extended periods, and is occasionally plagued by extreme lag -- the otherwise excellent satellite navigation system seems the worst culprit here. CUE is very much form over function, but it's a really exciting form that needs further development.

Where the Cadillac shines is in making you feel like you're in a much more expensive car. Whether attending a show at the Kennedy Center, with the lights bouncing off of its glossy black exterior and bright chrome alloys, or pulling into a Kings Dominion car park and sliding in among sedans and SUVs, the SRX manages to look like a car twice its price. That feeling extends to the highway drive, where the soft suspension, quiet cabin and excellent Bose stereo dispatch the miles with ease. An editor and I drove to Kings Dominion and Six Flags over two days, and the SRX's soft seats cosseted our roller-coaster-bruised behinds as effortlessly as the 308 horsepower V6 dispatched with overtaking. There's even more for the slightly geeky among us as, under the instrument dials, there are three digital screens that can be configured on-the-fly to display trip, navigation or audio info in a myriad of combinations -- I loved this addition, and it adds extra cool factor to the stylish interior.

Where the Cadillac falters somewhat is in the city, despite some nice touches aimed at improving practicality. With space for five and a big trunk, the SRX is a practical car, and the proximity sensors, rear-view camera and blind-spot warning system combine with the weighty-but-easy steering to make parking and merging with traffic a cinch. These systems are needed though, as the SRX's styling leads to some pretty dangerous blind spots and visibility problems around the car. And, as nice as the steering is, the SRX is very American in the way it tackles corners, even with Cadillac's sporty pretensions -- the soft suspension that soaks up bumps and cracks in the road pitches and wallows more than you'd expect when presented with a fast off-ramp or sprightly corner. Show the SRX a heavy right foot, or take it into the city and find yourself in traffic, and you'll also experience the downside of its V6 engine -- fuel economy is middling at best, unless you're steadily cruising on the highway.

All told, it was tough to give the Cadillac back at the end of our long weekend together. Its style, luxurious nature and plethora of equipment outshone the limitations of the CUE system and its disappointing handling and fuel economy.

It also impacted the Mercedes-Benz GLK350, my next car. Walking up to the Hertz counter once more, the GLK was much less remarkable on first impression. A sporty yet squat, boxy crossover, Mercedes has eschewed the sharp look of the ML- and GL-Class SUVs, and instead aimed for pure aggression. It certainly works, but next to the Cadillac it looks decidedly less refined -- almost awkward, even.

Step inside, and the Merc's cabin is similarly underwhelming on first impression. It's classic Mercedes, with lots of wood, aluminum air vents and a restrained center console, with the COMAND rotary dial control and touch screen. The seats, too, feel firmer than the SRX's and took longer to adjust to a comfortable driving position, though offered greater adjustability for both the seat and steering wheel. Once you grip the wheel and shift it into drive, however, it's an entirely different beast.

Starting with that leather-coated wheel, which is suitably chunky and feels great in the hand, the GLK is a much sportier car. The electronic, 7-speed gear shifter is mounted on the wheel and, combined with paddle shifters for manually changing gear, makes for a much easier and more engaging solution to the SRX's traditional dash-mounted shifter. The GLK's pedals are similarly more involving, with an immediate throttle response and much sharper brakes than the Cadillac. Take it into the city, and the firm-yet-supple suspension soaks up the worst bumps, keeping the Merc composed over all surfaces. I took the GLK for a run through Rock Creek Park and into Maryland, the tight bends and twisty roads letting the GLK's sharp chassis shine -- it's night and day compared to the SRX, with the GLK offering a confident, composed ride, which, combined with nicely weighted steering, inspires the confidence to tackle corners and off-ramps at much higher speeds than is probably advised. The GLK's all-wheel drive helped here, an optional extra not fitted to the SRX.

The following day I drove to Baltimore, and the GLK continued to bury its way into my heart as I buried the gas pedal into the floor. On the highway, its 302 horsepower V6 proved even sprightlier than the Cadillac's, pulling faster and harder when overtaking and allowing for better acceleration across all gears. Those seven gears also let the GLK settle into a near-silent cruise, something that can't be said for the SRX's six-gear setup. Aside from some wind noise at speed and road noise over harsh surfaces, it's blissfully quiet, aided by a bassy audio system that made any music I threw at it shine.

That drive also aided in my appreciating the interior more than on first impression. It's a well-made, spacious cabin, though somewhat drab when compared with the SRX. Logically laid-out, its rotary dial and touchscreen make for a more intuitive system than Cadillac's CUE, and every surface is soft-touch, suitably dense and befitting of its luxury crossover status.

As nicely screwed together as the interior of the GLK is, though, it can't touch the Cadillac for the amount of equipment included as standard. Our SRX, as provided by Hertz, came in Luxury trim, and with satellite navigation and chrome finish alloys costs around $46,000. The GLK comes in one trim, but to bring it up to the same level of specification as the SRX -- leather seats, illuminated door sills, rear-view camera, parking sensors, sat nav, voice control, blind spot assist and more -- would bring its total to $49,000, or $51,000 with the 4MATIC all-wheel drive system included on our car. It was by no means lacking, but in direct comparison to the SRX, Mercedes' miserly standard equipment feels slightly insulting at this price bracket.

Returning from Baltimore and navigating the streets of D.C., though, the GLK shrugged off equipment inadequacies and further outshone the SRX. Here, its start-stop system kicked in at lights, turning the engine off when the brake is pressed and the vehicle has fully stopped. It's an excellent idea and works well in practice, with the engine taking as long as it took to move a foot from brake to gas pedal to switch back on. The savings bore fruit in terms of fuel economy, with the GLK, despite having four-wheel-drive, returning better fuel economy than the SRX around town. Its boxy shape makes it much easier to park, too, despite our car lacking electronic aids.

Even the Merc's styling grew on us during the four days I had it. Its aggressive stance may not be as luxurious as the Cadillac's, but it's distinctive, and the smaller details, such as the trapezoidal exhausts, began to stand out. ANy reservations with its looks, though, melt away when you drive it -- it really is so surprisingly capable. Handing it back to Hertz was, if anything, harder than with the Cadillac. The classy interior, the sporty styling, the excellent drive and the comfortable ride had won me over, despite initially tentative impressions.

Ultimately, could we recommend either over standard SUVs or smaller cars? Yes. Unequivocally. Even in a city as busy to drive in and with as limited parking as D.C., both cars tackled the streets with aplomb, never feeling unwieldy. Out on the freeway, both offer a relaxing, hushed drive. Both have distinctive styling and well-made interiors. Both are practical and spacious, with room for five adults and their luggage.

The Cadillac SRX is clearly aiming for a more luxurious market. Its angular, detailed design and tech-heavy interior evoke a sensation that cars twice its price struggle to achieve. Though average handling, middling fuel economy and the occasionally frustrating CUE interface hamper it in this comparison, the SRX is an excellent crossover.

The Mercedes, while not as sexy as the Caddy, is a grower, its boxy styling and sporty intentions gradually winning you over. It's sedate interior is more intuitive and higher-quality than the SRX and it drives with greater composure than many sedans. Combined with surprisingly good fuel economy and the savage acceleration of its V6, it's the winner of this comparison. Park next to an SRX, with its handsome exterior and futuristic interior, and the GLK won't feel as special -- on the surface the Cadillac is the glitzier car. Get in and drive home though, and you'll know you've made the right choice. The GLK is a great crossover, but it's not just limited to that. SUV, minivan, hatchback, even sporty sedan -- the GLK does it all.

Our thanks go to Hertz, who provided both cars for review. The GLK and SRX are available as part of Hertz's Prestige Collection, a range of luxury SUVs, crossovers, sedans, coupes and convertibles available nationwide. If you're considering renting on your next vacation, we thoroughly recommend the Prestige Collection. It makes any trip, either business or leisure, that much more memorable.


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