Critics sometimes meet Mercedes-AMG products wearing “43” on the back with cynicism, starting when the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C450 sedan suddenly turned into the Mercedes-AMG C43 a year later, virtually unchanged despite wearing a two-digit moniker synonymous with sporty cars from Affalterbach. Skeptics saw it as a marketing grab, but the 2016 C43 and its GLC 43 sibling were really Goldilocks cars – a just-right mix of performance and comfort.
The refreshed 2020 Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 is a bit faster still, thanks to a suite of updates that apply to the 2021 model too. Its twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter V6 now makes 385 horsepower, up from 362 ponies before, with 384 pound-feet. In addition to tuning the engine, AMG had its way with the carryover nine-speed automatic and 4Matic all-wheel drive, the GLC 43 defaulting to a torque split of 31 percent to the front axle and 69 percent to the rear – nice. Last year also brought slightly more aggressive styling, with narrowed headlamps, AMG-specific Panamericana grille, sophisticated LED taillight design, and reshaped rear bumper.
It’s all very exciting to look at, but does the GLC uphold the luxury promises made by that huge grille badge? And what of AMG’s reputation for exciting performance when the pace quickens? That’s what we’re here to find out.
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AMG has done an excellent job of dressing up the somewhat anonymous GLC, starting with its fantastic, straked grille. Taking direct inspiration from the Mercedes-Benz 300SL that took the win at the 1952 Carrera Panamericana, the trapezoidal grille shape now adorns all AMG models, helping the sporty family distinguish itself from other Benz products. Bookended by squinting new headlights, the grille gives the GLC 43 a snorting, angry sneer. However, Mercedes’ recent obsession with obviously fake grilles on the bumper corners is on full display here, detracting from both the GLC’s innocuous appeal and AMG’s heritage-inspired alterations.
Things are more cohesive from the rear, where each taillight hides a pair of squared-off LED elements; the new rear bumper houses four round exhaust tips and an aggressive diffuser underneath an understated arc of chrome trim. Actual sheet metal is unchanged from stem to stern, but the refined and reshaped details make the GLC 43 a handsome and interesting thing to behold.
Inside, the AMG sport-ute looks much the same as it did for 2019, with a sweeping dashboard design that feels intimate and coupe-like. A quintet of rounded HVAC outlets show up, three in the center and one on each side of the dash. Our tester wore exuberant Cranberry Red and black leather, with carbon fiber trim on the center stack and aluminum finishes on the dash and door panels. We wish the seats were all red instead of two-tone, but otherwise, the interior glitz is welcome in a performance Mercedes. Materials are okay, but the hard plastic center console is a letdown – padded knee bolsters and armrests keep it from being a total loss.
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The Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 is the middle child in the company’s small SUV lineup, and like any other middle child, it somehow must be both attention-grabbing and genteel if it wants to earn any love – Jan Brady to the GLC 63’s Marcia and the GLC 300’s Cindy. Luckily, the GLC 43 does it without a chip on its shoulder, accomplishing its dual roles with nearly equal aplomb. The front seats are supportive and cushy, with four-way lumbar adjustment and a power tilt/telescope wheel making it easy to find that sweet spot. The rear bench is less contoured, useful for carrying three passengers but not quite as supportive for just two.
Ride comfort is impressive, particularly given this example’s $1,500 21-inch wheels (20s are standard), and credit goes to the AMG-tuned Air Body Control sport suspension, which can firm or soften each damper according to the driver’s tastes. We also enjoyed the hushed cabin, possibly thanks to the $150 heat- and acoustic-insulated front side glass – though at that price, shouldn’t they just be standard? The windows couldn’t solve our only major comfort complaint, though. Our example’s multi-mode exhaust didn’t seem to switch on and off reliably, meaning we were left with some annoying drone at part throttle on the highway.
Space inside is right on par with the competition. The GLC 43, BMW X3 M40i, and Audi SQ5 are separated by less than an inch of front legroom, while the Audi offers 2.1 inches more headroom than the Mercedes’ 39.6 inches and the BMW 0.9-inch more. Rear space is much the same, with the GLC offering incrementally more legroom than the X3 but a bit less than the SQ5 and a little more headroom than either. The GLC offers a paltry 19.4 cubic feet of cargo room, opening up to a decent 56.5 units with the rear seat down – Audi’s respective numbers are 25.1 and 53.1, while the BMW is substantially larger than both at 28.7 and 62.7 cubic feet.
For 2020, the company’s MBUX infotainment system appears on the Mercedes-AMG GLC’s larger 10.3-inch center display, controlled in triplicate by a touchscreen, center console trackpad, or thumb button on the right steering wheel spoke. The old COMAND control knob is finally laid to rest, but few will miss it once they master MBUX’s simpler menus and clever voice control system, which jumps to attention upon hearing “Hey Mercedes” – be careful not to mention the car by name with your passenger though, or the MBUX system will interrupt your conversation. Keeping that in mind, natural speech recognition can handle a variety of tasks.
The optional 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster is a reasonable addition at $750, adding a variety of slick gauge and content configurations, including a unique sideways cylindrical speedometer and tach. Save the full-screen map view and minimalist track-driving setting, there’s not a lot that the digital cluster can do that standard dials can’t, but your friends will probably think it’s cool. Also boastworthy is the optional Burmester surround sound system. Pushing 590 watts to 13 speakers with active noise cancellation, the audio package offers clear bass and crisp highs, with no booming or tinniness
As comfortable and pleasant as it is to look at and sit in, you’d be forgiven for thinking the GLC 43 were a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. But one press of the big starter button allays that assumption, a lusty 3.0-liter V6 roaring to life and boasting that aforementioned 385 hp and 384 lb-ft – higher numbers than the 382-hp, 365-lb-ft BMW or the 349-hp, 369-lb-ft Audi. The Mercedes is also lighter than its German rivals, down on the Audi by 115 pounds and the BMW by 144. Once you actually hit the road, the numbers matter less than the athletic way the GLC 43 moves.
According to Mercedes-AMG, 60 miles per hour happens in 4.7 seconds before arriving to a top speed of 155 with this particular tire setup, and we believe that wholeheartedly. With very little turbo lag from the pair of snails underhood, the throttle is responsive to the point of twichiness in its most aggressive setting, but dialing it back to Sport Plus instead of Race makes it easy to even out the GLC’s cornering attitude using the loud pedal. Speaking of, that exhaust we were complaining about earlier? It’s absolute heaven in the canyons, with a bellicose snarl we don’t usually associate with AMG’s muscular-but-genteel rides.
The GLC 43’s handling and braking are in perfect balance with the powertrain, with neutral behavior even at higher-than-advisable speeds. The Mercedes responds to midcorner corrections well, and it resists the urge to either under- or oversteer if the driver tries to scrub speed. Exiting corners yields plenty of grip to go along with the excellent thrust, thanks to the rear-biased 4Matic system that can send more power forward as needed. And the brakes easily convert speed to heat and dust, resisting fade even after a full day of driving in the heat of California’s high desert.
The ultimate test of the GLC’s talents came when chasing a couple friends driving a Lamborghini Huracan Evo and a Porsche Cayman GT4. We won’t lie and say the Mercedes kept up easily – your author had to work hard – and on long straights the sports cars could create plenty of space between us and them. But the AMG was nearly as quick through some corners, and a more talented driver would narrow the gap even further. At the end of the run, we all agreed that the GLC 43 was surprisingly at home in such exotic and purpose-built company, and it’s not even AMG’s flagship offering!
The Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 comes standard with automatic emergency braking and forward collision warning, as well as blind spot monitoring. Our example bolstered that quotient with the $1,700 Driver Assistance Package: full-speed Distronic adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assistance with lane centering, blind spot and cross-traffic collision prevention, and more. It all works together very well to keep the GLC a safe distance from traffic while also easing the driver’s burdens on long trips, not surprising given Mercedes-Benz’s long experience with safety technology.
The only thing keeping the GLC from a perfect score is that much of that active driver-assist technology is optional. We aren’t surprised – luxury brands often integrate such features better, but they rarely include them standard (like Honda, Toyota, and others do). For 2021, Mercedes will include our 2020 tester’s optional active parking assist on all GLC 43 SUVs – that’s progress, we suppose.
At 18 miles per gallon city, 24 highway, and 21 combined, the Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 splits class fuel economy nearly down the middle. The BMW X3 M40i is the champ here at 21 city, 27 highway, and 23 combined, while the Audi SQ5 gets 20 combined in spite of identical city and highway ratings as the GLC. All three demand premium fuel, docking them each a point in our scoring rubric.
Mercedes’ penchant for charging extra doesn’t stop with the active safety gear. Our Graphite Grey Metallic GLC 43 cost an eyebrow-raising $76,450 as tested, up from a base price of $59,500. That’s nearly $17,000 in options, a hard sell when the GLC already starts at a higher price than its primary competitors. A loaded X3 costs less than $70,000, while an SQ5 is only about $72,000. Adding insult to injury, our feature-heavy tester costs more than an optionless, but V8-powered, GLC 63, which starts at $73,900.
Do yourself a favor and eighty-six the $1,500 panoramic roof, $750 AMG Night blackout package, $920 carbon fiber trim, $800 adaptive headlights, $250 AMG Track Pace MBUX application, and droning $1,250 performance exhaust. Keep the big wheels, paint it whatever color you want, add ventilated seats, and you’ll be left with a sub-$70,000 Mercedes-AMG GLC 43. That would strike us as a much better deal for a comfortable, stylish, daily-driven SUV that can still kick some ass when taking the long way home.