It’s likely that the first time you saw the Lexus NX or the Mercedes-Benz GLC, you took note. And that’s saying something, as the market is flooded with compact crossover offerings nowadays.
Leave it to two of the top luxury brands, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus, not just to make good with a ubiquitous format and produce two of the better entries in this class. Both of these models try to step out with their styling and end up offering more than what they hint at face value.
They’re both what would be considered generously sized compact crossovers in the U.S., and they’re both models that look up to larger, well-established luxury models—the GLC to the larger GLE (nee M-Class) and the NX to the benchmark RX). They fill a market segment that didn’t exist in the same way just a few years ago; the NX arrived for 2015, while the GLC arrives for 2016, replacing the far boxier and more utilitarian-looking yet somewhat smaller GLK.
For now the Lexus NX is offered in two models: the NX 200t, with a 235-horsepower turbocharged inline-4, or the NX 300h, which gets a 194-hp hybrid powertrain. As for the GLC300—the only engine variant for this model series so far—it’s powered by a 241-horsepower, 2.0-liter inline-4. Looking ahead to 2017, a GLC300 Coupe, with a sportier, steeper rear roofline, and a high-performance 362-hp GLC43 AMG will join the lineup.
These two models have quite different underpinnings and engineering starting points. The NX is built on a front-wheel-drive platform—the same as the RAV4, but improved throughout in ways that help it go down the road with the poise of a luxury vehicle. The GLC, on the other hand, was essentially conceived as a variant of the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedans—developed at the same time, although as a tall-riding, tall-roof wagon with a little more built-in ruggedness.
The NX 200t gets a six-speed automatic transmission, while the GLC has a nine-speed. All-wheel-drive systems are very different as well. The GLC has a 4Matic all-wheel-drive system that divides torque between the front and rear wheels 45/55-percent, respectively, during regular driving, through a planetary differential, with the capability to send up to 100 percent to the rear wheels. And the NX 200t offers a system that lets the NX function as a front-wheel-drive vehicle during normal driving, sending up to 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels as needed.
Both of these NX versions are offered with a choice of front-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive, but the AWD version of the NX 300h substitutes a 50-kilowatt (67-hp) electric motor exclusively for powering the rear axle. Diesel and plug-in-hybrid versions of the GLC are on the way in the next year or two.
Even though the Lexus NX might impress as the sportier of the two from the outside, or even at a glance from the driver’s seat, those true sport-sedan-based underpinnings of the Mercedes GLC shine through after more than a cursory drive, and it’s definitely the superior of the two in ride and handling. The GLC’s available Air Body Control suspension and Dynamic Select settings help allow better ride comfort while providing stuff control for quick maneuvers; but even the base steel-spring suspension and variable damping provide a great compromise. The NX doesn’t offer such active-suspension wizardry, and we’ll caution that the F-Sport setup and the more aggressive tire-and-wheel combinations bring more road noise and a little more harshness into the cabin (we’d go with the base 17-inch setup).
The C-Class derivation is easier to see inside the GLC, where this crossover wagon is graceful, flowing, and flamboyant. The dash follows a horizontal orientation, bisected by a wide center console and a center stack containing a cluster of round vents, while an infotainment screen stands atop it. With soft-touch materials throughout, plus inlaid metallic bezels, the cabin feels warm, plush, and generally speaking well above the GLC’s sticker price. The Lexus NX, on the other hand, is more restrained inside than you might guess based on its exterior. The long, angled dash top and protruding console form an unusual Z-shape from the side. Trims feel sharper and more technical, while the surfaces and materials themselves as conservative, even drab in some combinations.
Given its brash, edgy exterior, the interior of the Lexus NX is far more practical than you might expect; it’s very comfortable, seating-wise and relatively spacious. The front seating position is a little more low and carlike than some crossovers in this size class, which helps with headroom, and seats have great side bolstering and back support. The rear seats in the NX are decent but flat, and the roof pillar and thin glass can be a bit claustrophobic. But the front-wheel-drive layout and smart packaging bring a low load floor and plenty of cargo space. The GLC also has superb front seats and a quieter, softer ride, at face value, compared to the Lexus; its back seat is a little more cramped, however, and there’s handy low cargo floor, with easy loading—although the rear seatbacks don’t fold forward completely flat.
In safety, the Lexus NX is a solid notch ahead of the Mercedes-Benz GLC at this point. The IIHS has awarded Top Safety Pick+ status to this model, with its optional front crash prevention system earning the “Advanced” nod and capable of bringing this model to a full stop from speeds up to 37 mph. It’s also earned a five-star overall score in federal testing. As for the GLC, it hasn’t yet been tested by either agency, however with the combination of Mercedes’ excellent reputation for occupant protection plus some truly noteworthy active-safety systems—like the new Collision Prevention Assist Plus (CPA+) system, which will automatically brake the vehicle in a range of conditions, and Distronic Plus with steering assist, which will (within reason, for short lapses) automatically steer you to keep you in your lane.
The NX 200t and GLC300 are quite close in fuel economy ratings, as well as real-world fuel-efficiency as we’ve noted it so far, but the NX 300h gets far better ratings, especially i0n city driving—of 33 mpg city, 30 highway.
We consider the Mercedes-Benz GLC to be ahead in features, however; and like many of the brand’s more recent models it makes a lot more sense from a value standpoint. But the Mercedes-Benz isn’t completely without demerits; that’s because of the way the German luxury brand continues to nickle-and-dime you on some items that you might think would be included on a luxury vehicle ($460 for satellite radio, $580 for heated front seats, $430 for a power passenger seat). Whether you go a la carte or with some of the packages, expect to add nearly $10k to get a truly well-equipped GLC that has some of the most desirable features—like advanced parking assist, a power tailgate, or a head-up display (a la carte).
The NX does have some innovative features; it’s the first Lexus to offer inductive wireless (Qi) charging, and it marked the debut of a new generation of the Remote Touch interface. While we still think this system, which relies on a trackpad/touchpad controller is one of the more distracting ones, as it relies on you following a pointer and illuminated buttons on a screen, it now lets you trace letters like COMAND. But we do tend to like the actual sound quality of the Lexus systems a bit better; the base one includes HD Radio, free traffic and weather data, and a caching feature that lets you temporarily “pause” a broadcast and store away up to 15 minutes.
The summary? You’ll want to read both of these reviews in their entirety. The Mercedes-Benz GLC delivers a lot more than it teases with its soft, organic exterior, while the Lexus NX is more practical than you’d suspect. In this case, the GLC’s sport-sedan pedigree, refined ride, and stunning interior are what make it the clear winner here.