First Drive: Mercedes-Benz GLA

The Mercedes-Benz GLA is a pumped-up hatchback with a hint of go-anywhere ruggedness
The Mercedes-Benz GLA is a pumped-up hatchback with a hint of go-anywhere ruggedness
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The Mercedes-Benz GLA. Is it a small big car or a big small car?

Resembling a pumped-up hatchback, it is essentially an SUV as all but the entry-level models get the Mercedes four-wheel drive system and it is no doubt aimed at taking on the likes of BMW’s X1, Audi’s Q3 and the Range Rover Evoque.

But its profile is completely different, lower than all of them and apparently a lot wider too. It’s even lower than the classic hatch, the Vauxhall Astra, which gives it a broad and even more meaningful stance than the smaller A Class on which it is based.

Inside, there’s more storage and shoulder space for passengers but I found access to the rear restricted by the low roofline. The boot too, although quite capacious, could prove tricky for bulky items due to the narrow opening. What I liked was the keyless entry system, essential for a return to the supermarket carpark with your assortment of 5p carrier bags.

Outwardly, it’s been given some beefy body touches around its bulging contours, and the SE version test car came with big 5-spoke 18 inch alloys and aluminium roof rails. The front end makes a strong statement of intent around a big bold grille and huge three-pointed Merc star, flanked on either side by a pair of serious headlights.

At the broad back end, distinctive partial LED taillights dominate the wide and low rear view. The bigger dimensions call for fatter tyres and an improved suspension set-up which returns a more comfortable ride than its smaller brother and, thanks to the low centre of gravity, with very little body roll in the bends.

That’s helped by the excellent 4MATIC system coupled to a 7-speed auto box which can transfer up to 50 per cent of power to the rear wheels for extra traction in tricky underwheel conditions and for greater security on corners, especially in the wet. Handling is precise and feedback from the steering is positive.

The GLA range comes with a choice of two diesel and two petrol engines including the 355bhp, two-litre turbo unit in the GLA 45 AMG. The most economical is the 200CDI with claimed consumption around the 62 mpg mark and 119 g/km CO2. The same 2.1-litre engine is also used in the 220 CDI of the test car, but its greater power makes it quicker off the mark. You pay the price with poorer economy. The official figure is a tad over 55mpg but in a week of normal motoring, with everything from town to motorway, I achieved 41mpg.

Diesel technology advances have made it hard to hear the difference between an oil burner and petrol, so the 220CDI comes as a surprise. As soon as you fire it up there’s no question what’s under the bonnet. The diesel chatters to begin with and feels sluggish to get going. The performance figures tell a different story and, once on the open road, the engine noise levels either fall or are swept away and it becomes a confident, smooth cruiser.

The SE version comes with a comprehensive list of standard equipment, as you’d expect from a car at this price. That includes footwell and door sill lighting, DAB radio/media centre with all the connections you could possibly need and Artico upholstery which looks the business but which is in fact artificial leather.

The interior layout is similar to what you’ll find in the A Class and, while it’s businesslike and straightforward with a quality feel, the dash, dials and controls come over as a bit dated.

Gears are selected from a stalk on the right of the steering column and the wipers are controlled by a swivel switch on the same stalk as the indicators, something which has always annoyed me in a Mercedes. An owner would get used to it, but it still feels awkward and cumbersome.

Almost everything else is controlled through the central 5.8 inch tablet-style colour display which is fairly simple to navigate but looks like it’s been bolted onto the existing dashboard layout as a bit of an afterthought.

These are minor details in what is broadly an impressive car which looks and feels good. Mercedes-Benz have improved their customer satisfaction reputation dramatically in recent years and the GLA comes with a full three-year warranty which, unlike some of its rivals, has no restriction on mileage. So, it’s short on complaints and long on reassurance.


Car Mercedes-Benz GLA 220 CDI SE 4MATIC

Price £30,035 (£31,995 as tested)

Engine 2143cc 4 cyl in line diesel 170 bhp and 258 lb ft

Transmission 7 spd auto, 4x4

Performance Top speed 134mph; 0-62mph 8.3 secs

Fuel economy 55.4mpg

CO2 emissions 132g/km