It's taken a long time for Mercedes to launch a compact SUV in the UK, but the GLA could be the car that finally puts one over some really talented rivals. Jonathan Crouch drives it.
Imagine a Mercedes A-Class hatch with a little extra practicality and a more adventurous outlook and you'll have this car in mind, the brand's GLA-Class compact Crossover. It's the brand's answer to more premium offerings in this growing fashion-conscious segment and has been engineered with the kind of thoroughness you'd expect from the Three-Pointed Star.
According to Mercedes, this GLA-Class model is 'ready to take you where no one has ever gone before'. It's certainly taking its brand into a market segment it's never seen before, that of the compact Crossover. You'll be familiar with these Qashqai-class cars by now: ruggedized family hatchbacks on steroids that don't have the off piste capability of a Freelander-style compact SUV because most buyers don't want it. Mercedes has developed a C-Class-based GLK model for those that do. Everyone else in search of a Focus-sized car bearing a premium badge and an expeditionary mindset is being targeted by this GLA, the fourth of five models to be spun off the platform the Stuttgart brand uses for all its compact cars. It's very late to the party in this particular segment: BMW's X1 has been plying its trade here since 2009, with the similarly-targeted Audi Q3 on sale since 2011. This GLA, in contrast, didn't make it to market until early 2014, but compensated for its tardiness with claims of practicality and efficiency good enough to put these established rivals in the shade. Sounds promising. Let's put this car to the test.
A car that essentially is a family hatchback is likely to have the dynamic aptitude of a family hatchback. A model that, in contrast, is designed as a proper RAV4 or Freelander-style compact SUV is never going to feel as sharp, no matter how compromised its Rubicon Trail pretensions might be. So if you like your driving, you'll give thanks that this GLA isn't setting out to rival RAVs - or indeed Audi Q5s, BMW X3s or Range Rover Evoques come to that. Mercedes has designed a C-Class-based GLK model to do that. That frees this car to be a proper Qashqai-class compact Crossover. Or, to put it another way, to offer pretty much all the handling brio you'd get from the A-Class hatch it's designed upon, with pretty much none of the downsides, these being mainly centred on an over-firmed ride here replaced by something much more supple. When it comes to drive traction and transmission, much will depend on engine choice. Mercedes has developed a 154bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine for this car but here, the emphasis is firmly on a 2.1-litre diesel line-up that begins with the 2WD-only 136bhp GLA 200 CDI. You'll need this variant if you want the choice of auto or manual transmission since it's an auto-only regime further up the range. Should you wish for more performance than that - or want a GLA fitted with the brand's 4MATIC all-wheel drive set-up - you'll probably find yourself ending up in the variant I tried, the GLA 220CDI diesel. With 170 braked horses to call upon, this version has a useful extra turn of speed, dispatching the 62mph benchmark in 8.3 en route to 134mph, despite having the carry around the extra weight of 4WD hardwear that can send up to 50% of the engine's power to the rear wheels for improved cornering exit traction. The 211bhp GLA 250 petrol variant also takes the auto 4MATIC route and should feel pleasantly rapid, delivering 62mph in 7.1s on the way to 143mph. Rather more than pleasantly rapid is the frankly certifiable GLA 45 AMG, a car that rocks up with 355bhp beneath its bonnet. Its 2.0-litre petrol engine and 4MATIC all wheel drive catapult you to 62mph in just 4.8 seconds.
Though Mercedes sees this GLA as part of its SUV portfolio, there's nothing very SUV about the way it looks. It's probably better to simply see this as an A-Class with an added dose of attitude, a role much closer to its comfort zone thanks to a raked-back windscreen and a front end that sports big air intakes, neat flutes in the bonnet and smart smeared-back headlights. Smart GLA-specific touches include the way the stylists have teased out these wheel arches, adding muscularity to the look. And the sleek integration of these aluminium roof rails. In profile, as with the A-Class, there's an awful lot going on, with two prominent lines sweeping backwards from the front wing, one rising from just above the door sill and another falling from just above the wheelarch. Along with the rising beltline, they culminate just above muscular rear wheelarches, emphasising a feeling of width at the rear end heightened by the curved rear window and the sweeping chrome handle between the divided taillights. Drop inside and depending on the suspension chosen, you can find yourself sitting up to 80mm higher than you would in a comparable A-Class model, which means a more commanding view out-front from a driving position easily perfected by wide adjustment possibilities for seat and steering wheel aided by plentiful head and shoulder room. The cabin architecture of all Mercedes' smaller models is pretty much identical these days, which fortunately is no bad thing in terms of what you end up with here. So, as with any A or CLA-Class model, you get the same deeply-cowled twin-dial instrument binnacle viewed through a lovely, grippy nappa leather-trimmed three-spoke multi-function steering wheel. There are the same five chrome-trimmed SLS supercar-style air vents decorating a dash split into upper and lower sections. The upper part's dominated by the iPad-style 5.8-inch free-standing infotainment screen that's been stuck in the middle of it, controlled by a little rotary dial positioned where the handbrake would normally be if it hadn't been replaced by one of those fiddly electronic ones with a switch hidden away beneath the fascia. Out back, you get 481-litres of luggage space, a big jump up from the 341-litre total offered by the A-Class and around 60-litres more than you'd get in an Audi Q3 or a BMW X1.
Mainstream GLA-Class buyers looking at 2.1-litre diesel and 2.0-litre petrol models will need a budget starting from a little over £26,000 and ranging up to just over £31,000. Dedicated followers of the brand though, can consider paying up to £45,000 for the 45 AMG flagship version. The base GLA 200 CDI diesel variant is only offered in 2WD form and comes with the choice of manual or automatic transmission. Further up the range, you have to have automatic transmission and 4MATIC 4WD. For diesel folk, there's a premium of just over £2,700 to go from a GLA 200 CDI auto to a comparably specified pokier GLA 220 CDI auto variant - like the one I have here. That sounds reasonable given that the extra cash gets you 4WD and quite a lot of extra performance. Running costs do also rise quite significantly with this pricier model though, so make sure you've taken that into account. If, having considered all of that, you conclude that it is a GLA-Class model you really want, then you're going to need to know what's included in the asking price. And the answer is a very reasonable spec. Even in least expensive SE trim, you get 18-inch alloy wheels, aluminium roof rails, privacy glass, a chrome-trimmed twin-pipe exhaust, rain-sensing wipers and a reversing camera. Inside, there's man-made Artico leather for the seats and the real nappa stuff trimming the multi-function steering wheel, plus air conditioning, a trip computer and a DAB radio with Bluetooth, USB and Apple iPod connections.
Mercedes has worked extremely hard to make this GLA-Class one of the cheapest cars to run in its class, efforts aided by the fact that all the engines on offer feature direct injection and turbocharging, plus an ECO start/stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. There's also an ECO setting for the 7G-DCT 7-speed automatic gearbox, a slippery 0.29 Cd drag factor, plus intelligent management of engine ancillaries like the alternator, the oil feed and the water pump and low rolling resistance tyres. As a result, it's hard to argue with the numbers generated by this GLA, figures that aren't very different from those of its Mercedes A-Class design stablemate, despite this car's extra 40kg of weight. Manual or automatic, the entry-level GLA200 CDI delivers the sort of returns more usually associated with a supermini - 62.8 miles from a gallon of diesel on the combined cycle and 119g/km of carbon dioxide. To put those readings into perspective, they'll see you going five or six miles further on every gallon and putting out 10-15g/km less CO2 than you would in a rival Audi Q3 2.0 TDI 140 or BMW X1 sDrive 18d. Even the pokier GLA220 CDI 4MATIC I tried returns 55.4mpg and emits just 132g/km.
'Freedom', Mercedes says, 'is contagious'. Desire for compact Crossover models of this kind certainly is - even if they cost as much as this one. It doesn't directly compete with RAV4 or Freelander-style SUVs but, given that it costs the same sort of money, I can see a number of people who'd previously have simply settled for another such CR-V-style soft roader being tempted by what's on offer here. Some cheaper Crossover models of this kind seem a little crude in comparison with this GLA. Like them, it's essentially a family hatchback in a pair of hiking boots, but its transformation to meet that need has here been completed with a silken thoroughness typical of the Three-Pointed Star. That doesn't extend to any really serious off road capability but then, for many buyers, such a thing is neither wanted nor needed. Appropriate then, for this car to be so visually subtle in its expeditionary pretensions. True, similar claims are being made in this segment by the BMW X1 and Audi Q3 rivals this car is being directly pitched against. But these are cars with higher running costs, smaller boots and asking prices that are no cheaper. You can see then, why Mercedes is confident this GLA will prevail against them. It's arguably the best compact car the brand makes. And that makes it very significant indeed.
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