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Merc's first compact crossover might enter at the premium end of the class, but it faces tough competition from established entries like the Nissan Qashqai

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It’s easier to take a brand downmarket than to move one upmarket.

That’s a long-accepted rule of marketing and one recently applied so widely in the car industry that every premium car maker is diversifying into niches that, a decade ago, they wouldn’t have dreamed of – or hadn’t yet dreamed up.

Mercedes' new compact SUV takes on the likes of the Range Rover Evoque and Audi Q3

The likes of Mercedes, Audi and BMW would never admit that by introducing all-new smaller, cheaper models in greater numbers than larger, more expensive ones, they are moving downmarket. But that, over time, is precisely what’s happening.

The latest area seemingly ripe for expansion is the crossover SUV sector, which Merc is dropping into with this, the Mercedes GLA – a car based on the same architecture as the Mercedes A-Class hatch and Mercedes CLA saloon. Call it necessity.

The old A-Class had a super-intelligent platform that allowed the car to be brilliantly and uniquely packaged; this one lets Mercedes make more models and more money. A theory applied to the Mercedes GLC.

Those spawned models, though, haven’t entirely convinced us so far. Will the GLA prove to be any different? We’ve dedicated this review to finding out.

 

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DESIGN & STYLING

Mercedes-Benz GLA headlight

Being the firm's first compact crossover, the Mercedes GLA has no direct antecedent in the brand’s family tree. The 4x4s further up the line-up could be considered close relatives in conceptual approach, particularly the GLK, a C-Class-based crossover unfamiliar to UK buyers because it is left-hand drive only, which has been replaced by the Mercedes GLC.

Further along and more distantly, the previous-generation Mercedes M-Class and Mercedes GL were the first Mercedes SUVs to feature unibody construction.

The 4x4 system uses the same oil circuit as the transmission; in normal conditions drive is only sent to the front axle

Although Mercedes would prefer for you to think of the latest model as its fifth SUV, the GLA is a crossover in the purest sense.

Not only does it share its MFA platform with three conventional, predominantly five-door compact models, but it also uses the same engines and – only where applicable – much the same torque-on-demand all-wheel drive system.

You’d guess as much just from the way that the car looks. Despite a record of designing and building proper, rugged-looking SUVs, Mercedes has styled the GLA – with its potpourri of low glasshouse, slightly raised vehicle height, high beltline and large wheel arches – to be redolent of a generic modern crossover and a current compact Mercedes, declining the opportunity to create something tougher and more striking.

So if your impression is of an inflated, high-riding modern hatchback and not the fiendishly clever, compact Mercedes G-Wagen that you might have been hoping for, you’re in the same camp as most of us at Autocar.

In the metal, the GLA looks noticeably bigger than the Mercedes A-Class, even if the specification says that it’s marginally slimmer, no lengthier at the wheelbase and, with the standard suspension fitted, stands only 59mm taller.

Although it gets the same basic MacPherson strut front, multi-link rear chassis as its siblings, there are two subtle variations beyond the default ‘comfort’ suspension set-up of our test car: sports suspension, which lowers the car by 15mm and comes as standard with the AMG Line trim, and an off-road comfort system that, when it reaches the UK, raises the ride height from 170mm to 204mm.

The concise four-cylinder engine line-up kicks off with a 154bhp turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol unit in the entry-level GLA 200 and Mercedes’ familiar 2.1-litre turbodiesel in its 134bhp guise aboard the GLA 200 CDI.

The same engine, albeit in 168bhp form, powers the mid-line offering, and that’s the GLA that we’ve chosen to sample. Above it, a 208bhp 2.0-litre turbo petrol motor tops the range in the GLA 250. While those pining for some AMG power will be glad to know there is 375bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged beast fulfilling the range.

All save the GLA 200 (a latecomer to the UK) are available with Mercedes’ 4Matic system, which brings with it the otherwise optional 7G-DCT dual-clutch auto ’box. Front-wheel-drive models get a six-speed manual transmission as standard. 

Compared with rival systems, the latest generation of 4Matic all-wheel drive, as used on the GLA, is up to 25 percent lighter, Mercedes-Benz claims, mainly because of the integration of the power take-off unit directly into the 7G-DCT dual-clutch automatic transmission.

Its incorporation means that it shares the 7G-DCT’s oil circuit rather than requiring its own system of lubrication in the way that a conventional add-on component would.

Although the power take-off unit is responsible for actively sending power rearward, there is still an electro-hydraulically actuated multi-plate clutch located on the rear axle that ultimately decides when and how it’s distributed.

In this respect, the 4Matic system is much like other torque-on-demand systems: when the clutch is open — as it remains by default — the GLA is in effect front-wheel drive.

But as soon as the system detects a difference in speed between the front and rear axles, the clutch is closed by hydraulic pressure supplied from an integrated pump in order to channel drive to the rear wheels as well.

The 4Matic system is the GLA’s first response to impending oversteer or understeer, distributing torque to stabilise the car. Only if this fails, says Mercedes, will the traction control intervene.

INTERIOR

Mercedes-Benz GLA dashboard

It’s hard to believe that Mercedes hasn’t eyed Audi’s compact vehicle sales growth and noted what its buyers really seem to care about: quality interiors, whether shared with other models or not.

Like other cars on the small Merc platform, the Mercedes GLA gets a suitably plush-feel interior. There’s a broad strip of metallic-finish plastic across the dashboard lined with five sweet air vents, and the dual-tone finish above and below exudes a grown-up Mercedes feel, which is no bad thing at all.

The steering column has plenty of adjustment and the pedals are positioned acceptably

First impressions are good, then, and they tend to stay that way. We’re not entirely sold on the cheap finish of the steering wheel buttons, but the rim is pleasingly sized and sculpted, while the seats (standard artificial leather chairs) are large and comfortable. At 4419mm long, the GLA is a relatively compact car, but you wouldn’t know that from the accommodation in the front.

You can just about sit two adults in the rear behind two adults in the front – but no more comfortably than in most compact cars. The rear seat backs split and fold 70/30 and, if you spec the appropriate option (not fitted on our car), even adjust the rear seat back angle, freeing up an additional 60 litres of boot space.

The boot itself is a competitive 421 litres with the rear seats in place, rising to 836 litres if you sling them forwards. Beneath the boot floor is, sadly, a repair kit rather than a spare but also a neat folding storage box for stowing loose or dirty items so you don’t have to worry about spillages. In a proper SUV, we’d criticise that kind of decision, but in a crossover the greater flexibility of storage is probably more important than a spare wheel.

As for the standard equipment there are three trim levels on offer: SE, Sport and AMG Line. Entry-level kit includes 17in alloy wheels, active brake assist and off-road suspension set-up on the outside as standard, while inside there is a leather upholstery, reversing camera, extensive cubbyholes, air conditioning, and Mercedes' Audio 20 infotainment system. The mid-range Sport models gain bigger alloys, aluminium roof rails, privacy glass, automatic wipers, climate control and an 8.0in infotainment display.

The range-topping AMG Line trim adorns your GLA with 19in alloy wheels, run-flat tyres, stainless steel pedals and leather sports seats. Those intent on the Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 will find an AMG-tweaked exhaust and braking systems, folding mirrors, bi-xenon headlights, parking sensors on the outside along with an aggressive bodykit. Inside there are plenty of AMG badging and decals, Garmin-powered sat nav and heated Performance sports front seats.

Familiar Mercedes-Benz communications systems feature in the GLA, which means that they’re very good. The central display pod — and very 21st century it looks, too — sits atop the middle of the dashboard and deals with navigation, audio and communications set-up, as well as some vehicle status data, such as consumption history and off-road info. The controller — a pushable, movable wheel on the centre console — does the honours.

Other trip features, plus driving aids and the like, are dealt with by using the steering wheel controls. The control logic here is to cycle left and right through the various driver assist, trip, communication and navigation functions displayed on the central instrument display screen using your left thumb.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mercedes-Benz GLA rear quarter

A range of four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines are offered in the Mercedes GLA. The entry-level GLA 200 gets a 154bhp 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol, while the GLA 200 and 220 CDI pack a 2.1-litre turbodiesel in 134bhp and 168bhp guises.

A more powerful petrol option, badged the GLA 250, features a 208bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine. All are available with Mercedes' 4Matic four-wheel-drive system, which grants buyers the further option of a dual-clutch seven-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel-drive models otherwise get a six-speed manual transmission.

The Mercedes' diesel engines need to be quieter

Those in the market for an even faster option could consider the Mercedes-AMG GLA 45, which is powered by a 355bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine.

We've yet to test the entry-level GLA 200, but have sampled the flagship GLA 250. It offers up a substantial amount of torque, granting the GLA stout performance. It's a clean and economical choice too, with Mercedes claiming an average 42.8mpg and CO2 emissions of 154g/km.

Most buyers are likely to default to the diesel options, however. Although it doesn’t seem the most modern turbodiesel on the market, Daimler’s 2.1-litre lump does lend the GLA a fairly authoritative level of performance befitting a premium product.

The 220 CDI we tested hit 60mph in 8.1sec in our hands, the car proving itself almost exactly as fast as Mercedes claims (8.3sec to 62mph) and quicker in outright terms than the headline diesel versions of the likes of the Mazda CX-5 and Nissan Qashqai – by a healthy margin.

The engine isn’t what you’d call mechanically refined under load, but it’s acceptable on noise and vibration at a cruise – and better than some of Mercedes’ other smaller turbodiesel models based on this platform.

In any instance, the car’s standard seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox continues to be a strange and slightly disappointing thing to interact with. Leave it in Drive, be content with middling throttle and the transmission works well enough. But when you make greater demands and start to interact more closely with it, any initial impression of carefully hewn polish gradually disintegrates.

Downchanges come quite reluctantly in Sport mode, and they are hardly delivered quickly in manual mode, either. But the bigger problem is how oddly spaced the intermediate ratios seem to be and how unintuitive it feels juggling between them in the GLA at times.

In terms of mph per 1000rpm, its third gear is shorter than second in many a high-end supermini we could mention, and fourth is as short as you expect third to be. So, for a while at least, you end up in the wrong gear when you take the trouble to select it yourself – and that’s a singularly frustrating problem.

It isn’t exclusive to the GLA but common to all of Mercedes new-generation compact cars. And it needs addressing, because it isn’t a problem that you seem to encounter in an eight-speed BMW 1 Series or a seven-speed Audi A3. The manual gearbox, however, is a light and comparatively slick affair.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mercedes-Benz GLA cornering

The GLA is the best-riding and most comfortable compact car that Mercedes has produced of late.

We’re aware that’s somewhat faint praise – and deliberately so. Because dynamically, as well as in other ways, the Mercedes GLA isn’t quite the distinguished crossover hatch that it ought to be.

Brake feel isn't brilliant, but the brakes and hydraulics resist overheating

In fact, it’s quite a way off the standards set by the true benchmark crossovers and compact 4x4s of this size and price. Whether you’re looking for real poise and response (Ford Kuga, Mazda CX-5), refinement and comfort (Audi Q3, Honda CR-V) or just an expertly balanced compromise of both (Nissan Qashqai), chances are that you’ll be a bit unimpressed by the generally soft but still slightly brittle, run-of-the-mill way that the GLA conducts itself on most roads.

In isolation, it seems more than acceptable. There’s a consistent, well weighted steering system here, a reasonable balance of grip for cornering and a suspension tune with the compliance to deal comfortably enough with a bad surface. Roll control is also decent enough.

The GLA’s decent balance of grip makes it quite wieldy right up to the edge of adhesion, where a lot of equally high-sided cars default to understeer. Mercedes’ ESP system is more intrusive than many, though.

Turn off the stability control and the handing is quite mobile at the rear wheels when you lift off the accelerator in wet conditions, but it is still controllable. Strong traction and good steering authority allow you to drive the car quickly, even after it starts to slide.  

That the chassis lacks the damping finesse of better sorted options like the Qashqai, to prevent it from bouncing around unchecked by rebound control, has a lot to do with the ‘comfort’ suspension settings, we suspect.

We’d rather that than have it skitter and thump over rough roads like the sports-suspended Mercedes A-Class that we tested last year. But better still would be a truly rounded baseline suspension tune that split the difference and kept the GLA tied down without becoming tiresome – like a good low-rise family hatchback.

Instead, the car has something closer to the long, slow body movements of a traditional SUV. Which may very well make it more palatable for customers in certain global markets, but it isn’t likely to endear the car to British or other European customers.

GLAs with Mercedes’ 4Matic four-wheel drive system, also come with Downhill Speed Regulation to stop the car running away on a steep descent, and a special off-road calibration for the seven-speed automatic transmission.

The driveline is quick to shuffle drive to where it’s most needed, and ground clearance is sufficient to tackle all but the most rutted track.

Mercedes will offer an off-road suspension later this year, adding 30mm to the ground clearance.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mercedes-Benz GLA

Any diesel car with four-wheel drive and off-road pretensions, no matter how trivial, that can return close to 50mpg on a touring run is one whose economy should be lauded.

Overall, we achieved 39.6mpg during extended testing of the 220 CDI SE 4Matic version, so a routine return of something in the mid-40s should be achievable for most owners.

I assumed that the attractive (fake) leather on the chairs would be some kind of cost option, but it's not. Plush

Likewise, there’s decent news when it comes to residuals. The Mercedes sits among a group of premium compact SUVs but, with stronger resale values, it’s likely to cost no more to own than a volume-brand alternative.

Of any, the SE specification is probably the one to go for: it comes well equipped, with an automatic gearbox as standard. Avoid any unnecessary options that won't give you a return when you resell the car.

Don't automatically discount the petrol variants, though. It's worth taking the time to work out a provisional set of running costs for both petrol and diesel GLAs, based on your mileage, instead of just opting for the diesel by default.

 

VERDICT

3.5 star Mercedes-Benz GLA

Adequate, acceptable, fair: these best describe the Mercedes GLA. They’re not terms that we should be using to describe any kind of premium product.

Nor are they particularly flattering for a car that Mercedes expects us to pay more for than either of its German rivals, let alone much cheaper – and better – cars from volume brands.

A decent effort, but too ordinary in too many ways to justify the price

The Nissan Qashqai may be 'only' a Nissan, for example, but it's an excellent product and the best crossover on the block – so ‘quite good’ isn’t quite good enough here.

The power of the Mercedes brand gives the GLA a good start in life, and it’s a car of sufficient quality and style to do credit to that brand. But its cabin is a bit short on space, its ride and handling are a bit short on finesse and its powertrain lacks good manners compared with rivals.

The bigger letdown for us is how little the GLA brings to the crossover class. This car seems unadventurous and predictable – the Mercedes A-Class on stilts that was the easiest and cheapest thing for Stuttgart to make, and absolutely no more.

For a premium product, that’s a telling shortcoming. 

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Mercedes-Benz GLA 2014-2020 First drives