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Bodystyle, dimensions and technical details

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particularly the GLK, a C-Class-based crossover unfamiliar to UK buyers because it is left-hand drive only, which has been replaced by the Mercedes GLC.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.

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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.

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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.