We take to the snowy mountains in the smallest-ever Mercedes-Benz SUV (and one of its best...)
Caught in the biggest Australian snowfall in 20 years, the Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class will need to prove the worth of its 4MATIC badge today.
This $57,900 GLA250, powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder, is the first all-wheel-drive GLA-Class to launch locally – the $47,900 GLA200 CDI front-wheel-drive diesel landed a few months ago and the $79,430 GLA45 AMG is coming soon.
Around the chalets of Thredbo in the New South Wales ski fields, the closest cousin to the GLA250 4MATIC is a plethora of ML-Classes and GL-Classes, although our test car’s top-hat of snow makes it looks as though it might be as big. Wipe the cover off, and the GLA-Class is the first Benz SUV around here that’s smaller than size large, although we’re sure it will quickly find, erm, traction.
It certainly did when after we dug it out of more than a metre of snow following a weekend of excellent skiing. Its 19-inch tyres still buried, touching the throttle had power from the 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder immediately directed rearwards. The GLA-Class may have a variable on-demand all-wheel-drive system, without a lock mode, but it works. No slip from the front, a squiggle from the rear, and the inflated hatchback was free.
Okay, that may not seem like a positive description of the GLA-Class, yet it totally is. Where its closest rivals, the popular and well-established Audi Q3 and BMW X1, are unashamedly tall-boy and bloated wagon respectively, the new Mercedes-Benz forges its own path (well before having to by using 4MATIC at Thredbo).
The GLA-Class is a sleek unit, awkward to some eyes but quite nicely detailed with great surfacing in this tester’s opinion. It has a shallow glasshouse and you sit lower than pretty much any SUV, which may turn off some buyers and taller folk who will feel claustrophobic. Yet not everyone wants to make a jump from hatchback to SUV high-rider, and the GLA-Class otherwise rivals Q3 and X1 closely for cabin room and boot space.
Click the auto-opening tailgate, and we fit three blokes’ worth of weekender bags in its 421-litre boot – probably not coincidentally 1L more than X1. When skis needed to be fed through into the cabin, the 60:40 split rear backrest still left space to spare between tailgate and front seats.
The GLA250 cabin is little different to the $10K-cheaper GLA200, which in turn is unchanged from the A-Class and CLA-Class.
That’s no bad thing, however, as from the white-on-silver tachometer and speedometer with their vertical needles to the aviation-style five circular air vents, floating iPad-style display and stitched leather door trims, it feels like a premium cabin (ignoring some scratchy lower dash plastics).
My passengers weren’t fans of the transmission selector that could be mistaken for a right blinker stalk, but I’m a convert. Why? When you’re doing a quick reverse-to-drive manouevre you never need to remove your hands from the steering wheel – swipe up for reverse, down for drive.
It’s a little harder to defend the closeness of the cruise control wand on the left of the wheel to the all-in-one blinker and wiper stalk above it; more than once did I accidentally engage the speed limiter, but happy to blame user error there.
Thankfully the active cruise control itself is fantastic, as part of Merc’s outstanding safety package standard on the GLA250 4MATIC. Coming through various towns that intersect the Snowy Mountains Highway, cruise set on 112km/h, the GLA-Class would smoothly brake to a stop when traffic would halt then continue onwards without the driver touching any pedals.
Stop for dinner in one of the towns, and every GLA-Class will automatically scan for parking spots at low speeds without the driver even pressing a button - so chances are if you've driven past a park, it has seen it - unlike most systems that need a button pressed first. Then you simply swipe reverse, hit OK on the steering wheel-mounted audio controls, and let the Benz twist itself into the spot.
As night fell, the swivelling bi-xenon headlights provided a strong beam, and an auto high-beam function lifted and dipped when cars ahead were detected mostly with unnerving accuracy, except for sometimes being a little too eager to blast high-beam early before having fully overtaken a car.
Auto-braking technology is standard in the GLA250, too, and had we not been able to avoid hitting something, a combination of stability control then nine airbags with auto-tightening seatbelts would have helped ensure we were left to break a leg at the skifields another season.
My passengers, one of whom bought a BMW X1 for his parents a few years ago, weren’t easily convinced that level of safety equipment was standard on the $57K GLA250, let alone the amount of kit featured inside…
Comfortable front Artico manmade-leather buckets are fully electrically adjustable and heated, for example, the latter button of which glowed a maximum three rows of red lights all weekend. Once the top-hat of snow cleared, the panoramic sunroof allowed us to see bluebird conditions … right as we were headed home.
The rear seat is set lower than most SUVs, but there’s good legroom – more than A-Class – and air vents back there. Only the high waistline may grate with shorter riders.
The only option on our test car was a $2490 Comand infotainment package, which is highly recommended as it replaces the standard, aftermarket-looking Becker satellite navigation system with a proper Mercedes-Benz unit shared between everything from A-Class to SLS-Class. That said, the newer C-Class and S-Class get larger screens and better graphics, the GLA-Class nav’s graphic for countryside looking like the greenery if you headed off course playing Mario Karts on a Nintendo 64.
That option also adds internet and app connectivity, which allowed us to utilise our smartphone’s data connection to listen to TuneIn online radio and utilise Pandora music streaming. The option further includes a 12-speaker Harman Kardon Logic 7 surround sound system, which isn’t the loudest sounding system but quality is crisp.
Unlike the slow 2.1-litre turbo-diesel in the GLA200 CDI, the GLA250 petrol has punch, refinement and a keenness to be extended. With 155kW of power produced at 5500rpm and 350Nm between 1200-4000rpm pushing a light-ish (for an SUV) 1505kg plus passengers, there’s effortlessness on hills and a zeal for overtaking – exactly what you want for country touring. It sounds great when revved, too, with a snarly note backed by surprising exhaust rasp. Benz claims a credible 7.1-second 0-100km/h.
The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is very doughy in its standard mode, but switching to Sport reveals a sharper throttle and less economy-focused shift pattern, while a dedicated manual mode reacts quickly to a slap of the paddleshifters.
There’s a sporting edge to the GLA250 standard suspension, too, yet it sidesteps the harshness that afflicts the A250 and CLA250 that utilise the same engine but get sports suspension. On the freeway or around town, this Mercedes-Benz has impeccably balanced ride quality, firm yet comfortable. The 19s only sometimes snag on really sharp potholes.
The single major refinement shortfall is road noise – there’s simply too much of it, especially on coarse-chip roads.
But turn the smooth and direct steering, and you’ll guide a chassis that is genuinely up for fun times. High grip levels allow you to lean hard on the front end of the GLA250, and when the rear lightens up, get on the throttle and feel the rear traction push the car out of the corner just like it helped out in the snow.
Despite hill climbing, a full load and some enthusiastic driving, we average 8.7 litres of premium unleaded per 100 kilometres over more than 1000km. After a 579km return leg, the trip computer indicated another 150km to empty, making for an excellent range.
With an as-tested price of $61,180 – including Comand and $1190 worth of metallic paint – the GLA250 4MATIC is not just a tempting proposition for SUV buyers, but those considering a sedan, wagon, a hot-hatch … or even other Mercedes-Benz models. The GLA250 4MATIC is simply the most impressive of all non-AMG A-Class, B-Class, GLA-Class and CLA-Class grades we’ve yet tested.