The release of the Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class will scratch a 16-year itch for the German luxury manufacturer in Australia.
For more than a decade and a half, the large ML-Class has been the smallest SUV offered by Benz in our market, giving rivals Audi and BMW a rare free kick with the compact Q3 and X1 and the mid-sized Q5 and X3, not to mention the popular Range Rover Evoque.
The Mercedes-Benz GLA200 CDI is the first of a wave of new SUVs from the brand. The model line will be expanded with the all-wheel-drive GLA250 in July and the weapons-grade GLA45 AMG in October, and will be followed late in 2015 by the all-new GLK-Class medium SUV, as well as the BMW X6-inspired, ML-based MLC-Class in 2016.
At $47,900, the front-wheel-drive GLA200 CDI sits bang in the middle of its entry-level diesel-powered small SUV rivals: just above the $46,300 BMW X1 sDrive18d and $47,500 Audi Q3 2.0 TDI; just below the $47,990 Volvo V40 Cross Country D4 and $49,995 Range Rover Evoque eD4 Pure.
At first glance, it appears to follow the Cross Country path – that of being little more than a jacked-up version of the A-Class hatchback on which it’s based.
It’s true the circa-150mm ground clearance ensures it rides higher than both the A- and B-Class, though Mercedes says Aussies won’t take the GLA off road. And its drivers sit 40mm higher than in the A-Class, providing a marginally better outlook without feeling intimidatingly tall.
But at 4.4 metres long, the GLA-Class is 125mm longer than the A-Class (and longer than the B-Class MPV) and features a 421-litre boot – up 80L on the hatchback, as well as 86L over the V40 Cross Country, 1L over the X1, but trailing the Q3 by 40L.
(Mercedes boasts a ‘cargo position’ setting, in which the rear backrests are raised to 90 degrees, increases boot capacity to 481L, though it effectively renders the rear seats unusable, making it a largely useless feature – better to just fold the 60:40 split-fold rear seats forward completely to open up the full 1235L.)
As with the 200 CDI variants of the Benz’s compact range, including CLA, the Mercedes-Benz GLA200 CDI is powered by a 2.1-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine that produces 100kW (between 3400-4000rpm) and 300Nm (from 1400-3000rpm).
The heaviest and slowest of the quartet, the GLA200 CDI feels a touch tardier than expected, though in accelerating from 0-100km/h in a claimed 9.9 seconds, it matches the times of the equivalent Q3 and X1. Officially, it’s more fuel efficient than this pair, however; it’s 4.6 litres per 100km combined-cycle figure betters the BMW’s 5.0L/100km and Audi’s 5.8L/100km.
The engine lacks the refinement expected of a luxury car costing almost $50K, however. Stop-start turnovers are obvious and less sophisticated than some rivals, it’s rattly at idle, and gruff at low speeds typical of high-traffic and urban environments. Road noise is somewhat of a godsend, as it drowns out more engine noise the faster you go.
Its breathy, hollow tone is transformed above 2200rpm, however, when it becomes meatier and more audibly satisfying. It’s also here in this mid-range where it pulls the strongest and feels the most comfortable accelerating onto freeways and overtaking slower vehicles.
A few moments of traffic jam-style crawling during the GLA200 CDI’s Victorian launch revealed some low-speed jerkiness from its seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, which CarAdvice has experienced in the other related models. At higher speeds, it seamlessly files through gears, favouring higher ratios in the car’s standard ‘E’ drive mode, and becoming more responsive and amenable to kicking back and holding lower gears and higher revs in the sportier ‘S’ mode.
Where the GLA is superior to its A, B and CLA siblings is ride quality, both with the standard comfort suspension as well as the optional sports tune that is part of the $2490 AMG Line. The latter also adds larger 19-inch alloy wheels (up from the standard 18s) and a host of other interior and exterior enhancements inspired by the performance division from Affalterbach.
The standard setup is truly befitting of a luxury car, taking the sharp edges off potholes, rolling over bumps and ironing out coarse surfaces. It has a tendency to rock slightly from side to side over corrugations, though never feels jiggly or busy.
Too harsh in the CLA, the GLA’s optional sport suspension strikes a far better balance of comfort and firmness. Bumps are more noticeable than with the comfort setup but are dealt with quickly and accurately, and again without fuss. It sits lower and flatter, too, making the AMG Line a tempting add-on if the notion of flicking the GLA through corners appeals. Here it feels nicely balanced, exhibiting a little body roll though refusing to be knocked off line by mid-corner bumps.
The steering is a little vague at the straight-ahead position but otherwise direct, and has a decent light- to mid-weighting throughout its range.
Fans of Mercedes’ new-generation small-car cabins will delight in the GLA-Class – its cockpit an almost direct transplant of the A- and CLA-Classes. Objective parties will find plenty to like too among its turbine-style satin chrome air vents, soft-touch dash and door-uppers, stitched leather upholstery and various trim inserts, and particularly the quality of its fit and finish. The centre stack arguably could be cleaner and feature fewer buttons, and though we couldn’t find one at the launch, experience tells us that the optional ($2490) 7.0-inch Comand infotainment system is far superior to the basic 5.8-inch unit.
Standard equipment is another GLA-Class strong suit. A more detailed list of features can be found in our separate pricing and specifications story, but headline items include bi-xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights, auto reverse parallel and 90-degree parking, front and rear parking sensors and a reverse-view camera, blind spot assist, nine airbags, man-made leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, satellite navigation and Bluetooth connectivity with audio streaming,
The standard electrically adjustable seats are comfortable, while the AMG Line’s sports pews offer high levels of hip-hugging support. Visibility is reasonable though impeded somewhat at the rear by the car’s broad D-pillars. The rear seat base is flat, though legroom is decent and headroom just sufficient for 180cm occupants.
The GLA-Class fills a gaping hole in Mercedes-Benz Australia’s SUV line-up, and is guaranteed to be an instant hit with its modern styling, neat interior, sweet ride and competitive pricing.
The GLA200 CDI’s underwhelming engine has us hanging for the expected sweet-spot and anticipated top-seller of the range, however – the GLA250, which lobs in July for an extra $10K.