“Oh Lord, won't you buy me, a Mercedes-Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?”
It may have been written 45 years ago, but Janis Joplin had her finger on the pulse of many modern Australians. We’re a nation of brand-aware consumers. From fashion to electronics and, most importantly, cars, Australian buyers naturally gravitate to those logos with a little bit more ‘street’ status.
Automotive manufacturers are very aware of this, and as our standard of living has increased to make these brand purchases more achievable, manufacturers have closed the gap even further by making their range entry points more attractive.
Case in point: at $42,900, the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLA180 is the most affordable Mercedes-Benz SUV ever.
For context, just five years ago your ticket to the three-pointed star paddock club was almost exactly double the price, with the $84,760 ML300. Oh, and for those wanting to call out the 1983 300D G-Wag as being ‘cheaper’ at $39,500? With inflation factored in, it’s well over six-figures – so not quite as ‘affordable’ as the GLA.
It's oranges and bananas in terms of size, power and specification, maybe, but the key on the table at the coffee shop is the same, and that is important to a lot of buyers.
Being affordable doesn’t necessarily translate to value, though, and while the GLA180 is (conveniently) the same price as the entry-level Audi Q3, it’s a solid $5000 more than the top-specification Mazda CX-3 and close to twice the price of the most basic Suzuki Vitara.
But in the same way a Huawei phone can take a mirror selfie just as well as an iPhone 6S, there’s a reason so many duckfaces are joined by a shiny Apple logo in the shot: the brand is important.
And despite being the most junior 'lifestyle' Benz, this little SUV certainly has the looks that befit the German prestige brand. If you didn’t see the GLA180 badge on the back, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between this variant and its pricier siblings.
With 18-inch alloy wheels, bi-xenon projector headlamps, LED tail-lights, roof-rails and even a dual exhaust system, the front-wheel drive GLA180 is every bit the trendy urban-runner that buyers are looking for.
There are ten colours available and, while our test car’s Cirrus White is a no-cost option (along with Jupiter Red and Night Black), all metallic attract a $1190 premium.
Inside, too, the GLA180 has a solid list of equipment including keyless-start, an 8.0-inch colour display with COMAND software, rear-view camera and satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay integration, powered rear hatch and even illuminated door-sills.
Being a Mercedes, safety isn’t overlooked and, along with the nine airbags, the GLA180 receives the Collision Prevention Assistance function (a semi-autonomous braking system), blind-spot assistance and Pre-Safe accident anticipation system, which readies the car for a collision in the event an accident is unavoidable.
Adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning can be optioned as part of a $2490 driving assistance package.
It’s a far cry from the wind-up windows and two-speaker tape deck that used to top out the equipment charts on entry level Mercedes-Benz models (looking at you, W201 180E).
Yes, the seats are manually adjustable (you can option powered and heated seats for $990), and the air conditioning reasonably simple, but even at this price position, a Mercedes-Benz badge means a pretty good Mercedes-Benz experience. You can even option a $2490 AMG package to further enhance the appeal.
In terms of packaging, the GLA-Class is universally not what you would describe as roomy. For drivers over six-feet tall, the cabin can feel quite cramped in terms of head room – made much more evident if the car is fitted with the optional panoramic sun roof ($1490).
Shoulder room is OK up front, but the back is strictly a two-up proposition. The rear bench has accommodation for three, but the scalloped left-and-right seats and very narrow middle spot all-but rule out the smallest of passengers.
Head room here is also cozy if you are approaching that six-foot range. My seven-year-old daughter was comfortable enough back there, though, but once a school bag or occasional dachshund were thrown into the mix, space vanished very quickly.
There are no rear vents in the GLA180, but you do have a center arm-rest with cup holders and ski-port, map pockets and door bins. All three seats offer a top-tether point for a child seat, and there is an ISOFIX mount on each of the outer positions.
The 60:40 split rear seat allows the 421-litre boot to expand to 1325 litres. It’s again not a huge space and smaller than the 460 litres of the Audi Q3 and cavernous 505-litre BMW X1. That said, the top-selling compact SUV in the country, the Mazda CX-3 only offers a 264-litre boot – showing once again, that size isn’t all that important.
Under the floor is just the shopping crate and recovery hook. No spare, inflator or even a jack. The car is fitted with 235/50/18 run-flat Dunlops and a 24-hour roadside assist hotline, highlighting that GLA buyers aren’t really expected to be in the hands-dirty tyre-changing set.
The rest of the cabin is familiar to any other Mercedes-Benz compact car – the A, B, and CLA-Class. The cool rotating air vents and ‘stuck-on iPad’ screen are partnered with the older numeric keypad and CD-slot interface on the center stack.
In a way, it feels as if the design has been caught in between generations, holding onto older components while trying to move toward the modern, fluid design of the C-Class and new E-Class. The GLA’s time will come, though, and despite the ageing feel of some components, the layout is ergonomic and easy to get used to. The carbon-fibre look trim on the dash is a nice touch, too.
The small rotary dial for the COMAND infotainment system still feels as if it has been placed a bit far back to access comfortably, and the menu layout of COMAND is still not as intuitive as it could (should?) be, but everything works and is well represented on the screen.
I will point out that our test car was an early build and had missed the Apple CarPlay software setup – but vehicles on sale should all be correctly configured.
Having used the CarPlay implementation in other Mercedes models, it works well but is a full commitment. Switching between COMAND and CarPlay can be frustrating and so the inclusion of multiple USB points – where only one acts as the CarPlay trigger – is very handy (particularly if you are having an ‘old’ day and just want things as they were, and not that new fangled stuff…).
I’m the first person to stick my hand up in support of the column-mounted gear shifter found on most current Mercedes models, and the GLA is no exception. Okay, so if you are transitioning to the little SUV after years of driving a car with indicators on the right stalk, it may take a little bit of getting used to… but once you are comfortable with it, the movements become second nature and very natural.
Peak torque is available between 1200 and 4000 rpm, giving good response off the line, but the full complement of power – all 90kW of it – doesn’t arrive until 5000rpm. In a modern world of email, it’s like posting a letter.
But if you consider that many buyers of this car will use the little GLA to tootle around the postcode they live in, rarely seeing speeds above 50km/h, ultimate performance isn’t the be-all and end-all.
You can use the Dynamic Select driving modes to switch to Sport, which improves things a little bit in terms of response, but the numbers just aren’t there to give the GLA180 any real sense of ‘oomph’ and the Sport setting tends to just hold gears for an unnaturally long time.
It is what it is. Leave it in comfort and take a more zen approach to the cross-town hustle.
And like this, the little GLA handles urban life with aplomb. The electrically assisted steering is light and nimble around town and the extra ride height and more compliant SUV suspension deals with holes, cobbles, speed humps and tram tracks with much more skill than the A-Class hatch.
It isn’t a wafting cloud through, and still feels quite sporty even on basic urban duties. In this environment you don’t notice the front-drive only layout.
Mercedes-Benz claim a combined fuel consumption of 5.7-litres per 100km and while we saw figures in the sixes for the majority of our time with the car, the usage climbed to 7.5L/100km after a long highway cycle.
Yes, you read that right – touring (on cruise control) pushed the average up.
Basically, when running about at speeds below 80km/h, the seven-speed automatic gearbox tries to move into the highest gear to relax the engine as much as possible. Pair that with automatic stop-start system and the generally placid performance of the plucky GLA is reasonably economical - although, not a standout.
Touring at 100km/h, though, the car is still in seventh gear for the most part but revving just that little bit higher. Throw in some hills (where the car will tend to shift down a gear or two) and the occasional overtake, and the little 1.6 engine has to work harder than it normally does.
So if you have lots of country miles on your radar, the GLA180 isn’t your best bet. Stay within urban confines, though, and it is quite at home.
And, ultimately, the concrete jungle is what the GLA180 was designed for. A funky crossover hatch with all the power, features and capability it needs to fulfill its role, but with little else added so as to keep the costs down.
The GLA180 is a gateway car. A more affordable starting point for buyers to get a taste of what Mercedes-Benz ownership means, both good and bad.
Yes, you’ll pay more for servicing. A Silver service package for the GLA is approximately $660 per service or $1980 after three-years, against approximately $1390 for a similar service package on a Mazda CX-3.
But remember that the buyer of a sub-$50,000 GLA receives the same service and attention as the buyer of a $150,000 GLE. There’s a price of entry to the MB-Club, but once you are in, they are keen to keep you there.
The 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLA180 is a fun little package that represents a good entry point to the brand. Sure it’s pretty slow and not exactly bursting with features, but it is built with the same level of engineering detail and expertise as the $59,900 GLA250 4Matic and, most importantly, comes with the exact same key.
Whether you are looking for a second car or a first Mercedes, there is still plenty to like about the GLA180. Do check out the competition, though, as the Merc has less power but more equipment than the 1.4-litre Audi Q3, and is smaller but $7000 cheaper than the 1.8-litre BMW X1.
But if, like Miss Joplin, you have been hankering for something, anything, with a three-pointed star, then entry to the club has never been more accessible.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.