2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB review: Ride-along

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The world's obsession with SUVs shows no signs of slowing down, and the Mercedes-Benz GLB is about to join the fray. Here's our first look at the small offering.

The baby G. That’s how Mercedes-Benz describes its latest model, the GLB.

The marketing-led label suggests the new SUV has, in some way or another, a direct link to the German carmaker’s original military-grade off-roader, the G-Class.

Don’t be fooled, though. While its upright exterior may display some vague similarities to its recently upgraded stablemate, the GLB is a vastly different proposition to the G-Class, and not just on price, which is expected to start at around $60,000 in Australia.

The GLB is based on Mercedes-Benz’s second-generation MFA platform – the same structure used by the latest A-Class, albeit with a stretched wheelbase to allow it to offer a seven-seat interior layout – for a start. It is also planned to be sold exclusively with transversely mounted four-cylinder engines, offering a choice of both front- and four-wheel drive.

But before we get into the detail of the GLB, it’s worth pointing out it will slot into the Mercedes-Benz line-up above the upcoming second-generation GLA and below the recently facelifted GLC.

Mercedes-Benz knows that although the GLA sells well in many markets, and helps to add important volume to its compact car ranks for improved economies of scale, it lacks the outright accommodation and versatility of established premium-brand SUVs such as the Audi Q3, BMW X1 and Volvo XC40.

“We wanted a roomier car. More multi-functional from an everyday point of view, with the ability to accommodate seven occupants when required,” says Jochen Eck, the Mercedes-Benz engineer responsible for overall vehicle testing in the compact segment, of the difference between the GLA and its new sibling, the GLB.

The idea for the new model came after Mercedes-Benz's management decided against developing a long-wheelbase version of the recently introduced third-generation B-Class to go up against the BMW 2 Series Gran Tourer.

“It doesn’t just compete with existing SUVs on looks. It is extremely space-efficient and with three rows of seats it rivals the practicality of MPVs,” says Eck, who has overseen the GLB’s development along with each of its Mercedes-Benz compact car siblings over the past two years.

The GLB is planned to go on sale in Australia early next year, so the camouflaged prototype you see here is very much a pre-production example. Not that its styling is any great secret any more. With the unveiling of the Concept GLB at the Shanghai motor show last month, Mercedes-Benz closely previewed the appearance of its newest SUV.

The definitive production version shares the same steel bodywork as the well-received Concept GLB, but its detailing is a good deal less flamboyant and a lot less off-road oriented. Still, it makes an impression when you see it up close. The eighth member of Mercedes-Benz’s compact car line-up is undoubtedly a confident-looking car. And that’s important in a class loaded with premium-brand competition.

Dimensionally, the GLB is the largest of Mercedes-Benz’s compact models, running to a length of 4634mm. The wheelbase is put at 2829mm – some 100mm longer than that used by the fourth-generation A-Class hatchback.

In a departure from all of Mercedes-Benz’s other compact car models, which are produced either in Germany or Hungary, it will be produced in Mexico at a plant Mercedes-Benz runs in co-operation with its alliance partner Renault-Nissan. Additional production is also planned to take place in China, where Mercedes-Benz already produces a number of key models exclusively for the domestic Chinese market.

At this late stage in its development, the German carmaker’s engineering team is still refining the adaptive damping control of the GLB in a bid to provide it with what Eck describes as the smoothest ride of the company’s compact car line-up.

The prototype we’ve been invited to ride in is the most powerful of the standard models planned from the outset of sales, the GLB250 4Matic. Up front is the latest evolution of Mercedes-Benz’s M264 four-cylinder petrol engine. The transversely mounted turbocharged 2.0-litre unit develops 165kW and 350Nm of torque.

Other engines, including a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel and a more powerful version of the M264 powerplant in a GLB35 performance model from AMG, will likely also be available from the outset of sales in Australia.

The roads around Arvidsjaur in north Sweden on which Mercedes-Benz is evaluating the GLB are among the most demanding on its long list of global test locations, not least in winter.

Our very first acquaintance with the new Mercedes-Benz model comes in early February. Along with sub-zero temperatures, there is also a heavy layer of fresh snow for the Mercedes-Benz engineering team to cope with as they rack up valuable kilometres on one of over 100 prototypes of the GLB that Eck says have been constructed so far.

Stepping into the new Mercedes-Benz is fairly straightforward, as you’d expect from a car conceived with a clear focus on versatility. The sill is quite low and the door apertures large enough to allow unimpeded entry to the first and second rows of seats.

Most of the prototype’s interior is covered in fabric, because right now Mercedes-Benz doesn’t want any secrets about the uniquely styled parts of the cabin to leak out before the production version of the GLB is officially unveiled in June.

But as the recent Concept GLB has subsequently revealed, it receives a new fascia and centre console among other detailed changes. There’s also a digital panel housing instruments and infotainment functions, as in other recent new compact Mercedes-Benz models. It is coupled with the company’s excellent MBUX interface, allowing touch, spoken and gesture controls in more comprehensively equipped models.

The front seats, taken from the A-Class and coupled with their own unique mounting points for a more commanding view of the road and improved visibility to each corner, are typically firm. But they’re also supportive and prove terrifically comfortable for the duration of our outing.

In the second row, there’s plenty of legroom when the seat, which offers 140mm of longitudinal adjustment as well as eight-stage inclination of the 40:20:40 configured back rest, is set all the way back. The near-vertical side glass and an almost complete lack of tumble home to the roof also add to the impression that the GLB boasts more headroom than any of its rivals.

To ease entry to the pair of seats in the third row, the outer seats within the second row receive a standard easy-entry function, which allows them to slide forward. When the third-row seats, which will be an option in Australia, are not required, they can be manually stowed within the floor of the luggage compartment. So configured, Eck claims the GLB boasts class-leading luggage capacity, helped no doubt in part by an almost upright tailgate.

Once underway, the engine proves strong and well mannered. Mechanical refinement is one of the new Mercedes-Benz model’s key attributes. It’s as quiet at posted limits as more expensive siblings. Its stiff body structure, which Eck claims possesses levels of rigidity consummate with that of the A-Class hatchback, also suppresses road noise quite well.

In 4Matic models like the prototype we rode in, drive is channelled through a standard eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox and multi-plate-clutch, four-wheel-drive system featuring Eco, Comfort and Sport driving modes. Each drive mode apportions a different amount of torque between the front and rear axles.

The GLB delivers sufficient grip and traction to be convincing even on icy roads. Despite being the tallest of Mercedes-Benz’s MFA-based models, its centre of gravity is claimed to be quite low in comparison to rival SUVs, and this is demonstrated by the way it can be made to carry a good amount of speed into corners without the need for it to rely on the stability-control system.

Where it really excels, though, is in the calmness of its ride. With greater wheel travel and a longer wheelbase than other models in Mercedes-Benz's compact car line-up, its progress is impressively smooth. The MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension absorbs bumps and ruts with proper authority in combination with the adaptive dampers, which will likely come as an option on all standard GLB models.

However, a lack of ride height means its off-road prowess will be limited, in line with what Eck describes as customer expectations. “We could give it more ground clearance and scope for true off-road driving, but that’s not what the customer wants. In this class, it is on-road performance that counts and we’ve developed the GLB accordingly,” he says.

The seasoned Mercedes-Benz engineer doesn’t rule out the chance of the GLB eventually being offered with an off-road package that will allow buyers to specify equipment similar to that showcased on the concept. However, he says it is not planned from launch.

That’s a pity, because in other areas the GLB looks to have the bases covered. It is distinctive in appearance and highly versatile inside. In GLB250 4Matic guise, it’s also strong on performance and every bit as refined as you’d expect from a car wearing the three-pointed star.

Without true off-road features such as adjustable ride height and low-range gearing, it’s no baby G. But from what we’ve seen and experienced so far, the GLB appears a very credible rival to the likes of the Q3, X1 and XC40.