Mercedes-Benz bills the new GLB as its sensible family-focused compact offering, setting it apart from platform-mates like the GLA, A-Class and CLA. Nevertheless, the happy band of engineers at Mercedes-AMG’s home in Affalterbach have had their wicked way with it.
Presumably the focus is upon folks with a young family who aren’t quite ready to cash in their chips entirely, and want something to put a smile on their dial once the school run is sorted. If that isn’t you, may I suggest you head over to our separate review of the ‘regular’ GLB range?
The Mercedes-AMG GLB35 is differentiated from its humble siblings in myriad ways, not least design. It gets an A45-style bolder grille, tougher splitter and apron, a roof spoiler, chrome-plated tailpipe surrounds, and alloy wheels measuring a huge 21 inches on our test car.
The squared-off body with its big side windows and short overhangs — a product of its significantly stretched wheelbase that ups cabin space — doesn’t naturally lend itself to purveying dynamism, but to my eyes it has a rugged charm and commendably squat stance.
Given the company has no plan to make a 300kW-plus GLB45 mega model using the A45 running gear, this one will be the perpetual flagship.
While not on sale in Australia until the third quarter of 2020, we’ve had a chance to experience the car early at its global premiere event.
The interior shares much with its aforementioned platform siblings. Dominating the upper part of the fascia are two free-standing screens mounted within a single frame, one ahead of the driver and the other between the front occupants.
You can choose from three AMG-specific fully digitised instrument displays headlined by the ‘Supersport’ setting’s central rev counter and bar-graph-style torque readout. The driver can also display full maps, music menus, and nigh-on anything else right in their line of sight.
Augmenting this is an optional head-up display (HUD) on the windscreen showing speed, navigation and other functions. The flat-bottom AMG steering wheel with lovely steel paddle shifters fitted behind gets plastic dials and switches below the spokes to change your driving mode and adaptive suspension state.
Familiar Mercedes touches include the seat adjusting switches on the doors, copious faux carbon-fibre trims, lovely stitched leather touch points, aluminium-covered circular air vents, pedals and door handles, and changeable ambient light piping all over the cabin.
Thankfully, Mercedes has also eschewed a modern trend towards putting all ventilation controls into the touchscreen, sticking with a slick line of rocker switches below the centre screen, which itself is enormous and has impressively high resolution.
The whole infotainment setup runs the company’s MBUX software, meaning you can control key functions via touchscreen, the trackpad flanked by shortcut buttons to key menus, smaller touch pads on each steering wheel spoke, or through a voice control system summoned by saying ‘Hey Mercedes’.
This latter function lets you change things such as the HUD status, navigation, music choice, whether the sunroof is open or closed, seat heating and cooling, and the colour of your cabin’s ambient lighting. The only downside is the fact you can’t change the word to summon the system, because any time you utter the word ‘Mercedes’ it chimes in like a bad house guest.
The coolest function of all for mine, though, is the optional augmented-reality satellite navigation. When your next turn is imminent the screen displays a crisp camera feed showing the road ahead and overlays it with a blue arrow pointing where to go.
This is juxtaposed with a conventional map display to the side.
The back seats are noteworthy as promised. I’m 194cm and had legroom and headroom behind my driving position, in a car with an optional two-pane sunroof. The big windows make it easy to see out, and you get rear vents, two USB-C points, a 230V socket, and door bins.
The second row seats split 40:20:40 rather than 60:40 when folding down, and slide on rails by 140mm. Behind them you can option a kid-friendly third seating row with ISOFIX anchors and full side-airbag protection. Rearmost occupants get USB-C points and cupholders too.
Five-seat models have a 570 litre boot (150L more than a Mazda CX-5), while seven-seater with the third-row folded flat have 500L. With seven seats in use there’s room for two duffle bags. You can fold the front passenger seat and middle row to give you a 2.7m long area.
While the regular GLBs call ‘5+2’ seating SUVs such as the Volkswagen Tiguan Allspace, Land Rover Discovery Sport and Peugeot 5008 rivals, this hotted-up AMG model in some ways occupies a class of one.
Motivating the GLB35 is the same 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine as AMG’s other ’35’ models, making 225kW at 5800rpm and 400Nm between 3000 and 4000rpm, and fitted with variable valve control, intelligent thermal management, and an aluminium crankcase. Mercedes claims fuel use of 7.6L/100km on the combined test cycle.
It’s mated to an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission that can double downshift, and offers a launch control function and a front-biased all-wheel drive system with a multi-disc clutch that can divert up to half the engine’s torque rearward.
You can also cycle through various driving modes adjusting the speed-sensitive steering response and resistance level, the stability control’s cut-in points, the exhaust note, and the stiffness of the adaptive dampers, changing the ride quality from firm to somewhat pliant.
AMG’s team completely re-engineered the steering knuckles, front transverse control arms, the rear axle sub-frame, and brakes. The front stopped have four-piston fixed calipers and 350mm discs, while at the rear are single-piston floating calipers and 330mm discs.
The driving experience was surprising. The 5.2 second 0-100km/h time is disarming for this segment, while the engine’s subtle growl and the exhausts’ subdued pops and crackles on overrun are somehow befitting of the ’35’ moniker.
Despite the super-slim tyres specified, the ride comfort over potholes and other road imperfections was far better than other compact Mercedes models manage. You brace for impact and instead glide.
While the tall body ultimately has some effect denting handling through corners, the GLB stays flatter than you’d expect, and it’s fairly pointy. This is helped by well-judged steering. The better tyres mean the entry GLB’s high-speed scrub understeer was erased in the AMG model.
Believe it or don’t, but this manages to be comfortable and tied-down, fast and sufficiently understated.
One feature worth noting is the updated radar and camera suite that sees up to 500m ahead. Our test cars steered themselves between highway road lines, matched the speed of the car ahead with cruise control, and could automatically brake for cars, bikes and pedestrians.
While the boxy design also promises off-road nous, the ground clearance isn’t huge and soft-roading is really the limit.
That said, we tried some slippery muddy trails and found the hill descent control worked well, the 50:50 front-rear torque-locking clutch, various torque-distribution and pitch/roll angle displays, 360-degree off-road camera, and extra-slip-enabling traction control setting, all helped lug four adults easily enough over the journey.
From an ownership perspective, we’re growing a little restless with Mercedes-Benz Australia’s three-year warranty in the face of five-year terms from nearly all non-premium brands in the market. It needs to change this.
When it comes to local pricing, it’s too early to say, though given the smaller A-Class AMG35 derivative costs $67,200, a price point around $75,000 for the GLB equivalent would seem about fair. The dearth of real competition makes it tough to place.
On the face of things the GLB35 is a faintly silly car. Why do you need more than the GLB250 with AWD for a family SUV? Yet the team from Affalterbach have done such a fine job that we’re left hard-pressed to find much to whinge about.