The first-generation Mercedes-Benz GLA launched in 2014 was an undoubted success with sales that reached the one million mark worldwide. But despite all the marketing hype that surrounded it, the high riding hatchback was in essence not much more than a rebodied version of the third-generation A-class.
As such, its claim to it being a genuine crossover was somewhat empty in terms of real function.
This new one is different, and clearly all the better for it. Developed as part of an eight-strong Mercedes-Benz compact car line-up, it has been granted the necessary design and engineering scope to evolve into a much more rounded, talented and versatile rival to the likes of the Audi Q3, BMW X2 (and its more staid X1 sibling) and Mini Countryman.
While the mechanical similarities to its lower riding hatchback sibling remain, a whole host of unique touches help to not only provide the second-generation GLA with a more standalone character but also instill it with the inherent qualities to make it a more appealing car on many fronts.
Before we get into the finer points of the way it drives, its altered form is worth a look. Styling is always subjective, so we’ll sidestep judgement on the new GLA’s bolder appearance for now.
What you should know, though, is that its dimensions have changed: length has been reduced by 14mm to 4410mm, while width extends by 30mm to 1834mm and height is up by a considerable 104mm at 1611mm without the optional roof rails.
By comparison, the Q3 measures 4485mm in length, 1856mm in width and 1585mm in height, while the BMW X2 stretches to a respective 4360mm, 1824mm and 1526mm.
The reduction in length hasn’t reduced its versatility in any great way. With a 30mm longer wheelbase at 2729mm, its interior has actually grown in size, most notably within the rear seats, where it is now considerably roomier than before.
At its launch, the new GLA will be offered with two different four-cylinder petrol and a single four-cylinder diesel engine across seven different models, although not all are planned for sale in Australia.
The entry point is the front-wheel drive GLA200, which uses a turbocharged 1.3-litre petrol unit sourced from Renault delivering 120kW and 250Nm of torque.
It is joined by the initial range-topping GLA250 both in standard front- and 4Matic four-wheel drive guise with a turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine with 163kW and 350Nm.
Two diesels models, both offering the choice of front- or four-wheel drive, use the same turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder powerplant in different states of tune. In the GLA200d it kicks out 110kW and 320Nm, while in the GLA220d it musters 140kW and a rather gutsy 400Nm.
The GLA200 is fitted with a standard seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox supplied by Getrag, while all other new GLA models receive an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox produced by Mercedes-Benz.
But there are more GLA models to come, including the petrol-electric plug-in hybrid GLA250e EQ Power. That model runs a turbocharged 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine and an electric motor for a combined 160kW and 420Nm, but it won't be coming to Australia.
Both run a heavily reworked version of the GLA250’s turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. In the former, it kicks out 225kW and 400Nm, while the latter serves up either 285kW and 480Nm or an ever stronger 310kW and 500Nm in its ultimate S guise.
It’s the GLA250 4Matic we test here, and the similarities to other recent Mercedes-Benz models can’t be denied.
Inside, the dashboard, controls and free-standing digital display will be familiar to anyone who has set foot in the latest A-class hatchback, A-class saloon, B-class, or CLA four-door coupe,
Our highly equipped test car featured optional 10.2-inch twin displays along with a multi-colour head-up display unit in place of the pair of standard 7.0-in displays, giving it a rather upmarket air further accentuated by a Mercedes-Benz’s latest multi-function steering wheel and lots of brushed aluminium-look trim.
So configured, it’s all fittingly premium in look and feel, and with the latest in conversational voice recognition and touch screen functions within easy reach of the steering wheel, quite intuitive. The response from the infotainment system and MBUX operating system is particularly impressive, making it easy to set commands on the go.
Befitting its crossover positioning, the front seats are mounted 140mm higher than those in the A-class hatchback. In combination with its increased ride height, this provides the new GLA with a more commanding driving position. The added height within the body also brings a 22mm increase in front headroom compared to the first-generation model.
It’s an agreeably airy and relatively spacious driving environment by class standards.
The rear gets a fixed seat as standard. As with the latest B-class and new GLB, though, there’s an optional bench offering 140mm of fore-aft-adjustment and, crucially, 116mm more rear legroom than before. Longer door apertures with less intrusion from the rear wheels arches also ease entry to the second row. Rear seat headroom has been reduced by 6mm due to the new GLA’s more heavily sloping roof line.
Despite the decrease in overall length, Mercedes-Benz has managed to add 14 litres to the boot, which with a capacity of 435 litres is dwarfed by the 530-litre Q3 and stands at 35-litres less than the similarly style-focussed X2.
Out on the road, the GLA250 4Matic’s engine provides solid performance. It never feels quite as refined as the unit used by the Q3 40TFSI, nor as smooth in nature as the engine that powers the X2 xdrive20i.
But with little obvious lag and a good deal of low-end torque, it endows the junior Mercedes-Benz crossover with purposeful off-the-line and sturdy mid-range acceleration, as reflected in its claimed 0-100km/h time of 6.7sec.
Scrolling through the various driving modes alters the acoustic qualities quite markedly. In Comfort, the exhaust note is nicely subdued and distanced from the cabin. Switch into Sport, though, and it becomes instantly more determined in nature, with a raspy timbre under load and the odd crackle on a trailing throttle serving to engage enthusiast drivers.
The action of the gearbox, which receives steering wheel-mounted shift paddles, is quite decisive on upshifts. However, it is sometimes caught out as you step out of the throttle in automatic mode, leading to the odd less than smooth downshift as you brake to a halt at traffic lights.
With quite long gearing it also helps endow the GLA250 4Matic with reasonable, if not outstanding, combined cycle consumption of 6.9L/100km.
It’s the chassis and the improvements Mercedes-Benz’s engineers have brought to the ride and handling that really stand out, though. The basis for this is the German car maker’s updated MFA platform, which brings increased rigidity and stiffness, as well as a decision to provide all new GLA models with a suspension featuring a combination of MacPherson struts up front and multi-links at the rear, together with optional adaptive damping control.
Along with the 30mm increase in the wheelbase, the tracks have also been widened by 36mm up front and by 46mm at the rear, giving the new GLA a larger footprint than its predecessor and, in combination with increased volume to the wheel houses, the ability to offer a wider range of wheels sizes, from standard 17-inch up to 20-inch in diameter.
To this, the GLA250 4Matic adds a reworked multi-plate clutch four-wheel drive system boasting electro-mechanical instead of the earlier hydraulic operation as well as fully variable apportioning of power to each axle depending on prevailing grip levels.
In Comfort and Eco modes the drive is distributed in a nominal 80:20 front-to-rear split, while in Sport mode it is set-up to deliver a more rear-biased 70:30 and in Off-road mode an evenly balanced 50:50.
The on-road character alters quite a bit depending on the driving mode, giving the new GLA a broader range of qualities than before and the sort of cross-market appeal it is going to need to launch a greater challenge to its premium brand rivals.
The weighting of the electro-mechanical steering is quite light, but there is precision to its action even if it fails to impart much in the way of genuine road feel. Despite its raised ride height, the GLA250 4Matic also boasts fine body control and engaging agility.
Quick directional changes are met with progressive movements and excellent levels of grip. There’s a sheer ease to the driving that makes it very appealing from an everyday point of view.
With a good degree of spring travel and the optional adaptive damping the ride is fairly compliant, even with the optional 225/45 R20 profile Bridgestone Alenza tyres of our test car. Road noise is also well isolated from the cabin. In fact, overall refinement has been greatly improved, making for more enjoyable long distant travel.
Mercedes-Benz makes a big play of its driver assistance systems, claiming class-leading technology in this respect for the new GLA. However, the standard Active Brake Assist and Active Lane Keeping systems are overly intrusive. They often trigger the brakes, introduce steering wheel input and send an alarm sounding when not required.
The “G” in the GLA name stands for the German word Gelände, or terrain. Having experienced the new GLA away from the bitumen, we can vouch for the limited off-road qualities of 4Matic models, which come as standard with a so-called Off-Road Engineering Package.
The new Mercedes-Benz model is never going to take you deep into the jungle or the desert without the benefit of proper off-road tyres and mechanical differential locks, but the ability of its reworked four-wheel drive system to vary the amount of drive to each axle together with a downhill speed regulation, a unique off-road driving mode that alters the intervention of the ABS braking system, Multibeam LED headlamps with integrated off-road function and moderate amount of ground clearance does help it goes places few prospective owners are ever likely to consider.
Mercedes-Benz must be complimented on the new GLA. It’s a far more rounded and complete car than its predecessor, with greater dynamism and maturity to the way it drives, a considerably richer and roomier interior and improved levels of versatility and perceived quality throughout.
We suspect the ownership experience will hinge greatly on the drivetrain. In four-wheel drive GLA250 4Matic guise it is convincingly powerful, the punchy and sporting qualities.
But we’ll need to spend time in other more affordable front-wheel drive models before we can say if it has truly hit the target.