Performance SUVs have become the apex predator of a once sensible segment. Melding the practical usability of a wagon with the performance and handling characteristics of a hot-hatch has seen a species evolve, that as a package, often sits deservedly at the top of the food chain.
But just as in nature, not all beasts are created equal. Occasionally one may argue that even a highly evolved animal might have just been a step too far. Yes Platypus, I’m talking about you.
The 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLB 35 is that highly evolved performance SUV. A car which lands with all the right numbers in all the right places, and has all the capability it needs to fulfil the fast and practical combination requirements of the segment.
But I do have to ask, did we really need this?
|2021 Mercedes-AMG GLB 35|
|Engine configuration||2.0-litre turbocharged petrol|
|Displacement||2.0 litres (1991cc)|
|Power||225kW at 5800rpm|
|Torque||400Nm at 3000-4000rpm|
|Transmission||Eight-speed AMG Speedshift DCT|
|Drive type||All-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim, combined||8.3L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||10.2L/100km|
|ANCAP safety rating (year tested)||5-star (tested 2019)|
|Warranty (years / km)||5 years / unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Mercedes-Benz GLB250, Land Rover Discovery Sport|
|Options as tested||$3180|
From the outside, the 35 definitely looks more muscular, with a unique AMG body styling package that really suits the boxy SUV’s shape. Slick 20-inch AMG alloys are standard, as is the blackened trim of the ‘Night Package’ and the now-signature vertical-slat AMG grille.
Leather sports seats (with the Energizing Comfort Control kinematics – or pretend massage function), carbon-fibre-look trim, and AMG branding enhance the interior, which is still a neat and flexible seven-seat configuration.
The biggest deal is under the skin, where the 225kW, 400Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged M260 engine is matched with an eight-speed AMG Speedshift DCT and variable torque-split all-wheel drive. There are bigger AMG brakes with 350mm rotors and AMG-branded silver callipers up front, and 330mm rotors down the back.
Pus the car rides on 10mm lower sports suspension with adjustable damping rates.
It’s the racey A35 AMG’s more boxified sibling, capable of a 5.2-second sprint to 100km/h and carrying a power-to-weight ratio of 122.3kW/t, which makes the little SUV more virile than a Lexus RC300 coupe.
So, on paper, the GLB35 has all the right chops.
And in most ways, the GLB 35 works well too.
On a short run on winding country roads in West Gippsland, the GLB offers up plenty of pace and agility that would have it keep the company of more traditional GTI-badged hatchbacks.
The M260 engine, as it is in the A35, is a real gem. You’ve got a big rush of torque from 3000rpm on, and it revs and buzzes happily to its 5800rpm redline. There’s induction noise and a decent amount of exhaust crackle, highlighting the fun nature of the motor.
|2021 Mercedes-AMG GLB 35|
|Wheels/tyres||255/40 R20 - Continental|
The AMG equipment list includes the extra data display on the twin-widescreen 12.3-inch displays, showing torque split, g-forces and other data so cleanly, I wish it was a feature on all Mercedes models. It shows fuel consumption just above the 10L/100km mark, up on the claim of 8.3L/100km, but not surprisingly so given I am exploring all six-thousand revolutions per minute the little turbo-four can dish up.
Sitting higher than a hatch does change the handling dynamics somewhat, but it turns in and grips well enough to hold decent speed through sweeping bends, and even manages to deal with changing surfaces confidently enough, especially at speed.
The car will adjust torque delivery to the wheels that need it, so any under- or oversteer you encounter will largely be due to you pushing too hard for the conditions Kept in check, the GLB sticks firm and true.
But it’s just me on board, and even with a window cracked, the rapid change of direction isn’t conducive to a well-settled tummy. Throw up to six others inside, and this type of driving will only end one way. Sure you can wind it back, but then why are we in the AMG?
Put simply, it is a car that is very capable at doing something no that one really needs to do. There's no seven-seat class in the World Rally Championship for a reason. A case of ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ if there ever was one.
And there’s the rub. Dialled down to regular and smooth driving, to placate my imaginary passengers, the car still feels firm and sharp and urgent, and I can’t help think that as a seven-seat family box, the GLB250 just answers the brief a whole lot better.
Even if I flip the requirement and suggest the 35 gives you a full-house GLB that just happens to have a performance ability, things don’t stack up. It’s a pity as this approach works so well in the GLC 43 and GLE 53, but here, despite the generous equipment list you still miss out on some big-ticket items.
Heated seats are standard but ventilation is still a $790 (or less than one per cent extra) option. Even solid white paint, the staple of no-options-ticked cars since time began, is a $500 choice (you can employ a solid-black alone as a no-cost colour).
More disappointingly, the GLB 35 still doesn’t score the full driver assistance ($1990 – rear cross traffic and adaptive cruise control) or Vision (surround camera and LED adaptive headlamps $1190) option packages as standard. Nor is there a head-up display without adding the Innovation package ($3490 – includes the upgraded 12-speaker stereo).
For a range-topper, and to add argument for why you would choose the 35 over the GLB 250, it seems odd that these, especially the assistance pack, aren’t part of the baseline AMG equipment list. Ticking all three of these boxes ($6670) keeps the MSRP under $100k, but that’s now moving into BMW X3 M40i territory, which is arguably a better-evolved performance SUV despite having five-seats.
|2021 Mercedes-AMG GLB 35|
|Options as tested||$3180|
|ANCAP safety rating||5-star (tested 2019)|
|Warranty||5 years / unlimited km|
Back in town, the little AMG still can’t figure out what it wants to be.
Sure it’s zippy and fun when you’re one-up, but dropping everything back to Comfort mode doesn’t mitigate the urgent nature of the driveline or firm tension of the suspension. In this segment, a car needs to slow as well or even better than it fasts, and this one doesn’t always get there.
Don't get me wrong, the ride isn't crashy, the car isn't hard to drive. There's just something about the format of the GLB that suggests to me it should be a little less athletic in its downtime.
That said though, I think we can all see the attraction of a well-equipped, AMG-badged, Mercedes SUV this side of $100k. And I know this will sell well.
Plus, the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLB 35 doesn’t actually do anything wrong. It’s fast, it's practical, and everything works the way it says it should. My thinking is just that as a compact, seven-seat urban-family runner, this car should err to the side of comfort and compliance more than it does performance.
The sharp, firm and eager nature we all want from a hot-hatch seems contradictory to what we need from a family car. The 35 isn’t bad by any stretch, it just makes the regular GLB 250 seem like a much more sensible decision.
But this is the beauty of the breadth of the Mercedes range. You may read this and think, 'but James, I do want the performance of the hatch with the practicality of the SUV and as such, the GLB 35 has answered the brief perfectly'. One man’s platypus is another person’s sea otter.
If it were me at the product planning department of Mercedes though, I would have gone the other way and developed a GLB 4x4². A more compliant, higher-riding, wider track, ‘safari-ed’ version of the SUV that encouraged off-tarmac family adventures more than back-road high g-loading blasts.
It was after all, what was shown as the GLB concept in 2019. Perhaps suggesting that the ultimate evolution of the species was the one that was there from the beginning.