Mercedes compact SUV trumps Subaru and Mazda
REMEMBER when SUVs used to be called four-wheel drives and weren’t merely a fashion statement?
Back then, they were the automotive equivalent of hiking boots. Today’s SUVs look more like fancy running shoes with thicker soles.
Especially the new breed of SUV: the high-riding hatchback. They’re bridging the gap between city runabout and weekend getaway car.
Mercedes-Benz is the latest to join this new niche with its GLA. It’s slightly bigger than a Mercedes-Benz A-Class hatch and provides a slightly elevated view of the road ahead without looking like a soccer-mum SUV.
The Nissan Dualis and Suzuki SX4 are the mainstream takes on the theme, while the BMW X1, Audi Q3 and Mini Countryman are among the first faux-wheel drives to join the premium segment.
There are three models in the range: the 2.2-litre turbo diesel GLA 200 tested here, the 2.0‒litre turbo petrol GLA 250, and the high performance 2.0‒litre turbo petrol GLA 45 AMG.
The latter two are all-wheel drive but the GLA 200 is two‒wheel drive (in this case powering the front wheels), a common theme among the price-leaders in the class.
The reality is that few of these vehicles go off-road; the extra ground clearance is more than enough to conquer the driveways to most wineries.
Benz Australia loads its cars with equipment for which its rivals charge extra and the GLA is no exception.
Standard fare on all models includes nine airbags, satnav, rear-view camera, front and rear parking sensors, automatic tailgate, partial electric adjustment for the driver’s seat, dual-zone aircon and Bluetooth telephone connectivity and audio streaming.
You could be forgiven for thinking that navigation, a rearview camera, front and rear parking sensors and Bluetooth audio streaming are standard on the GLA’s luxury compact SUV rivals. You’d be mistaken.
BMW charges extra for all of the above on its X1. Audi’s Q3 only includes audio streaming. Mini charges for navigation but a factory-fitted rear-view camera is not available on the Countryman at any price.
Benz servicing intervals are 25,000km or one year, whichever comes first. The kilometres are unusually high — I’d be taking it in every 10,000-15,000km. That said, Mercedes-Benz reckons most customers do less than 15,000km annually.
Capped-price servicing is not available on the GLA, nor its luxury rivals other than during special offers.
As most of the mainstream top 10 car brands offer this peace of mind and transparency, it’s only a matter of time before the luxury brands follow. Because the GLA is a new model in a relatively new segment a forecast on resale value is not possible. Suffice that other Benzes in this price range typically retain about 55 per cent of their value after three years (average) if the car is in good condition, has travelled low kilometres (45,000km) and has a logbook service history.
The brochure will tell you about the extensive use of highstrength steels, which make the GLA more secure in a crash and more solid in corners.
But what tickled our fancy was the “high tech” parcel shelf — the cover over the hatchback’s boot area. It’s made from recycled paper (using technology patented by Benz), weighs half as much as a conventional parcel shelf and won’t cost the earth. Benz says, 46 components in the new GLA are made from natural materials.
The GLA gains MercedesBenz’s new design language: sleek headlights that sweep into the large grille, and subtle, tapered sculpting along the flanks and doors.
Of course, there’s a practical side to its shape. The GLA is slightly larger than the A-Class hatch ( just 12.5cm longer) and yet it’s still compact enough to fit in the same size parking space.
The GLA’s slightly taller roof and slightly bigger bum means luggage space has increased to 421L with the seats up and 1235L with the seats down (up from 341L/1157L in the A-Class).
How did they come up with nine airbags? Two front, two curtains, a side airbag in each front seat, a side airbag in the outer positions of the back seat, and one for the driver’s knee.
Other standard fare includes a fatigue monitoring system and stability control to keep you on the straight and narrow. An “active bonnet” is designed to
reduce the potential injury to pedestrians in a crash. There is as yet no crash test score but a five-star rating is likely. Confession: the GLA 200 is so quiet at suburban and cruising speeds I didn’t know the engine was a diesel. Only when you floor the throttle does the familiar noise emerge.
The other surprise is how well the dual-clutch automatic transmission works.
Earlier applications of this gearbox in other MercedesBenzes have not been so well executed. There is less hesitation when moving from rest than before, and the gearbox will even “creep” forward in low-speed traffic, just like a conventional torque converter automatic.
In “eco” mode the engine shuts down pretty smoothly but jolts back into life with a bit less subtlety (as most of these systems do). If you’re like us you’ll get into the habit of disabling the “eco” mode every time you start the car.
Why can’t you disable “eco” mode permanently? Because that’s one of the secrets behind the GLA’s amazing low 4.6L/100km economy rating, and government regulations in other markets won’t allow it to be permanently disabled.
Vision all around is pretty good and parking is a cinch when you’re armed with front and rear sensors and rear-view camera with large screen display. The taller driving position means you can read the traffic ahead a little better, though it’s not as commanding as a full-size SUV.
The seats are comfortable and the driving position has plenty of adjustment. The steering is well-weighted on the move and light at parking speeds.
The GLA’s compact dimensions also come in handy on a winding road, where it feels more nimble than an SUV should. There is ample cornering grip, and the GLA feels secure in almost any situation.
Ride comfort is generally good, although the thicker sidewalls on the runflat tyres made the suspension feel a bit “busy” at low speeds on what looked like smooth roads.
It jiggles a bit on some surfaces at suburban speeds, but this is hardly a deal-breaker.
Mercedes-Benz has aced its rivals again with a sharp price and a generous standard equipment list.
That the GLA is one of the better luxury compact SUVs is merely a bonus.