In the GLA, Mercedes has a compact Crossover model to really put the frighteners on rivals like Audi's Q3 and BMW's X1. Jonathan Crouch tries the pokier diesel version, the 220d variant.
Ten Second Review
Mercedes-Benz is attacking the prestige part of the compact Crossover segment with this GLA SUV model - and most will want it in the 177bhp 220d diesel guise on test here. At this level, you have to have 4MATIC all-wheel drive and Mercedes' super-smooth 7-speed auto gearbox - but that's no hardship. Providing you can afford the asking price.
The thing with 'golden ages' is that you never really know you're in one until it's over. Harold McMillan might have once told the electorate in 1957 that they'd never had it so good, but would you forgo your smartphone, the internet, modern healthcare and your reliable air-conditioned car to return to an age when we had only just stopped meat and petrol rationing? Golden ages depend on your perspective. Yet Mercedes-Benz are certainly in one right now. There's genuine depth of talent right across the Stuttgart maker's range and it's increasingly hard to spot a duffer. Wind the clock back a few years and the clunkers were easy to identify. Now they've been surgically excised. One glaring black hole in the Mercedes line-up - in the UK at least - was the lack of a small Crossover model to go head to head with the likes of the Audi Q3 and BMW X1. That policy has changed with the introduction of this shapely GLA model, a car arguably at its best in the 177bhp 220d diesel guise we're testing here. Game on.
Not all GLA models are offered with 4MATIC all-wheel drive but this 220d variant has to be. The AWD set-up is a permanent system featuring fully variable torque distribution. Its components include power take-off to the rear axle that's integrated into the 7G-DCT automatic dual clutch transmission that's also a must-have at this level. And a rear-axle gear with an integrated, electrohydraulically controlled multi-disc clutch. There's also DSR (Downhill Speed Regulation) and an off-road transmission mode as standard. When the off-road transmission mode is selected, the gearshift points and accelerator characteristics are modified to better suit off-road driving. In combination with standard 'Audio 20 CD' system or the more sophisticated optional 'COMAND Online' set-up, the head unit can also be switched to an off-road display. The steering angle, the selected off-road transmission mode and a compass are displayed there. The roll angle in degrees, the gradient in percent and activation of Downhill Speed Regulation DSR are also indicated. Ground clearance will clearly limit the GLA's ultimate capabilities in the rough, but this looks to be a vehicle with genuine inbuilt versatility.
Design and Build
The GLA certainly isn't very SUV-like. It's rounded, it rides fairly low to the ground and it looks more like an A-Class that's been boosting up on nandrolone than anything particularly hardcore. Perhaps that's no great surprise given that it's spawned from a similar chassis, being the fourth of five compact vehicles Mercedes is spinning off this theme, the first three being the A, B and CLA models and the fifth being the CLA Shooting Brake. The Concept GLA was first shown at the 2013 Shanghai Motor Show but the show car's exuberant detailing has been pared back for production. The front end now looks less angry, the design team having taken a lot of shape and creases out of the surfacing and toned down the excess. It measures 4427mm long, 1805mm wide and 1495mm height, which are dimensions broadly similar to most of its key UK-market rivals. For reference, a BMW X1 is 50mm longer, 7mm narrower and 72mm taller. The GLA rides on a 2699mm wheelbase - the same as that used by all latest A-Class models, so don't expect limousine-standard legroom in the rear seats. Luggage space is 421-litres with the seats in place and 836-litres with them folded down completely. A useful 'Load Compartment package' moves the rear seat backs to a more upright position, freeing up a further 60-litres of load space.
Market and Model
Mercedes-Benz takes safety extremely seriously and you only need to take a look at the GLA's standard safety equipment to realise that there aren't many in its class that can rival its attention to detail here. Standard-fit features include Attention Assist drowsiness detection and radar-based Collision Prevention Assist with adaptive Brake Assist, which now helps to protect against collisions from a speed of 4mph. This feature combines with the optional Distronic Plus to become Collision Prevention Assist Plus. This incorporates an additional function: when a danger of collision persists and the driver fails to respond, the system is able to carry out autonomous braking at speeds of up to 124mph, thereby reducing the severity of collisions with slower or stopping vehicles. The system also brakes in response to stationary vehicles at a speed of up to 18mph and is able to prevent rear-end collisions at speeds of up to 12mph. Prices for the 177bhp 220 CDI diesel variant start at around £32,000, so you're looking at just over £2,500 more than an equivalently specified automatic GLA 200d diesel model. That doesn't seem bad value given that you're getting 4WD and another 34bhp.
Cost of Ownership
Mercedes has worked extremely hard to make this GLA-Class one of the cheapest cars to run in its class, efforts aided by the fact that all the engines on offer feature direct injection and turbocharging, plus an ECO start/stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. There's also an ECO setting for the 7G-DCT 7-speed automatic gearbox, a slippery 0.29 Cd drag factor, plus intelligent management of engine ancillaries like the alternator, the oil feed and the water pump and low rolling resistance tyres. As a result, it's hard to argue with the numbers generated by this GLA, figures that aren't very different from those of its Mercedes A-Class design stablemate, despite this car's extra 40kg of weight. Even with 4WD and an auto gearbox, this GLA220d 4MATIC returns 56.5mpg and emits just 130g/km. That's nearly 10% better than you'd get from a rival BMW X1 xDrive 20d auto and around 15% better than the kind of directly comparable Audi Q3 2.0 TDI 177 quattro S tronic model that would pitch a company car driver two tax bands further up.
It's genuinely hard to see how the Mercedes-Benz GLA can fail. Yes, there are some very talented rivals but next to this car, the BMW X1 looks gawky and an Audi Q3 looks a bit underdone. While some may find its SUV styling a little too toned down for their tastes, it's far from agricultural which may very well be its appeal to urban buyers. As for this GLA 220d variant, well it's probably the one to have in the range - and it certainly looks a good choice in its segment with better running costs and a larger boot than its rivals. A very smart four-wheel drive system that has largely been borrowed from the A45 AMG gives the GLA true all-weather ability and an unparalleled array of safety gear give this car five star family credentials. Where's the catch? The pricing could be about the only one.