Mercedes' new compact crossover, the GLA, has already impressed us in hot '45 AMG' spec. But the lion's share of European sales will be swallowed by the cooking diesel models, so let's see if they're as competent.
Nowhere near as innovative as the original Mercedes A-class, is it?
'Stupid people,’ opined a colleague with whom I was bemoaning the demise of the original A-class, ‘don’t buy clever cars’.
Yes, yes… I know about the wildlife. But addressing that somewhat over-egged elk issue constituted a relatively minor, ABS-sponsored fix. And what failed to sell adequately thereafter was actually something of a master-class in engineering and packaging.
Neither of which plaudits leap to mind on first encounter with the GLA; a fourth addition to Mercedes’ compact platform clan, taking the form of what the company has dubbed ‘a trekking shoe in our SUV portfolio’.
Now, I couldn’t identify a ‘trekking shoe’ if one kicked me firmly up the arse, yet – 127mm longer, bizarrely a whisker narrower and 59mm taller than its hatchback sibling – the GLA is all too readily identifiable as merely an A-class with attitude.
It certainly doesn’t look far removed from an A-class…
Billed ‘the world’s most aerodynamic production SUV’, it’s surprisingly svelte and seems more comfortable in its couture than the gently clumsy A-class; amazing what a tin chin, a little plastic nappiage and a whiff of extra ground clearance can achieve.
And I do mean a whiff… Diverse permutations of the aluminium-rich MacPherson front and multi-link rear suspension set-up are available, the standard version offering a mere 41mm extra ground clearance than the A-class.
Three sporting variants promptly shed 15mm of that, taking you back to a scant inch above where you started. And even a 30mm hiked off-road set-up (not available until the autumn) equates to a total clearance of only 164mm, surely relegating the GLA to more crossover than SUV status.
What's it like inside?
An interior clearly put together by a man issued with the Mercedes parts-bin, a bombard and a blindfold is appropriately upmarket, but lacking in cohesion. The stuck-on nature of the centre console screen feels a tad low-rent in the context of rivals such as Audi’s Q3, and the fake wood finish is truly execrable.
Otherwise comfortable, the driving position is marred firstly by the seat’s integral headrest, which tilts too far forward and kept ruffling my hair in the unsolicited manner of an over-matey geography teacher, and secondly – a surprise given SUV billing – by less than admirable all-round visibility.
Moreover, life astern is cramped by class standards. The rear seats aren’t that comfortable, and the combination of high, rising waistline and integral front headrests equate to a pretty claustrophobic formula for the young.
Which is the GLA’s best engine?
The GLA45 AMG meriting independent appraisal, a universally four-cylinder powertrain line-up offers a choice of 1.6-litre/154bhp and 2.0-litre/208bhp petrol engines, or a 2143cc turbodiesel boasting either 134bhp or 168bhp. A seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission is standard on all but base models, and all-wheel drive is available to all but the most humble petrol offering.
With diesel likely to rule the UK roost, I sampled both variants. Though lusty and boasting superbly smooth (though a trifle slow) automatic changes, the more powerful 220 CDI is unpleasantly noisy at idle, clattering like a kid running a stick along a fence, sending unpleasant vibrations through the control surfaces. All settles down at speed, however, where the GLA’s ride quality deserves special mention.
The benefit of that raised ride height is not so much in outward boundahism (although a brief bumble along a carefully prepared dried river bed proved that the GLA is entirely content to briefly bumble along a carefully prepared dried river bed) but, rather, in the extra travel it affords the springs.
Despite being allied to damping aggressive enough to keep the lofted body nicely under control when cornering, this awards the GLA a far more comfortable ride quality than the Lego-brick-on-washboard efforts of every A-class I’ve driven.
Speed-sensitive steering, though accurate enough, is hardly the last word in communication and can occasionally feel over-weighty. Handling, abetted by all-wheel drive, feels secure and pleasingly tenacious, with gratifying levels of grip and traction on offer.
Whisper who dares but, armed with that rocking-horse shit of Mercedes engineering, the six-speed manual transmission, the 200 CDI actually proves a more pleasing proposition in the driving involvement stakes. The lesser powerplant may become somewhat vocal on occasion but, easy, responsive and engaging, the whole package gels together more agreeably than any other variant I sampled.
Not as spacious aft of the B-pillar as it might be, and not nearly as clever as the original A-class, the GLA will, I feel sure, nonetheless tick enough boxes with the premium compact buying public to kill current generation A-class sales stone dead.