Compared with its predecessor, Mercedes-Benz's 2nd-generation rival to the Audi Q2 and BMW X2 emphasises its crossover role a whole lot more. Our international correspondent Greg Kable got behind the wheel of the new GLA, which will appear in South African showrooms shortly...
The first GLA was undoubtedly a success from its launch in 2014; Mercedes sold 1 million units worldwide. However, with all the marketing nonsense that surrounded it stripped away, the high-riding hatchback was, in essence, not much more than a re-bodied version of the 3rd-generation A-Class – the claim to it being a genuine crossover was somewhat empty (in terms of the model's function).
This new one is different, however – and all the better for it. Developed as part of an 8-strong line-up of compact Mercedes-Benz models, it has been given the necessary design and engineering scope to evolve into a much more rounded and talented rival to the Audi Q2 and BMW X2.
While the mechanical similarities to its lower-riding sibling remain, a whole host of unique touches help not only to provide the 2nd-generation GLA with a more standalone character, but to instil the car with the inherent qualities to make it more appealing on many fronts...
The new GLA is a larger car than previously, especially in the height department.
Before we get into the finer points of the GLA driving experience, though, we should consider its altered form. Styling is always subjective, so we’ll sidestep judgement on the new GLA’s bolder appearance. What you should know, however, is that its dimensions have changed: length has been reduced (by 14 mm) to 4 410 mm, while width extends (by 30 mm) to 1 834 mm and the height has increased (by a considerable 104 mm) to 1 611 mm... and that's without the optional roof rails.
By comparison, the Q2 is 4 191-mm long, 1 794-mm wide and 1 508-mm high, while the BMW X2 stretches to a respective 4 360 mm, 1 824 mm and 1 526 mm. Don’t think the reduction in length has greatly reduced its versatility, though. With a 30 mm-longer wheelbase (2 729 mm), the newcomer's interior has grown in size, notably in the rear, where it’s now considerably roomier than before.
At its global launch, the GLA will be offered with a pair of 4-cylinder turbopetrol engines and a single 4-cylinder -diesel engine across 7 derivatives; Mzansi will initially introduce the GLA 200 and 200d.
What's on offer?
The GLA range features both front-wheel-drive and 4Matic all-wheel-drive versions.
The entry point is the front-wheel-drive GLA 200, which utilises a Renault-sourced turbocharged 1.3-litre petrol unit that delivers 120 kW and 250 Nm. It’s joined by the initial range-topping GLA 250 (in front- and four-wheel-drive guises); its turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol develops peak outputs of 165 kW and 350 Nm. The two turbodiesel models, both with the choice of front- or four-wheel drive, use the same turbocharged 2.0-litre 4-cylinder powerplant, but in different states of tune. It has 110 kW and 320 Nm in the SA-bound GLA 200d, while it produces 140 kW and 400 Nm in the GLA 220d. The GLA 200 is fitted with a standard 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission supplied by Getrag, while all other new GLA derivatives receive an 8-speed dual-clutch transmission built by Mercedes.
It’s the top-of-the-line GLA 250 4Matic we’re in here, and the similarities to other recent new Mercedes-Benz models can’t be denied. Inside, the fascia, controls and free-standing digital display will be familiar to anyone who has set foot in the latest A-Class hatchback, A-Class Sedan, B-Class, or CLA.
Intuitive user interface
Our highly equipped test car featured optional 10.2-inch twin displays, along with a multicolour head-up display unit in place of the pair of standard 7.0-inch screens, which gave it a rather upmarket air that’s further accentuated by 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 touchscreen functions within easy reach of the steering wheel, it’s quite intuitive, too. The response from the infotainment system and MBUX operating system is particularly impressive, making it easy to set commands on the go.
The MBUX infotainment system is carried over from the A-Class.
Befitting the GLA’s crossover positioning, its front seats are mounted 140 mm higher than those in the A-Class hatchback. In combination with its increased ride height, this provides the GLA with a more commanding driving position. The added height within the body also brings a 22-mm increase in front headroom compared with 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 but, as with the latest B-Class and the new GLB, there’s an optional bench with 140 mm of fore and aft adjustment and, crucially, 116 mm more rear legroom than before. Longer door apertures with less intrusion from the rear wheel arches also ease entry to the 2nd row, although rear headroom has been reduced by 6 mm, due to the new GLA’s more sloped roofline.
Despite the decrease in overall length, Mercedes has managed to squeeze an extra 14 litres of load volume into the load bay, which, with a capacity of 435 litres, now offers 30 litres more than the Q2, but still 35 litres less than the X2.
What's it like to drive?
Out on the road, the GLA 250’s engine provides solid performance. It never feels quite as refined as the 2.0 TSI unit in the Q2, nor as smooth 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 Benz crossover with purposeful off-the-line and mid-range acceleration, as reflected in its claimed 0-100 kph time of 6.7 sec.
Scrolling through the various driving modes alters the powertrain's 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.
With the new A-Class chassis underneath, the drive is far more refined.
Gear shifts, which can be controlled via steering-wheel-mounted paddles, are generally quite decisive, but the transmission can sometimes be caught out as you step off the throttle in automatic mode, leading to the odd less-than-smooth downshift as you decelerate to an intersection. With quite long gearing, it also endows the GLA 250 4Matic with a reasonable, if not outstanding, combined fuel economy figure of 5.8 L/100 km.
It’s the chassis and the improvements to the ride and handling that really stand out, though. The basis for this is the updated MFA platform, which brings increased rigidity and stiffness, as well as a decision to provide all-new GLA derivatives 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 30-mm increase in the wheelbase, the tracks have also been widened by 36 mm at the front and 46 mm at the rear, giving the new GLA a larger footprint than its predecessor and, in combination with increased volume to the wheelhouses, the ability to offer a wider range of alloy wheel sizes, from the standard 17-inch up to 20-inch.
To this, the GLA 250 4Matic adds a reworked multi-plate-clutch four-wheel-drive system with electromechanical 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% front/20% rear split, while in Sport mode it’s set up to deliver a more rear-biased (30% front, 70% rear) apportioning of the drive. In Off-road mode, it offers an evenly balanced 50/50 front/rear split.
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 post a greater challenge to its premium-brand rivals. The weighting of the electromechanical steering is quite light, but the action is precise, even if it fails to impart much in the way of genuine road feel.
Boot space is in the middle between the smaller Q2 and slightly larger X2.
Despite its raised ride height, the GLA 250 4Matic also manages fine body control and engaging agility. Quick directional changes are met with progressive movements and excellent levels of grip. There’s 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 largest wheel choice and 225/45 R20 Bridgestone Alenza tyres of our test car. Road noise is also well isolated from the cabin. In fact, overall refinement has been greatly improved, which makes the GLA well suited to enjoyable long-distance travel.
The G in the GLA name stands for the German word Gelände, meaning terrain. And having experienced the new GLA away from the bitumen, we can vouch for the limited off-road qualities of the 4Matic derivatives, which come as standard with an Off-Road Engineering Package.
The new GLA has a lot more off-road cred than before.
Without the benefit of proper off-road tyres and mechanical differential locks, the new GLA is never going to take you deep into the jungle or the desert. However, 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 mode that alters the intervention of the anti-lock braking system, multibeam LED headlights with an integrated off-road function and a moderate amount of ground clearance – does help it go places few prospective owners are ever likely to consider.
Mercedes-Benz deserves to be complimented on the new GLA. It’s a far more rounded and accomplished car than its predecessor, with greater dynamism and maturity to the way it feels to drive. What's more, it offers a considerably richer and roomier interior and improved levels of versatility and quality throughout.
However, we suspect the ownership experience will hinge greatly on the drivetrain. In four-wheel-drive GLA 250 4Matic guise, it’s convincingly powerful and punchy, with distinct sporting qualities. But we’ll need to spend time in more affordable front-wheel-drive derivatives before we can say if the new GLA has truly hit the target.