It's claimed that the new Mercedes GLA 2014 is an SUV – albeit a small one – but during our first stint behind the wheel, while we were busy enjoying its raised driving position, we were passed by a Vauxhall Astra that was actually taller! The GLA is also dwarfed by the Audi Q3, which is 10cm higher. Does this mean Mercedes has got the GLA all wrong?
By branding it an SUV, maybe – but there’s no doubt the company has come up with an interesting alternative to normal premium hatchbacks. Indeed, the GLA is arguably the car the Mercedes A-Class should have been in the first place.
For starters, where the A-Class crashes, bangs and fidgets over bumps, the GLA deals with them in a far more civilised, and far more ‘Mercedes’ manner. This is down to the ride height – which is raised by 50mm – plus the fatter tyres, softer suspension and the addition of bushes to the rear subframe.
Yes, this means it doesn’t handle quite as well as the lower, firmer and 40kg lighter A-Class. But it’s a price worth paying for the vastly improved comfort. And the GLA still feels suitably agile.
Plus, the 4MATIC all-wheel drive, which features on all but the manual 200 CDI model, can send up to 50 per cent of the engine’s power to the back wheels for improved traction.
Our only real complaint with the driving experience is the unnatural way the variable power-assisted steering suddenly weights up as you apply more lock in tighter turns. This isn’t a deal breaker, though, and neither is the fact that the 2.1-litre diesel in our 220 CDI is grumbly under acceleration. Or that the standard-fit seven-speed dual-clutch transmission hesitates on downshifts.
At a cruise, the GLA is impressively refined, with the cabin well insulated against wind and road noise. There are plenty of high-quality materials inside, too, and it’s only lower down that the plastics betray the new GLA’s lowly status in the Mercedes range.
Then there’s the practicality. With 481 litres of space, the boot is over 40 per cent bigger than the A-Class’, and leaves the Q3 and BMW X1’s trailing, too. A square shape, tiny load lip and wide tailgate make loading easy, and with the back seats folded flat, space increases to 1,235 litres. Put them up and rear passengers have plenty of room.
Only if you specify the optional panoramic sunroof will taller adults have a problem, as it eats into headroom. This, and the way the large rear wheelarches restrict access slightly, are the only things affecting the GLA’s usability.
Plus, when we tried a version with 30mm higher suspension on a short off-road course, we found it surprisingly capable. This set-up is available as part of a pack, which won’t be offered in the UK until the end of the year. It includes an off-road program for the stability control and all-wheel-drive system. But while the raised ride height is great for speed bumps, it does affect handling slightly.
The off-road suspension also makes the GLA look more like an SUV. But really, you should just ignore what the brand’s marketing department says and simply think of the GLA as a stylish, practical and comfortable premium hatchback. One that feels like a proper Mercedes.