Mercedes GLA review
Mercedes GLA compact SUV takes on the BMW X1 and Audi Q3 – but it's much smaller, so can it compete?
Mercedes was late to the party with its GLA compact SUV, taking on already established rivals in the form of BMW X1, Audi Q3 and Range Rover Evoque. The GLA is based on the firm’s A-Class hatchback, which means it’s actually the smallest of the lot. At just 1,494mm tall it’s actually slightly shorter than a Vauxhall Astra.
The GLA’s body is a little bit larger than the A-Class though, which means improved interior and boot space giving owners more practicality. On top of this the softer suspension and taller tyres mean the GLA’s ride is more comfortable than the firm A-Class. However, the GLA hasn’t lost the A-Class’ dynamic edge, as Merc’s mini 4x4 still handles sharply, although it can’t quite keep up with the BMW X1 in the bends.
Prices start from just over £26,000 for the Sport model, the bottom rung of the GLA ladder. There are four engines on offer – two diesels and two petrols – including the entry-level GLA 200 CDI, the higher-powered GLA 220 CDI, the GLA 250 petrol and the hot GLA 45 AMG version.
In between the Sport and AMG variants there’s an AMG Line model that adds an even sharper look thanks to a more aggressive body kit, but it’s still available with the more efficient diesel engines - giving you the best of both worlds.
Four-wheel drive comes as standard on all but the GLA 200 CDI, although you can spec it as an option; the benefit is great grip in adverse conditions. A six-speed manual gearbox is only available on the base-spec car, with all other models gaining Merc’s seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
You can also opt for an off-road pack that includes a 30mm increase in ride height to improve ground clearance. However, this does soften the GLA’s sharpness on the road.
Our choice: Mercedes GLA 220 CDI Sport
Unlike its tall, SUV-inspired rivals, the Mercedes GLA looks like a family hatchback on stilts – and that’s exactly what it is. The Mercedes is more than 100mm lower than its closest competition, while the large headlamps, bold grille and curving roofline are pure A-Class.
Mercedes fits some rugged touches to the GLA, such as the plastic body cladding and wheelarches. Sport models get 18-inch alloys and aluminium roof rails, while buyers looking for a little more visual aggression can opt for the AMG Line version of the GLA, which adds different alloy wheels and a sporty, subtle bodykit.
It’s even prettier from the back – something that can’t be said about the A-Class. Visually, the GLA is a refreshing alternative to the bland-looking Audi Q3 – even after its recent facelift – and ugly BMW X1, although there’s a new version of that car on its way soon.
Step inside the GLA, and the interior design follows on from the A-Class, thanks to a dash that has been inspired by the firm’s old SLS AMG supercar. It features racy-looking dials and a tablet-style display for the infotainment system, which already features on other Mercedes models – the A-Class, B-Class and new C-Class.
However, the display’s large bezel design is now starting to look a little dated, but it’s all solidly screwed together, and generally speaking, plenty of high-grade materials are used. Sadly though, some of the plastics lower down on the dashboard look and feel a little low-rent.
Standard equipment across the range includes air conditioning, a DAB digital radio, Artico leather seats, 18-inch alloy wheels and collision prevention assist plus that applies the brakes if the car senses a crash is imminent. AMG Line models get firmer sports suspension, a body styling kit, sports seats and an uprated steering wheel.
It is worth noting that unlike its rivals, the Mercedes GLA doesn't get a high-riding driving position and in fact, with its low-slung stance, narrow windscreen and thick A-pillars, the GLA has the same hemmed-in feel as the A-Class. It’s quite tight inside.
The GLA has an extra 50mm ride height, fatter tyres, softer suspension, and the addition of bushes to the rear subframe over the A-Class. All of this makes it a much comfier car to travel in. Yes, there is a slight trade off in terms of handling compared to the lower, firmer and 40kg lighter A-Class, but it's a price well worth paying for the vastly improved ride quality.
That’s not to say the GLA doesn’t handle well, because while a BMW X1 may be slightly sharper, the Mercedes is easily a match for the Audi Q3 in the fun stakes.
The 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system, which only the manual 200 CDI model doesn't get, helps too. It is connected to a seven-speed dual clutch automatic gearbox and can send up to 50 percent of the engine’s power to the rear wheels for improved corner-exit traction.
Given its family hatchback underpinnings, it’s no surprise to find the GLA has a safe and predictable handling balance. The steering is direct, there’s surprisingly little body roll and it grips harder than an Evoque.
Like other small SUVs though, the Mercedes GLA suffers from a stiff low-speed ride, which improves the faster you’re going. Even so, the car is still prone to crash into potholes and fidget over expansion joints, but not quite as badly as its hatchback sibling.
Our other 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.
In terms of engines, the 134bhp 2.1-litre diesel 200 CDI is quick enough and is the most economical model in the Mercedes GLA range, as it returns of 67.3mpg and emits 110g/km CO2.
However, twist the key in the ignition and you’ll be left in no doubt about what type of engine is under the GLA’s bonnet. The 2.1-litre unit clatters noisily at idle, and sends vibrations through the controls and floor – it’s also gruff and strained on the move, and on the motorway things don’t really settle down either. This is a real shame, because the combination of average ride comfort and a coarse engine undermines the Mercedes’ otherwise well insulated interior.
The same 2.1-litre engine is also used in the 220 CDI, but it has 168bhp so it's noticeably quicker. However, it’s not quite as economical – it does 58.9mpg. One complaint with the diesels is they are noisy compared to the smooth 2.0-litre units found in the Audi Q3. The 2.0-litre petrol in the GLA 250 is much more refined and with 208bhp it can go from 0-62mph in 7.1 seconds – economy is still a respectable 44.1mpg.
Performance fans can opt for the GLA 45 AMG. Its 2.0-litre turbo petrol has 355bhp, which is good for 0-62mph in just 4.8 seconds. The GLA 45 also has reworked steering, suspension, a lower ride height and a different shift program for its seven-speed automatic gearbox – all of which combine to enhance the driving experience and make it a truly engaging performance car with plenty of practicality.
After a dip in quality in the nineties and early noughties, Mercedes is again one of the most reliable brands you can buy. It ranked 11th in our 2015 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey for manufacturers, with owners rating the brand’s build quality highly.
In terms of safety, Mercedes has always been ahead of the game as many of the features of its S-Class make their way onto the lower models in the range. It’s another Mercedes strength, and the GLA comes with pre-safe, which prepares you and the car for an impending accident, and collision prevention assist which automatically applies the brakes if it thinks you’re about to have a crash.
There’s also plenty of other high-tech safety kit available even if it does push up the price of the car. The result is a full five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating.
As the Mercedes GLA is based on the A-Class hatchback, it carries over that car’s decent level of practicality. For instance, its 481-litre boot is over 60 litres bigger than that on the new Audi Q3, while folding the rear seats flat frees up 1,235 litres of capacity.
With the back seats folded flat, space increases to 1,235 litres. However, the lower roofline on the GLA impedes total space slightly. There are plenty of cubby-holes dotted around the cabin and decent sized door bins, while a large rear window and the elevated driving position improves visibility over the A-Class.
It’s not all good news for the Mercedes GLA, though: the combination of small side windows and dark trim feels claustrophobic, while the front seat runners are too close together, reducing foot space for those in the back.
In the case of the front-wheel drive Mercedes GLA 200 CDI with the manual gearbox, it's a very cheap car to run. It can return 67.3mpg and has emissions of just 110kg/km CO2.
The 168bhp of the same engine has noticeably more poke, but even then, things aren't bad in terms of running costs thanks to 58.9mpg, plus 127g/km of CO2.
The most economical petrol model in the Mercedes GLA line-up is the 250, which is powered by a 208bhp 2.0-litre engine. In addition to reaching 0-62mph in an impressive 7.1 seconds, it still manages to return 44.1mpg and emit 153g/km of CO2.
In reality, it’s only the high performance Mercedes GLA 45 AMG that will be expensive to run, as it returns 37.7mpg and emits 175g/km, which actually isn’t too bad for the speed on offer.
However, if there is one problem with the GLA it’s that unlike with the Audi Q3 you can’t get it with any of the smaller engines from the A-Class range. As a result the line-up starts at a higher price point.