Given the explosive growth of the SUV and Crossover market in recent years, the only surprise about Mercedes’ entrant in the family-sized class is that it took so long to arrive. Called the GLA, which with the A suffix positions it both as the entry level model in the progression of models, and links it to the car it is based on, the production model was first shown at the 2013 Frankfurt Auto Show, going on sale in early 2014. When it did appear, it was more or less exactly what everyone was expecting. Part of the reason for that is because, as is so often the way these days, its maker had shown a concept version at the 2013 Shanghai Auto Show which was very similar to the production car, and also because was based on the third generation A Class, which had become “just” a conventional hatch, abandoning the clever but costly chassis construction that made the first two generations such a packaging marvel, so completing the family which had also gained a small saloon, the CLA, with a crossover version required not a lot more than a tougher looking body with a raised ride height and other touches to make buyers feel that they were getting some special for the extra money that Mercedes would charge for it compared to the A hatch. Unlike the CLA, which has proved to be a massive disappointment to just about everyone, the GLA got quite good reviews when launched, and Autocar magazine went as far as to suggest that they thought it would more or less kill off sales of the A hatch, as they thought buyers would choose this model in preference. That absolutely has not happened. The A Class has sold well, with the car becoming not just Mercedes’ best seller in the UK, but it now frequently appears in the “Top 10” selling cars list, whereas the GLA is much lower down the sales rankings. The regular A Class has eluded me throughout its third generation, but I have driven a couple of the CLA model, in the US, both the standard CLA250 and the monstrously powerful CLA45 AMG. Neither left me at all impressed. Whilst the CLA45 AMG was very quick, it felt like all the effort had been put on winning the bhp battle against Audi, whilst the rest of the car had been neglected, with a car which had severe packaging problems, with extremely difficult access to the rear seats, with no space once you are installed, but also build quality that produced a car with more squeaks and rattles than I can recall in a long time, an a ride which was about the worst I have ever experienced. Even that potent engine sounded awful. The regular CLA250 rode less harshly, but was otherwise just too compromised to be anything other than a car that you would buy purely for the prestige of its badge rather than because it was objectively better than any rival. When I spotted a couple of GLA models at Hertz’ LAX facility, something which you don’t see very often, I decided to select one to see for myself whether this was a more convincing offering. Both the cars on offer were in Polar White, but closer examination revealed that one was a 2016 model and the other a 2018, which meant that it incorporated a few new features that were added as part of the running set of changes that manufacturers make to their cars during their life. It also had a 4Matic badge on the back whereas the earlier car did not, and was clearly an FWD model. I had a day to find out what I thought.
I suspected that I knew the answer, or at least some of it, as in addition to being part of the Mercedes A Class family, the GLA forms the basis for Infiniti’s smallest offering the QX30, and I had sampled one of those earlier in this trip. Despite the 250 badging, the GLA uses the exact same 2 litre Turbo 4 cylinder engine, coupled to a 7 speed automatic gearbox that you get in the QX30, which is less confusingly called a 2.0T. It develops 208 bhp. That should be enough to make a car of this size feel decently rapid, but it does not. It’s not slow, either, but the impression I came away with is that were I in Europe, where the GLA is offered with a much wider choice of engines, most of them less powerful than this, then I would probably feel that the car was underpowered. The gearbox is very smooth, and there is an indicator on the dash to tell you which gear you are in, even when in Drive, something not that many cars tell you these days, so I could see when it had decided to go down a couple more gears than you might expect, to get some engine braking on hills, for instance. It was generally quite good at selecting the right ratio but at times you had to be a brutal with the right foot to get it to react, though in Sport mode this was less of an issue than when in Comfort. You needed that to wake the engine up, too, but when you did, there is enough acceleration here that you will not be embarrassed, or worried in merging situations that you cannot get going quickly enough. The hills of the Angeles Crest Highway and the Tujunga Canyon Roads where I took the test car were no particular problem for it, though you could tell from the increased noise level and by which gear you were in that there were times when the motor was working itself quite hard. Noise levels were generally well suppressed, with engine, road and tyres largely not that evident when underway, and certainly the engine here did not seem quite as gruff as it had on occasion in the Infiniti. With 6.7 gallons needed having driven 214 miles, which is a fuel consumption of 31.9 mpg US or 38.1 mpg Imperial, the Mercedes proved somewhat more economical than the Infiniti, which surprised me, as this one had to work harder on hills and had less steady speed motoring than the QX 30 did, and with little time spend in traffic, the Stop/Start system would not have delivered much in the way of benefit. The caveat to this is on both cases, the car consumed less than a full tank, so I have no idea how close to the fuel cut-off either really was when I first received them. The other driving dynamics were perfectly OK, but nothing really stood out, good or bad, this feeling like a pretty run-of-the-mill sort of hatchback, rather than an SUV. The steering is weighted to give adequate feel, and the GLA corners more like a slightly taller hatchback, which of course it is, rather than a true SUV, so that means that you can relish those swooping bends on the roads I took it on. There is decent grip, not much body roll and moderate understeer. The test car had the 4Matic all-wheel drive system. This is a permanent feature, so you cannot switch it in our out. What you can do is select from the various Driving Models which are offered through the Infotainment system. Like many cars these days, there are several, with lots of permutations, some of which probably make only rather marginal differences, but in essence you are opting with some of them to sharpen up the throttle response, steering weight and the gearchange in exchange for a bit of comfort and relaxed gait. I certainly did not try all that was on offer, as it would take ages to make meaningful comparisons of what real effects the settings make. Left in default mode, which is what I suspect most owners will do, all was good enough. The ride in this car, on its 235/50 R18 wheels was pliant enough, though relatively firm but certainly with none of the bone-jarring discomfort of that CLA 45 AMG. And equally there were no issues with the brakes which seemed to do their job well. An electronic handbrake features, a button in the dash to the left of the wheel. One thing the GLA does a bit better than the Infiniti is visibility, though not by very much. The rear three quarter over the shoulder view in that car was the problem, and it is a bit better here, though again there are thick C pillars which don’t help. Standard for 2018 is a rear-view camera and the test car had blind spot monitoring, which was useful, though if you pulled off the road, it always illuminated whether there was anything coming or not, which I thought less than helpful. Otherwise, seeing out of the GLA and positioning it on the road was not that challenging.
The dash layout of the GLA is very similar to that of the QX 30, and – having checked with my records – is absolutely identical to that in the CLA Class. It is disappointing to report that whilst nothing squeaked or rattled, the build quality of this car was somewhat unimpressive, with many of the individual components feeling cheap. Gone are the days when a Mercedes gave you the impression it was hewn from granite and would last for ever. This one, like many other models in the range is all about glitz rather than true substance. The dash was trimmed in black on the upper surface with the lower in the sort of oatmeal colour that matches the upholstery and there was a sizeable inlay which looked like it was made from a milled aluminium, until you touched it and realised it was completely flat. Five circular air vents – and these were the items which felt particularly cheap and ill-fitting, are used, with three in the centre of the car below the infotainment screen which looks just like an iPad stuck on as an after-thought. We will come to that. The dials, of which there are two, are grouped together under a single cowl with small fuel and water temperature gauges set in the lower portion of the speedo and rev counter respectively. There is a small digital display area between the two for trip computer functions, and you cycle between the options using buttons on the left hand steering wheel spoke. The right hand spoke has the audio repeater buttons on it. Cruise control is from a shorter stalk to the lower left of the wheel, with a larger one higher up, and where your hand naturally finds it, which operates the indicators, and by twisting the end, the wipers. This is because – following current Mercedes practice – where you would expect to find the right hand stalk, there is the column gearlever. This is easy to use, with options limited to pulling down for Drive, and up for Reverse, with Park set by pressing in the end. There are column paddles for those who want to select their own gears. That big display screen – updated in 2018 spec – is just a screen. It is not touch sensitive, you operate all the functions it displays using either the control wheel and buttons in the centre console, where they are set well back, or with buttons and knobs on the dash, below the three central air vents. It is intuitive enough to use, though like all these set-ups, more complex that the old style way of doing things. To change from a pre-set station on one waveband to another, for instance, you have to make several selections. I clicked on the Navigation tab, only to get a screen pointing out that it was not fitted – a sure fire way of reminding customers that they cheaped out on an option box! There is dual zone climate control and there are knobs and buttons for this set low in the centre of the dash. Starting the car is keyless, with a button, which felt more securely attached than those in the CLA models I drove had done, to the right of the wheel.
The seats looked like they were leather, but this turned out to be leatherette, a man-made alternative, but the material seemed to be of decent quality, and they were not like those awful vinyl seats of my childhood, even though conceptually, they are not that different. The oatmeal colour was nice and light, and combined with a large panoramic glass sunroof, there was plenty of brightness inside the car. Adjustment, in 14 ways, apparently, is electric, with the controls on the door, as is the Mercedes way, except for the lumbar support, which is on the side of the seat, and you can pull out the front cushion for under-thigh support if you have really long legs (I don’t). Seat heating was fitted. The wheel telescopes in and out as well as up/down. The seat proved comfortable, and although this is a vehicle with a raised ride height, it felt perfectly “normal” both to get into and once installed. You do need to think of the GLA as tall-riding hatchback, and not an SUV, and judge the available amount of room in it accordingly. Space in the back would be fine for two adults, tight for three. There is only a modest central tunnel. Legroom gets in short supply if you set the front seats well back, but it not, then there is ample, and headroom should not be an issue. There is a central drop=down armrest with cupholders that pull out of the front face. When you release the boot lid, it raises with electric assistance, as well as using this for closure. Note that the tailgate does not rise that high, so you need to watch your head when standing underneath it. The boot is a relatively modest size, though you would be able to make use of the space under the floor, as there is no spare wheel there, leaving place for lots of bits and pieces. The rear seat backrests simply drop down, to create a longer load platform. Oddments space in the cabin is limited. There is a rather small glovebox, bins on all four doors, and there is a cubby under the central armrest. The cover for this slides and if it is set well forward, it is all but impossible to reach the release latch. Those in the back are particularly ill=provided for with just some rather pokey bins on the doors, a little surprising considering this is supposed to be a versatile family car.
Whilst there are number of different engine options available to European buyers of the GLA, in the US, the 2018 Mercedes-Benz GLA comes in just two main trim levels: the base GLA250 and the AMG GLA 45. The GLA250 4Matic is the all-wheel-drive version of the standard model. The standard Mercedes GLA250 starts at $33,400 and comes with leatherette seating, a 14-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, a power liftgate, dual-zone automatic climate control, HD Radio, Bluetooth, two USB ports, remote start, an infotainment system with an 8-inch display, a rearview camera, push-button start, rain-sensing windshield wipers, automatic emergency braking, and a driver drowsiness monitor, though it you want the increasingly popular Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, these cost and extra $350. The GLA 4Matic ($35,400) retains the same features and options availability as the base model, while adding a few upgrades related to the added all-wheel-drive system. These include downhill speed regulation, an off-road drive mode, and an off-road driving display. Like all Mercedes models, there is an extensive list of available options, some of which are grouped together into various “packages””. For $2,300, you can get AMG sport styling with body pieces, AMG wheels, and upgraded brakes. A panoramic moonroof costs $1,480, and LED headlights and taillights are available for $850. If you want leather seats, you’ll have to purchase the $1,700 Interior package, which also includes sport front seats and ambient cabin lighting. The $1,800 Premium package includes blind spot monitoring, proximity-key entry, heated front seats, and satellite radio. $2,300 will get you the Multimedia package, which comes with navigation, voice command activation, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay. Those smartphone integration features are available by themselves for $350, and other individual options include navigation ($625), heated front seats ($580), proximity-key entry ($550), and a Harman Kardon premium sound system ($850). Several driver assistance and advanced safety technologies are also available. A Driver Assistance package of lane keep assist and adaptive cruise control costs $1,500. You can also get the $1,400 Parking Assist package, which includes a 360-degree camera and automatic parking function. The high-performance Mercedes-AMG GLA retails for $50,600. Its upgrades over the standard GLA include a 375-horsepower engine, a quicker-shifting transmission, all-wheel drive, paddle shifters, a sport suspension, a sport exhaust, and performance brakes. There are a few appearance and styling packages available, and you can option many of the same features and amenities like you can for a regular GLA. If you want to increase the AMG GLA’s performance even further, go with the $2,800 Dynamic Plus package. It comes with a race/track driving mode, a higher top speed, limited-slip differential, and an adjustable sport suspension.
Three questions pose themselves in summarising the GLA250: Is it better than the CLA? How does it compare to the Infiniti QX30? and, most importantly, Is it a good car? The answer to the first one is easy. It is a “Yes”. But then the base was so low there that ticking this one off was not hard. Although much of the underpinnings are the same, the fact that you can actually get in the back of this one and sit there in some comfort means that even without regard to anything else, the GLA beats the CLA. Is it better than the Infiniti? Not so easy to provide a dogmatic answer here. Much of the two cars is the same, so this one may come down to personal taste. I like the look of the QX30 better, and the fact that it will be cheaper to buy would probably clinch it for me, but I can understand those who would prefer a Three Pointed Star instead. And is this actually a Good Car? I have to say “not really”. It is not a bad one, far from it, but given the array of market competitors, is the GLA the one that I would want above all others? Err, No. The car of the moment in this class is the Volvo XC40, which I have yet to sample, but on paper it looks promising, and a new Audi Q3 is only a few weeks away, and is likely to be a very impressive machine indeed. BMW’s latest X1 is, by all accounts, a much better car than the first effort, and for those who are prepared to buy on merit rather than perceived badge prestige, the Seat Ateca and Nissan Qashqai (Rogue Sport in America) are excellent products, as is the Skoda Karoq. I would eschew badge snobbery and pick one of those were I in the market for a car like this. Let’s hope that the next generation GLA, due in the next few months, following the recent unveiling of the fourth generation A Class, has the real substance to match the reputation of the marque in the way that this one does not.