The Mercedes GLA is a small SUV designed to take on the BMW X1 and Audi Q3. However, standing just 1494mm tall, it’s actually slightly shorter than an Vauxhall Astra and therefore dwarfed by an Audi Q3 which is 1608mm tall.
The GLA is based on the Mercedes A-Class platform, however, its bigger body means improved interior and boot space while fatter tyres and softer suspension makes for a more comfortable ride. Despite the softer set up the GLA still handles sharply though it can’t quite match a BMW X1 for outright cornering.
The Mercedes GLA is available with four engines: two diesels and two petrols including a 2.0-litre turbo with 355bhp in the high performance GLA 45 AMG. All but the entry-level car gets Mercedes 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system and this gives the GLA impressive grip in the wet and reasonable of off-road ability. This can be enhanced with an optional off-road pack which includes an increase in the ride height of 30mm, though this upgrade does impair the on-road agility.
Our choice: Mercedes GLA 220 CDI
Mercedes bills the GLA as an SUV, but really it looks more like a big hatchback. And that’s exactly what it is. The design follows on from the A-Class but in some ways the styling is more cohesive on the larger GLA.
It’s especially pretty 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 and ugly BMW X1. Inside, the design follows on from the A-Class, with a dash that has been inspired by the SLS AMG, racy-looking dials and the tablet-style display for the infotainment system already seen in the A-Class and B-Class.
However, the display’s large bezel design is now starting to look a little dated in light of the new slim-line iPad Air. The Mercedes GLA is available in two trim levels: SE and AMG Line.
Standard equipment across the range includes air conditioning, digital radio, Artico leather seats, 18-inch alloy wheels and a collision prevention assist which 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.
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 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, which only the manual 200CDI model doesn't get, helps too. It is connected to a 7-Speed dual clutch automatic gearbox and can send up to 50 percent of the engine’s power to the rear wheels for improved corner exiting traction.
Our only 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 200 CDI is quick enough and is the most economical model capable of 62.8mpg and 119 g/km CO2. The same 2.1-litre engine is used in the 220 CDI only it has 168bhp so is noticeably quicker. However, it’s not quite as economical – it does 55.4mpg.
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 GLA250 is much more refined and with 208bhp it can go from 0-62mph in 7.1 seconds, yet economy is still a respectable 42.8mpg.
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 GLA45 also has reworked steering, suspension, a lower ride height and a different shift program for its 7-Speed automatic gearbox - all of which combine to enhance the driving experience and make it a truly engaging performance car.
After a dip in quality in the Nineties and Noughties, Mercedes is again one of the most reliable brands you can buy. It achieved an impressive 5th place finish in the 2013 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey – five places ahead of Audi and 10 ahead of BMW.
The GLA was too new to feature in the study, but given the performance of the Mercedes brand as a whole, it seems likely to do well in next year's results. 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.
As with the A-Class, 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 a collision is imminent.
There’s also plenty of other high-tech safety kit available even if it does add a lot to the price of the car. And although the GLA has not yet been crash tested by Euro NCAP, the smaller A-Class on which it is based achieved a full five star rating.
With 481 litres of space, the boot is more than 40 per cent bigger than in the A-Class and bigger than that of the BMW X1 and Audi Q3 as well. A square shape, minimal load lip and wider tailgate makes loading heavy objects easy.
With the back seats folded flat, space increases to 1,235 litres, which is slightly less than in the X1 and Q3 – the lower roofline on the GLA impeding total space slightly. There are plenty of cubby spaces dotted around the cabin and decent sized door bins, while a large rear window and the elevated driving position improve visibility over the A-Class.
There is more space in the back seats too. Only if you select the optional panoramic sunroof will taller adults have a problem, as it eats into headroom. This, and how the large rear wheel arches restrict access slightly, are the only things which affect the GLA's otherwise respectable practicality.
In the case of the front-wheel-drive manual 200 CDI, the GLA is a very cheap car to run. It can return 62.8mpg and has emissions of just 119kg/km CO2, which puts it on a par with the most efficient BMW X1 and betters anything in the Audi Q3 range.
Really, it’s only the high performance GLA 45 AMG which will be expensive. 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 range starts at a higher price point. However, like for like, the GLA is still competitively priced next to a BMW X1 or Audi Q3 with a similar engine and specification.
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