Test Drive: Mercedes-Benz GLA 220 CDI image

The Mercedes compact family has a new member – the adventurous GLA crossover. That means the lower-end of the luxury automaker’s lineup consists of the A, B, CLA and GLA models. No wonder the German carmaker has achieved spectacular sales results lately.

Back in 2005, Mercedes lost its perpetual leadership position to its Bavarian rivals from BMW and then slipped into third behind Audi in 2011. Since then, the Stuttgart-based automaker vowed to recapture the world’s luxury leadership. How? With an unprecedented model offensive and a complete makeover of its design language. The four-model line-up in the compact segment, the fact that Mercedes now has five SUVs are clear examples. And just by looking at the GLA is sufficient what they meant when they changed their styling. Actually, in my opinion, of the three Big 3 premium German automakers, surprisingly I consider Mercedes to be the most dynamic when it comes to exterior styling. That’s because the automaker has discarded its very traditional German style – which offered a solid feel and understated power, but generally lacked any “modjo.” And that’s especially true if you watch the new model introductions, such as the GLA and C Class.

And the compact crossover might hit the sweet spot with European and US customers – the compact and subcompact segments have been booming (frankly, all the SUVs. Crossovers and pickup trucks are in high demand today), with customers eagerly snatching both premium and mass-market offerings. The advantage is leaning towards Mercedes when it comes to GLA’s rivals – the Audi Q3, BMW X1 are both older and the Land Rover Discovery Sport is not on sale yet.

Design, Interior and Gadgets
First off, because of the styling of the exterior, you won’t say the GLA is a crossover with SUV-like capabilities: it’s very dynamic, has a sleek allure and you might imagine yourself going to the Opera easily, not hiking on mountain trails and forest paths. Appearances can be deceiving though, the GLA has an optional all-wheel drive system – the 4Matic and good off-road angles: 15,8 entry and 21,5 exit – enough when you consider the free ride height is just 134 mm. It won’t stand a chance against the X1 for example as the BMW has a 179 mm height but if you take it into consideration the GLA could take you in places you didn’t imagine going.

The tested model was also in a class of its own, being equipped with AMG perks – a different front bumper and huge – astonishingly beautiful – 19-inch rims. Disregarding the price difference, I would easily succumb to GLA’s charm and choose it over its A Class sibling (we could say it’s the “bigger” brother, since the platform has been adopted by the GLA, not the other way around) just for the added panache. Although the A Class is a great package, it’s easy to understand why so many customers go for the more expensive but also more appealing crossover option. Up front, the A and GLA share many common styling traits, but when it comes to the back, the crossover has the upper hand. The BMW and Audi rivals should take notes from this 180 degrees turn Mercedes has done – traditional luxury should not be dull and uninteresting, especially since it usually costs an arm and a leg.

Seeing the compact GLA being so… compact, one might imagine that it’s not a very comfortable car for the rear passengers. But, with the convention that in the segment you rarely find a car that can seat in great conditions three adults (the Lancia Delta comes in mind, but that’s rarer than a live dinosaur), you’ll find the GLA is spacious enough for two persons. And the design of the front and back seats is absolutely stunning – besides being truly sporty and fashionable – all at once. Head room is no an issue and knee room is more than enough thanks to the clever front seats that slim down at the bottom half. I started talking about the back of the interior because seeing the car from outside I had my reserves. The two front seats, a combination of Alcantara and black leather stitched in a matching color with the exterior are comfortable on long hauls and offer good lateral support – although not as much as you might imagine after seeing them for the first time.

My only problem with the interior is that the dashboard an instrument cluster are identical to the ones you would find in the CLA four-door coupe and almost identical to the A Class (fortunately, there are different material choices to select from). Apart from understanding the cost cutting measures and the unity in design, it’s not ideal to have a premium ride that looks exactly the same as another model from the brand. Well, this is the power of globalization and at least if you own more than one Mercedes in the family switching between cars would be kids play.

Engine, Transmission and Handling
The GLA 220 CDI version is equipped with the well-known Mercedes-Benz 2.1-litre diesel – an offering that has been around for what seems like ages. And it shows. Starting with the most annoying aspect, we can say the engine is not a real luxury unit – even the soundproofing fails to lower its “voice” across the range. Although some might consider the “grunt” coming from the front as a dynamic adage, we really don’t think a diesel should make its decibels present when in a four-cylinder configuration. Nobler six or eight setups are more excusable if “vocally” tuned properly. The GLA’s “heart” was only interesting when the engine didn’t reach its optimal temperature, as the sound was openly mechanical and masculine. Then, with just 170 hp the 220 CDI falls behind the Audi Q3 2.0 TDI with 177 hp and BMW’s X1 xDrive20d that churns out 184 hp.

Fortunately, the package is rounded off by the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and the new 4Matic all-wheel drive transmission. Spearing you the technicalities, it features a fully variable torque distribution, it’s light and efficient – so we get increased safety and lower fuel consumption. The driver can’t interfere with the way power is distributed to the wheels, with its only SUV-reminiscent options being the integrated DSR (Downhill Speed Regulation) and the off-road transmission mode that can be activated from buttons on the centre console. If you activate the latter, the all-wheel drive system and gearbox will react in a way that enhance performance and safety on light off-road terrain and particularly loose surfaces. With the test period crossed by an early breakthrough of the upcoming winter, I can safely say the loose surfaces pattern is handled well by the 4Matic and DCT gearbox, with the transmission sending promptly power to the rear wheels as well.

Although the GLA has a less stiff suspension setup, dynamic driving is possible thanks to the good torque delivered by the engine, swift gearbox changes and assist from the all-wheel drive. The steering is not particularly impressive, with an artificial feel when you rotate the wheel, but it’s more precise and direct than you would expect, allowing for great fun if you encounter twisty bends. Performance is good, with a 62 mph (100 km/h) sprint handled in 8,3 seconds and a top speed of 215 km/h. Even though the 220 CDI with 4Matic is the top of the line when it comes to the diesel line-up for the GLA, it’s a great long haul companion – with an average fuel consumption of just 4,9 L/100 km (48 mpg). When inside the city, don’t expect stellar fuel economy, but thanks to the good torque and Start/Stop system you won’t have to worry that much. The GLA is a good all-rounder when it comes to driving: it’s nimble enough for city traffic, powerful enough to take you in long journeys with a full passenger complement and can even indulge in mild off-roading or hill climb sprints. Hey, what do you know, the GLA actually perfectly fits what a crossover should be and this is one reason I think the company is going to see great sales results across the European and US regions.

Pro: The styling of the latest design language, added functionality over the A Class hatchback, AMG line with superb front and back seats, 4Matic all-wheel drive option.

Against: Of course, all the nice perks come at a price that would see the GLA match a middle-class sedan, engine that is both noisy and less powerful than what the rivals offer.

Starting price – GLA 180 CDI – 30.256 EUR
Tested Car – GLA 220 CDI 4Matic 7G-DCT – 32,862 EUR

Engine: 2,2L turbo diesel (2,143 cc)
Power: 170 HP (125 kW) at 3,400-4,000 rpm
Torque: 350 Nm at 1,400-3,400 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic

Dimensions: length – 4,417 mm, width – 1,804 mm, height – 1,494 mm, wheelbase – 2,699 mm
Weight: 1,595 kg
Fuel Tank Capacity: 56L
Trunk Capacity: 421L / 1,235L

0 – 100 km/h: 8,3s
Top Speed: 215 km/h
Fuel consumption: urban – 5,9L/100 km, highway – 4,4L/100 km, average – 4,9L/100 km

4.6 / 5

Photos: Gabi Gogiu