In the luxury SUV space, Mercedes has a huge void below the Rs 55 lakh ML 250 CDI in which rivals like Audi, BMW, Land Rover and even Volvo have swooped in with smaller and cheaper SUVs. The big worry for Mercedes is that it is losing out on a new breed of affluent, first-time luxury SUV buyers who would typically move up the ladder with the same brand when it's time to upgrade. Which is why the launch of the Mercedes GLA due on September 30 won’t come a day too soon.
What is it?
In sharp contrast to the imposing GL, the boxy G-class and the solid looking M-class, the GLA stands at the opposite end of Mercedes’ SUV spectrum and when you walk up to it, it's quite obvious that Mercedes has deliberately avoided creating something that looks tough and rugged.The silhouette is more swoopy than upright and the rising beltline that kicks up at the rear to converge into the raked C-pillar and sloping roofline gives it a sleekness you don’t associate with an SUV.
There can be no doubt that the GLA is more of a crossover than a pukka SUV. In terms of dimensions too, the GLA is the size of a luxury hatchback but the crossover treatment of plastic cladding for the doorsills and wheelarches, aluminium roof rails and chrome scuff guards makes it look much larger than it is. What gives the GLA its quasi-SUV credentials are the large 18-inch wheels and 183mm ground clearance.
What’s the cabin like?
The GLA’s interiors are identical to the A-class and that’s no bad thing. You get the same high grade materials and fit and finish that bowled us over when we first tested Merc’s baby hatch. The plastics feel like they’ve come from more expensive Mercs and bits like the metallic-finish plastic strip that runs across the dashboard is an example of the top-class materials used all over.
The driving position is good and the extra height of the GLA over other compact Mercs makes a perceptible difference with visibility. You sit taller and the view of the road is better too.
The rear seats feel disappointingly cramped. The seats, though well-cushioned, are short on under thigh support and the back rest angle is a touch too upright which also compromises comfort.
In comparison to the small cabin, the boot is quite generous and can swallow upto 421 litres of luggage.
The GLA will initially come with one trim level each for the petrol and diesel variant and both will be generously equipped with standard features like a panoramic roof, a Harman Kardon sound system, tyre pressure monitoring control and a raft of safety features, which include seven airbags and electronic nannies like Anti-Skid Regulation (ASR) anti-lock brakes(ABS) and Brake Assist System (BAS) are all standard. For a carmaker obsessed with safety for over a century, this is one area where Mercedes hasn’t stinted.
How does it drive?
Prod the throttle pedal and the GLA 200 takes off with a sense of urgency and performance from the get go is strong thanks to the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo-petrol unit which develops a healthy 181bhp.
Acceleration is pretty strong with the 0-100kph dash clipped in a smidgen over 8 seconds. There’s no let up in shove and 160kph is despatched in a brisk 21.41 seconds.
The strong mid-range of this motor makes everyday driving quite effortless and perfectly suits the role of a crossover urban SUV. Performance is pretty impressive on the highway too where the GLA 200 cruises quite adeptly, with strong overtaking capability just a flex of the right foot away.
But don’t ask too much of this engine. It doesn’t like being revved and starts protesting quite audibly when you near its modest 6,100rpm redline.
Also, the seven-speed DCT transmission is not the smoothest and though Mercedes has improved the way its shifts by tweaking its electronics, it still feels a bit clunky.
With just the front wheels putting down all the power and torque, there’s a fair bit of torque steer under hard acceleration and on uneven roads, the GLA tram lines quite a bit too. For the Indian market, the GLA comes with only front-wheel-drive and there’s no 4Matic option for now. That’s a bit of a shame because with all-wheel-drive, you could certainly make better use of the power on wet and uneven roads. However, the thinking is that since the GLA will be used mainly in cities there’s no real need for the extra hardware (and cost).
The large wheels, increased wheel travel and softer suspension give the GLA a comfortable ride but the big surprise is how adept it is off-road.
Despite riding on strictly tarmac tyres and driven by just the front two wheels, the GLA clambered up a muddy track with remarkable ease.
Back on tarmac, the GLA continued to impress with the confidence it gave on an undulating and gently winding road. The steering isn’t crisp or full of feel but it weights up with a nice consistency and is fairly accurate.
The overall impression after a long drive in the GLA is that there’s a maturity in the way it handles and it feels nicely tied down.
With the monsoons leaving roads in complete disrepair, there’s no better time to examine the ride comfort of any car. And there’s no better place than the highways of Maharashtra where smooth tarmac suddenly gives way to a patch that looks like it's been nuked. Mild bumps and broken roads are dispatched quite effortlessly but the ride is not quite flawless. Deeper potholes crash through and the GLA skitters over sharper ridges too. The overall ride quality maybe quite acceptable to most owners but the fact is that these compact Mercs just don’t deliver the premium and majestic comfort of the bigger Mercedes sedans.
Should I buy one?
The GLA’s most obvious rivals are the BMW X1 and the Audi Q3. While the X1 is still a more entertaining car to drive and the Q3 is more practical and a truer SUV with its famed Quattro system, neither of them quite has the GLA’s style and upmarket looks.
If you want the image of a premium SUV without the worry of driving something too expensive and cumbersome, the GLA, with an estimated ex-showroom (Delhi) price of Rs 35 lakh could be the next sweet spot for Mercedes.