The Mercedes-Benz GLA is a crossover version of the A-Class – it’s the sort of car that buyers seem to want, and with 55.4mpg, it’s economical, so should you buy one?
The GLA has many similarities with the A-Class as, in essence, the GLA is a high-riding A-Class. You can read the review of the A-Class here, and you can also read the review of the 78.5mpg A 180 CDI ECO here.
The GLA shares the platform of the A-Class, and you can opt for a front-wheel drive version, or all-wheel drive – as per the 4Matic car we tested. However even the all-wheel drive system is front-wheel drive most of the time, only transforming to all-wheel drive when wheel slippage occurs.
The engine in the GLA220 is Mercedes’ 2143cc turbodiesel. This is mated to a 7-speed dual clutch automatic, controlled by a stalk on the right hand side of the steering column. This results in lots of storage space where you would normally expect to find the gear lever.
The interior is all familar A-Class, and the exterior also has a very close resemblance.
The big idea behind the GLA is to offer a Mercedes-like driving experience in a compact SUV format. The GLA may be perceived as a premium compact SUV, but this diesel engine doesn’t assist with this image as it’s not the most refined of units and it’s not as flexible as you would imagine an engine with a 168bhp power output would be. Responses from standstill aren’t instant – which isn’t helpful when needing to pull out of junctions in a hurry – the steering isn’t particularly sharp, and the ride can feel somewhat brittle.
Also, the automatic transmission isn’t the quickest shifting of units. You can use the steering-wheel mounted paddles to change gear manually, but whether you change manually or automatically, you’re often left with not being in the right gear at the right time.
The gear selector stalk and the right-hand paddle shifter are also positioned very close together, so it’s easy to reach for the paddle to change gear, but hit the gear selector and knock the car out of gear altogether by mistake.
You can select between Eco, Manual and Sport modes, with the most responsive option being Sport, which holds the automatic transmission in gears for longer.
The ‘off-road’ test that Mercedes set up on the GLA launch was ‘off road’ in the sense that it was 200 metres underneath the roads of Cheshire, in the salt mines of Winsford. It was certainly a unique opportunity to drive under the earth, however the flat, well-surfaced roads weren’t much of a challenge for a 4×4, so we undertook our own off-road test.
During this test it was essential to carefully nurse the GLA over undulating off-road terrain to ensure no damage resulted to the front and rear overhangs or the underside of the car. The GLA was fitted with road-biased tyres, so only firm off-road terrain was tackled.
The GLA managed to cope with this test, which, apart from one day of snow per year, is probably the most extreme off-road challenge that any GLA owner in the UK would throw at the car.
The main benefit that the GLA offers is better traction on tarmac roads in poor weather conditions than the standard front-wheel drive A-Class, and with the all-wheel drive system helping to improve the inherent tendency for understeer in a front-wheel drive car, the GLA is better to drive than the regular A-Class.
The interior looks upmarket, but it shares some ergonomic flaws with the A-Class. The main issue is that the heater controls are positioned far too low down in the centre console, but another is the fact that the small button to select Eco, Manual and Sport modes is hidden away in the middle of the dashboard rather than being located in a position that is easy to access quickly.
As well as the GLA220 diesel, we also drove the petrol GLA250 on the launch and this was a much better car to drive, feeling more fluid, agile and responsive.
We weren’t able to monitor the real-life fuel economy of the car on the GLA launch but the official NEDC figure of 55.4mpg – equating to 132g/km CO2 – is good when compared with rivals.
Our GLA220 CDI SE 4Matic – with its 168bhp diesel engine and all-wheel drive – costs £30,030, or £32,105 as tested. There’s also the lower powered diesel GLA200 CDI – with front-wheel drive – and the all-wheel drive, petrol GLA250 4Matic.
With the GLA, Mercedes is simply giving motorists what we want. We’re buying more and more compact SUVs, and if there’s a premium badge involved, and the upmarket feel of a Mercedes interior, even better. Therefore you can fully understand why Mercedes has developed this car.
However it does feel like an A-Class with a raised ride height – unlike an Evoque which has been engineered to actually be capable off-road, rather than just look like an SUV. Of course a taller A-Class is fine, as long as people are clear that they’re buying more of a fashion statement than a vehicle that’s designed for real off-road duties.
The areas that let the GLA220 CDI down are the powertrain and the car’s dynamics. The diesel engine can be noisy, it isn’t massively flexible, the automatic transmission isn’t particularly quick responding, and the high riding body doesn’t help the car’s handling.
However we also drove the GLA250, which has a 208bhp 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine. This was altogether a more enjoyable car to drive, with quick responses and a greater sense of agility. There was a feeling of driver enjoyment approaching that of the all-wheel drive 330bhp A45 AMG – but of course the GLA250 can’t match the 55.4mpg of the GLA220 CDI. For people who are planning to use the GLA primarily for local driving, the petrol may be the better option.
So there you have it: you can have economy, with average driving dynamics, or you can have more of a driver’s car, with more of an appetite for fuel. Business users will probably go for the diesel for lower Benefit in Kind, whereas private buyers, assuming they drive fewer miles in a year than company car drivers, should consider the petrol engine.
The GLA220 CDI gets a Green Car Guide rating of 7 out of 10.