GRANADA, SPAIN – The Mercedes-Benz GLA won’t be here until September, but if you are in the market for a compact luxury SUV, you might want to wait for it.
The GLA brings some attitude to the emerging sector, with a dose of sportiness added to the expected combination of utility and luxury.
Based heavily on the modular platform first seen beneath the just-released CLA, the GLA places heavy emphasis on driving dynamics and style.
It will be available globally with a variety of drivetrains with up to 360-horsepower range, but Canadians will get only the top two and a hefty list of amenities worthy of a luxury vehicle.
The newcomer will round off the company’s SUV portfolio giving it five vehicles to meet the needs of anyone looking for this type of vehicle – GLA, GLK, ML, GL and G.
Two models for Canada
In Canada, the 2015 GLA will come in GLA 250 and GLA 45AMG guises. As in its CLA sibling, both use a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
While front-drive will be standard in some markets the GLA will come to Canada only with a new generation of the company’s 4Matic electro-mechanical all-wheel-drive system.
During the international unveiling, Marco Witzel, the man in charge of GLA series development, said Mercedes expects the segment to continue to grow and that the GLA "combines sportiness with traditional Mercedes robustness".
To emphasize the latter point, he pointed out that 24 prototypes have been subjected to more than 1.8-million kilometres of testing, 80,000 of them off-road. At the other extreme, the test and development program included 240 laps of the famed Nurburgring race track at full throttle.
The GLA rides on the same wheelbase as the CLA but 20-cm has been cut from the overall length. It is about 9-cm taller and has more headroom front and rear.
The GLA drew attention on the streets here, something we don’t often see, even with an entirely new vehicle. The design blurs the lines between hatchback, wagon and SUV. The sloping roofline and sculpted body cloaks a spacious interior that offers more people and package space than your eyes would have you believe.
That sculpted shape has allowed class-leading aerodynamics and a cargo capacity of up to 1,235 litres, easily accessed thanks to a low liftover and wide cargo door.
Inside, you will find a high-quality interior shared for the most part with the CLA. The driving position is higher and entry/exit are relatively easy thanks to the higher seats.
Visibility is generally good – except to the rear quarters. But excellent mirrors, a standard backup camera and electronic monitoring of the adjacent traffic somewhat counters that problem.
The instrument panel is dominated by five large round HVAC vents and there is heavy emphasis on horizontal lines which leads to the impression this is a larger vehicle than the tape shows.
The upper and lower IP sections have different structures and finishes and on the pre-production vehicles here, showcased a new matte-finish wood trim. A large free-standing display, looking a lot like an iPad on edge, sits atop the centre stack.
For a vehicle with a large open space in back the GLA is very quiet with respect to both road and wind noise. One of the vehicles driven here had some wind noise around the top of the front doors but since they were pre-production models and the others driven did not exhibit that same problem I put it down to an anomaly.
Power- and drive-trains
The latest version of 4Matic is 25% lighter than units used by competitors. Fitted to an SUV for the first time, it is paired with a torque-on-demand rear axle. Downhill Speed Regulation (DSR) is standard as are pre-safe, blind spot assist, Distronic Plus, lane keeping assist, parking assist and Attention Plus.
The four-cylinder M270 gasoline engine that comes in the GLA 250 4Matic has direct injection, piezo injectors and a turbocharger. It delivers 211 horsepower and does so smoothly. There is good low-end punch from about 1,500 rpm thanks to the turbo and lag has been minimized.
The seven-speed DCT transmission works seamlessly but can be slow to respond to part throttle inputs when in Eco mode, which obviously programmed to minimize fuel use.
The M133 engine in the GLA 45AMG has the same displacement and features but operates under much higher pressure from the turbo.
Other changes include a performance oriented version of the 4Matic system, revised steering and suspension, larger (20-in) wheels wrapped in summer performance rubber, an uprated cooling system, large and loud exhaust and an AMG Speedshift version of the DCT transmission.
This the world’s most powerful series production four-cylinder engine. With the use of launch control it can rip from rest to 100 km/h in 4.8 seconds.
Smooth and flexible, it is happy to crawl around town at barely more than idle speed, but it's ready and willing to play hard at the slightest hint of extra throttle.
At about 4,500 rpm it changes personality, delivering explosive amounts of power and letting the world know it via the quartet of exhaust outlets. It is a terrific sound for a four, a raspy growl under full-throttle, an addictive belch between shifts and a crackle under deceleration.
The seven-speed dual clutch shifts quicker in sport mode.
On the road
This is a very good handling SUV with quick, communicative steering and a very stiff chassis. There is a lot of grip and very little body roll.
The 4Matic system impresses in the corners, doling out power to the appropriate axle and minimizing understeer.
Ride quality was good on the butter-smooth, frost-free roads in southern Spain but I suspect the 40-series tires would be a bit flinty over potholes and other major road blemishes.
I spent the first day here driving from Malaga, along the Costa del Sol and inland into the Sierra Nevada mountains to Granada at the wheel of a GLA250 4Matic.
The route covered everything from pottering around little coastal communities and speeding down the multilane highways to climbing some pretty serious slopes. With 258 lb-ft of torque on tap, the small turbo four does an admirable job motivating the GLA.
Day two found me at the wheel of a GLA 45 AMG in Limited Edition1 trim. Only a handful of these will be available in Canada, but it is a cosmetic package only.
The morning drive took place on one of the most fabulous stretches of public pavement I have ever encountered.
Route A-45 wickedly twists its way up and down the mountains between Casabermeja and the junction of MA-20 and A-7. With little to no traffic it allowed the GLA 45 AMG to strut its stuff, showing all that time on the Nurburgring had been put to good use.
The engine pulls effortlessly, the transmission responds quickly and accurately to the paddles when in sport mode and I even found occasion to sample the launch control system the wicked minds at AMG call "Race Start".
> Transmission in manual mode.
> Activate ESP Sport Handling Mode via a button on the center stack.
> Left foot on the brake.
> Pull both paddle levers toward you simultaneously. The information display shows "Race Start Confirm’
> Tug the right-hand paddle once to confirm. The message changes to "race start available.
> Press accelerator to the floor.
> Lift your left foot from the brake pedal and hold on!
All holy heck breaks loose as the four tires scrabble for grip and your neck muscles strain to keep your eyes on the road instead of the headliner.
The next few seconds have you swearing someone performed an engine swap when you weren’t looking, replacing the four with a big eight. Sub five-seconds to 100 in spacious four-cylinder family vehicle is more than a little strange.
But addictive fun, accompanied by a rip-snorting exhaust note not for the shy or those who like to sneak around unnoticed.
Production starts in July with the first GLAs not crossing the Atlantic until September so pricing is still a ways off. Expect the 250 4Matic and 45AMG to come in a few thousand above their CLA equivalents.
In terms of sales, Mercedes is on a tear in Canada. Sales were up 5% in 2013, stretching their margin over arch-rival and runner-up BMW to 10%, with Audi a distant third among luxury brands.
The GLA may steal some sales from the smaller and older B-Class, but I fully expect it to help pad the company’s lead in total sales.