GLA180: Higher-riding city hatch

Mercedes updates its smallest of five SUVs, the GLA, for the 2017 model year. Little has changed. That’s good.


IN reverse order, the letters signify ‘small’, ‘light’ and ‘beyond seal’ capable.

In reality, with the GLA180 on test, just the last two stand up to scrutiny. This car is compact and, even though it has a solid look to it, the kerbside kilo count is reasonable. So, ticks for ‘A’ the class designation and for ‘L’ (for leicht).

As for the G? That’s for ‘Gelaendewagen’, which translates to ‘off-road’ vehicle. Which the GLA can certainly be, at least to a point. Those editions with four-wheel-drive definitely aren’t designed for trans-Sahara expeditions, but they will get you down and onto the beach. They’ll also cope with snow and a touch of sludge.

But you’d be forgiven for adventuring far more prudently with the GLA180. This $60,900 entry model, powered by a 1.6-litre direct injected and turbocharged petrol engine that develops 90kW and 200Nm, is front-drive. So, in fact, is its $7000-dearer diesel equivalent, the GL220d.

Actually, to get to all-paw – or 4Matic in Mercedes-Benz speak – means spending at least $80,000, which buys into the GLA 250 with a 155kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, or at most $109,700.

However, there’s a cavest with the latter. The biggest sticker applies to the flagship AMG 45, packing 280kW and 475Nm. Sitting on a stiffened chassis and packing performance tyres, this is certainly a car designed for tracks. But the racing, rather than rutted kind.

So, there you go. The curious instance of four versions of a car that, while categorised as a ‘sports utility’, only arrives in one format that allows it to act out that genuine crossover role, whereas the others are more bulked-up hatchbacks wearing extra-big boots. Funny old world, right?

And yet, as much as it seems out of context, the GLA180 has every chance of continuing on as something of a sales explorer.

That it feels best exploring the highway and has no real turf-trekker toughness is actually a proven plus. Even the best-equipped ritzy SUVs rarely get immerse themselves into the wild, anyway, and the smaller the get, the slighter than chance becomes. So not having the right gear for the gloop is hardly an issue. More just another handy excuse for avoiding a situation no owner wanted to face in the first place.

Realistically, you’re looking at a GLA for no other reason than a desire to go into an A-Class that is simply taller, more robust-looking and seems to have a more compliant – yet still sporty – ride.

Which is the GLA180 through and through. Yet it is hardly driving into a sales hole. This car in its original form has been something of a trailblazer. Experience with the news lends no thought that anything will change. It’s still a highly practical, good-looking alternate to an orthodox hatchback.

The most obvious difference between a GLA and an A-Class hatch is an increase in ride height and even that is modest: A mere 30 millimetres. True, the wheel arches also broaden. Yet overall the cab-back body styling is more sports hatch than sports ute and you can forget about seeing stuff like skid plates or so on.

The mid-life rework stops short of taking even a ballpeen hammer to the major metalwork; there’s been some very minor sculpting of the bumpers front and rear and fresh, larger - 18-inch on the 180 and 220d, 19-inch on the 250 4Matic, and 20s for AMG - alloy wheel designs are drafted in, while the headlights are now LED units on all versions.

The interior is even more restrained in terms of alterations. From what I can glean, Benz has done not much more than introducing some chrome chintz to a few of the switchgear surrounds, provided new upholstery and reconfigured the central screen so it can operate Apple CarPlay.

In finish and presentation it's much the same as what went before: a pleasant cabin, built to a high standard, but featuring some lower quality plastics in out-of-the-way locations.

Mercedes' defiantly different ergonomics continue to create potential for confusion.

I don’t mind that the electric seat controls are split between the side of the seat frame and the door card. Having the lights, wipers and indicators on one stalk to the left of the steering wheel is okay, too, because it’s a Euro. But that column-mounted gear lever which is so alike is size and shape to the light/wiper stalk is just asking for someone to get it wrong and wrong-slot into neutral when cornering during a lapse in concentration.

A couple of friends were also unkind about the look at location of that eight-inch infotainment display screen, suggesting it looks like it was bolted on in a hurry as the GLA was just about to leave the production line and wondering why it cannot be made to retract.

Space-wise, this is a cabin that is not outright snug yet falls short of being called outright spacious. The driver’s accommodation was comfortable enough for my lanky frame, but headroom is tight and the never-fail seat-behind-self test reveals the rear bench doesn’t quite leave the room to play with that most people associate with a crossover. Taller rear seat passengers might find longer trips a bit of a squeeze as headroom is limited (though toe, knee and leg space is okay) and may feel all the more hemmed in, as the rear windows are also small. The transmission tunnel – here because of the four-wheel-drive option – will further add to the middle rear passenger’s discomfort.

Fortunately, it seems the GLA’s boot is where much of the room’s gone, and when the rear seatbacks are folded (virtually flat), they open up to 1235 litres of utility room. I’d say this is especially useful for those who pursue active lifestyles. The boot also includes a parcel shelf, a ski-port, netted compartments, a 12-volt power outlet, four hooks and three child seat tethers.

Other storage includes compartments under the front seats, bins and lidded bins in the centre console, cupholders and a 12-volt power outlet. Front door storage bins are quite small.

This is a great compact car for open road adventures. It such a big-hearted thing, with a solid feel that makes for a comfortable demeanour. The GLA rides on bigger and beefier tyres than the sister roadcars and those this is runflat rubber (which saves on having a spare wheel) the ride isn’t unduly affected. If anything, far from being jittery (as so many runflat cars tend to be) this one is a little softer than the A-Class. That’s not to suggest it’s podgy proposition. While falling short of hot hatch litheness, it behaves commendably well. The biggest turn-off is the tyre roar over coarse chip.

Overall, though, it is just a no-drama model, quite easy to live with, not least around town where the 4.4 metre length is perfect for around town expeditions; the slightly elevated – but still car-like - seating position appeals and it demonstrates litheness belying its stance and size.

Technology also aids the GLA; parking sensors and a reversing camera are a great help because rearward visibility is limited and auto stop start keeps it from belching out exhaust nasties when you’re stuck on a red light.

So, yeah, the GLA is very much like the A-Class. It's a little bit higher, a little bit chunkier and a little bit more expensive. But it proves to be a class act and well-timed, too, given how consumer interest in compact SUVs keeps growing.