Potentially good for sales, but a little less so on the road
After far too long stuck in third place, Mercedes is on the march and plotting finally to outstrip the sales of both BMW and Audi by the end of the decade.
Unsurprisingly, it is at the more affordable end of the scale that most of the volume is being added thanks to the company’s new small-car platform. While the old structure was revolutionary in its packaging and created in the old A-class a car that was at the time shorter than a Ford Ka yet roomier than a Jaguar XJ6, in engineering terms it was fatally flawed. Unable to do much more than stretch, all Mercedes could do was make the A-class with two different wheelbases and an even longer car it called the B-class. The new platform has been designed with flexibility in mind, so it can be both an A- and B-class, the CLA four-door coupé, a Shooting Brake and this GLA crossover SUV. And around the world it’s going down a storm.
But the GLA is its least convincing application to date and, admittedly, this is partly because I have yet to drive a crossover that was a patch on any comparable hatch from which it was developed. Higher and heavier, the GLA is inevitably slower in a straight line, duller in the corners and less fuel efficient absolutely everywhere than an A-class with the same engine.
My particular issue with the GLA, however, is how half-hearted it is. If you’re going to make a recreational SUV, at least make it look like one, and not a jacked-up, pumped-up version of the hatchback on which it’s based. When the A-class was new, its striking looks won plaudits, but the GLA is so similar, one wonders even if everyone’s going to notice the difference.
You can of course understand Mercedes’s cautiousness.
This is the first small crossover it has sold around the world (it never bothered bringing its unspeakably ugly GLK predecessor to the UK) and, when you have a formula that works as well as the A-class, it’s tempting to vary it as little as possible.
But expectations are different from one class to the next, so customers are likely to be far less bothered that a compact hatch like an A-class doesn’t have much room in the back than a far more family-orientated car like the GLA. And while I’ve not much time for any of its rivals such as Audi Q3, BMW X1 and even the new Nissan Qashqai, they all have the advantage of being familiar players in this sector. Mercedes has none.
Then again Mercedes-Benz is a powerful brand at this price point and you have only to look at the runaway sales of the A-class to know it. People aspire to Mercedes ownership and where once they were all old and wore hats, increasingly they’re young and in the market for a car like a GLA. For them the GLA represents both a completely safe yet still out of the ordinary choice in a school car park full of Q3s and X1s.
In short I expect it will succeed. The crossover class is a niche no more and the prospect of becoming part of it in a Mercedes will be too tempting for many. But they’ll do so despite – not because – of the abilities of the car they buy, an observation that applies equally to the perennially under-achieving class of car they’re so desperate to own.
Engine: 2.2 litres, five cylinders
Power: [email protected] rpm
Torque: 256lb [email protected] rpm
Transmission: seven-speed double clutch, four-wheel drive
Top speed: 134mph