Merc’s Little Dust Buster

Mercedes purists might say that this is a step too far for the German vehicle manufacturer – a diminutive SUV based on their even more diminutive A-Class. But, just like when Porsche enthusiasts were forced to eat their words with the stupendously successful Cayenne SUV, there is every chance that the GLA is going to be a major sales success.

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The A-Class is already selling well, and the best part of it for Mercedes is that the majority of buyers are new to the brand, something that they hope will be continued with the GLA.

First up, the GLA is much smaller in the flesh than it is in pictures, although just as handsome. I was expecting something around the same height as a Nissan Qashqai, but the GLA’s svelte roofline is not much higher than that of a VW Polo. Obviously this is reflected in the interior, where the beautifully finished cabin is snug, especially in the rear. And strangely, you sit quite low down for an SUV, eliminating the commanding seating position above traffic that is one of the main attractions of an urban SUV.

4While the interior is plush and full of technology, the options list is long and surprising. A reversing camera, for example, is optional, where many cheaper cars come standard with one. The same goes for an electrically adjusted driver’s seat.

The ‘GL’ in the name is a nod to the bigger Merc off-roaders, the G-Class and the GL, but the little brother is aimed at very different drivers. Where the GL and G-Class are incredible off-road machines, with extensive arsenals of 4×4 hardware and software, the GLA aims lower, at snow, ice, dirt and gravel roads. So the ground clearance is a fairly modest 170mm, and there are front-wheel-drive models to supply the GLA looks to those who don’t feel that all-wheel drive is necessary.

Driving along the Garden Route is always a treat, and it was the roads around Knysna and George that gave us our first taste of the GLA. On tar it feels no different to a premium hatchback, with none of the wallowing on corners or floating over bumps that an SUV might suffer from. If anything, it’s a bit more comfortable than most, thanks to a softer suspension. So after an hour or so of driving the GLA, I was getting worried that it would amount to little more than just another all-wheel-drive hatchback.

Luckily the next element of our route took us off the beaten track and deep into the forest, on the Secrets of the Knysna Forest tour operated by Bhejane 4×4 Adventures. There, supplied with a two-way radio, we followed a guide along forestry tracks, listening in fascinated silence as we were told of the lives led by loggers in times gone by.

The roads weren’t too bad, but I would say they were nevertheless worse than most that GLA drivers would tackle. With this in mind the vehicle performed admirably, bumping only once on a rock a more vigilant driver could probably have avoided. Where the track got wet and muddy, the new-generation 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system quickly sent power to the wheels that needed it to minimise loss of traction and prevent any embarrassment.

The models with 4MATIC are equipped with DSR (Downhill Speed Regulation) and an off-road transmission mode as standard. DSR is activated by a control button in the centre console, and assists the driver on demanding downhills by keeping the speed down. The off-road transmission setting changes the timing of gear changes and adjusts the sensitivity of the accelerator, again to reduce any loss of traction on loose surfaces.

3Speaking of transmissions, the GLA comes with either a six-speed manual transmission or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. At the moment there are just two engine options available, both diesels, although two petrol models will be available soon, followed by the lunacy that is the GLA 45 AMG.

The GLA 200 CDI was the first vehicle we drove, and it is capable, with 100kW and 300Nm produced by its turbocharged 2,1-litre diesel engine. It uses just 4,5ℓ/100km. The more expensive GLA 220 CDI 4MATIC produces 125kW and 350Nm from its similarly sized engine and uses about 5ℓ/100km.

My conclusion? Well I’d be happy to drive an AWD GLA every day of the week, comfortable in the knowledge that it could cope with 99 per cent of my lifestyle. It would get me to canoeing and mountain-biking races, to just about any national park and to weddings on muddy days in the KZN Midlands. But if it belonged to me, I’d hesitate to venture far from civilisation, and it would only find room in my garage if I already had a more rugged SUV.

Untitled-3You can’t expect a car with the three-point star on the bonnet to be cheap, and the GLA is no exception. Prices start at R423 000 for the GLA 200 CDI, while the GLA 220 CDI 4MATIC is a fairly heady R489 000, without touching the extensive list of extras. The GLA 220 CDI 4MATIC that I test drove had over R120 000’s worth of options, bringing the price up to R610 000, and there are innumerable options in this price category. One can only wonder how much Merc will charge for the GLA 45 AMG… All models come with a 6-year/100 000km maintenance plan and a 2-year, unlimited km warranty.

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