We all knew that Mercedes-Benz couldn't afford to resist the small SUVover segment for much longer. After all, it seems to be the fastest-growing segment in the galaxy, and in particular, it's the premium niche of that class – led by the hugely successful Land Rover Evoque and BMW X1 – that is making these smaller vehicles more viable and attractive. Off we go, then, in this spanking-new 2015 GLA250 4Matic, Mercedes' take on this still somewhat amorphous genre.
Is this a tall A-Class, or more of a scrunched CLA-Class? True to its crossing-over nature, this taller GLA configuration is honestly a healthy mix of both A- and CLA-Class while being more practical than either. It is 9.4 inches shorter than the CLA-Class coupe/sedan-with-trunk and 4.9 inches longer than the overseas A-Class hatchback. At 71.0-inches wide, it ever so slightly outspans its compact cousins, too. Our North America-specific height of 60.0 inches (It's 58.8-inches tall in Europe and elsewhere) is roughly 3.5 inches taller than A- and CLA-Class offerings. That's because our GLA250 will get the usually optional Off-Road Comfort chassis height fitted as standard, in part because we like sitting up higher, SUV-style. Just as importantly, that extra height allows the GLA the advantages of being classified as a light truck. Fear not: the AMG version will get the lower global height for better on-road dynamics.
Regardless, the GLA doesn't flirt too much with stretching the bounds of the term "compact," and that's a good thing. Stated cargo room for the range is pretty good, too, with 14.9 cubic feet expandable to 29.5 with the rear seats folded flat. Mercedes states that the space can reach an effective 43.6 cubic feet when filled to the rafters and with the front passenger chair forward as far as possible.
It's no great surprise that plans are afoot to emphasize the GLA's "lifestyle" attributes, as well as its customizability. While Mercedes-Benz North America won't go so far as to offer the eleven wheel styles available in European markets, we will get three sharp designs for non-AMG civilian trims – a standard 18-inch, a typical chiseled five-spoke 19-inch AMG design that goes with the Sport Package, and a third really handsome standalone 19-inch option. Then there is a range of six leather trims, four types of interior detailing and eleven exterior paint colors. Plus, as is all the rage in most German premium cars today, you get multi-color ambient lighting to set the proper mood in the cabin.
The GLA is also Mercedes' first front-wheel-drive-biased crossover, so even in 4Matic trim, this isn't a vehicle to help you dance over the Rubicon. This latest 4Matic application, does, however, slide seamlessly into a maximum 50:50 front-to-rear torque split, and it also possesses multi-mode stability control with side-to-side brake torque vectoring, the latter coming into play when the vehicle is set to Sport mode. The GLA can also provide a more off-road-friendly calibration for the 7G-Tronic dual-clutch transmission along with a hill descent control function, so it's not completely out of its element on fire roads and light-duty trails.
The aforementioned additional 1.2 inches of vehicle height gives North American models better ground clearance versus the Euro-spec model tested here, too. In order to keep the GLA looking too much like a run-of-the-mill hatchback, Mercedes has fitted matte-finish, anti-scratch cladding all around the vehicle's lower perimeter, and the available front and rear skid plates are purely cosmetic – more for deflecting airborne pebbles than turning away radiator-gouging rocks. But Mercedes also had us out on an off-road course, and we were legitimately impressed with what the GLA 4Matic managed to pull off when equipped with proper tires. The added off-road display gauges for the Off-Road Comfort setup – incline, side-to-side incline, steering angle, compass, off-road transmission mode, etc., were welcome bits of kit, as well.
Given that we've enjoyed a mostly positive relationship with Mercedes' new front-wheel-drive A- and CLA-Class with this same M270 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, we expected to be pleased with the turbocharged and direct-injected unit in the GLA, tuned here for 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Curb weight in 4Matic trim is 3,318 pounds – just 110 more than the front-driver GLA250 and 88 pounds more than a CLA250 4Matic. On southern Spain's hilly and entertaining driving roads, the GLA250 4Matic would avail itself beyond our natural expectations for a small crossover, in much the same way that both the Audi Q3 and BMW X1 continue to impress us. The Land Rover Evoque may be the style leader among these tough premium tykes, but the GLA gives it a run for its money while also being more spacious inside.
0-60 for this top non-AMG-spec GLA is officially listed at 7.0 seconds, but in manual mode with the optional AMG steering wheel and its attendant shift paddles, 6.5 seconds seems very doable. Benz's still-new compact modular chassis is once again pleasantly rigid, while the three control arms and one trailing arm at each corner turn the GLA into a surprisingly accomplished driver's unit. The GLA's class-leading 0.29 coefficient of drag is also a pleasant benefit for both reduced cabin racket and better fuel efficiency, the latter of which is estimated at 25 miles per gallon city and 36 mpg highway.
Running the GLA250 4Matic through its paces as best we could, we found a healthy amount of front-end push in hotter turns, though the new 4Matic is definitely a quick-thinking and sophisticated system that works hard to deliver the best handling possible for a front-biased all-wheel drive setup. Where this model really excels is when the weather goes less cooperative; on the slick road surfaces in this part of the world, the newly lightweight 4Matic system allowed us to literally pull through while carrying more speed than we thought possible. Our optional 19-inch wheels with Goodyear EfficientGrip treads – 235/45R19 95V front and rear – did well overall, though we can't help but wonder how well the standard 18-inchers might have felt. The only potential downside to these smaller wheels would be their inevitable "flood pants" look in the GLA's jacked-up wheel wells.
The essential takeaway from our Spanish drive day is that this new GLA goes about its business very well, yet it doesn't really stand out as something entirely new. The GLA45 AMG or turbodiesel GLA220 CDI 4Matic, on the other hand, both leap out as bolder and more interesting choices. Sadly and predictably, the former will cost markedly more than the estimated $31,000 or so for the base 250 4Matic, while the other is not slated for North America at all. Would it be more genuine if Mercedes called its GLA a hatchback or wagon, as some have suggested? No, because it's really neither. And Audi has already copped the Sportback name, a made-up term that admittedly works well.
So far, we're in the early days of the compact premium CUV movement in North America. Europe has been hosting models like the Q3 and X1 a lot longer, so it will be interesting to see if this segment really heats up in our market. Based on the attributes of this new GLA, we're predicting strong early returns for the Three-Pointed Star when it arrives this September and even bigger sales when a dedicated front-drive model shows up in March of 2015. It may not be the most distinctive player in the segment, but the GLA is very well rounded, and that balance means it ought to hold enough appeal to land on many buyers' consideration lists.