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Driven: Mercedes GLA at world launch

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IOL mot pic mar10 Mercedes GLA 1

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Mercedes GLA compact SUV is based on the A-Class but is more than just a pumped-up hatch. Coming next month.

Granada, Spain - South Africans can be forgiven for having felt like poor cousins when it came to the mid-sized GLK SUV offering from Mercedes-Benz. We are, after all, still waiting for right-hand drive production, which will come online with the next-generation in two years’ time.

But the good news is that there’s a taste of the manufacturer’s smaller SUV range headed to SA in the nearer future, in the form of the Mercedes GLA which will be available locally from April 2014.

Based on the same platform as the A and CLA ranges (sharing 65 percent of the same parts bin), and claimed to be the sportiest SUV in the segment, this BMW X1 and Audi Q3 competitor is Mercedes’ first compact SUV. It also marks the fifth SUV range offering from the Three-Pointed Star, making Mercedes’ SUV portfolio the largest of any European premium manufacturer.

TREKKING SHOE

If the hardcore G-Class is the hiking boot of Mercedes’ off-road range, the new GLA is the trekking shoe - especially as it’s not just about increased ground clearance, but comes optionally with latest-generation 4Matic all-wheel drive technology with variable torque distribution.

On the looks front the connection to the A-Class is clear, with the A being the road car and the GLA getting that “mountain” appeal. It has a raised ride height and large wheel-arches, with an underguard at the front to add some gravel-kicking status, along with grey cladding all-round, roof-trim strips, optional black roof rails, up to 19” rims, and depressions on the side panels (which Mercedes reckons are meant to look like excavator’s teeth!).

IOL mot pic mar10 Mercedes GLA 2

GLA scurries through a medium-level off-road course with neither a rattle nor scrape.

HIGH-GRADE FINISH

The GLA also gets a wide loading hatch, prominent roof spoiler (with brake light), and rear sill and under guards. Inside, the GLA conforms a lot more to the A, offering virtually identical fit and high-grade finish.

There are also three suspension set-ups to choose from: the comfort suspension is standard, the dynamic handling package which drops the GLA by 15mm and throws in a Sports Direct-Steer system, or the off-road pack which offers 200mm of ground clearance.

The ESP system has also been tuned to include corrections when braking on surfaces with different levels of grip, as well as compensating for crosswinds and road camber.

But the party trick is the latest 4Matic all-wheel drive technology, with variable torque distribution between front and rear axles, Downhill Speed Regulation (DSR), and a specific off-road driving mode.

WORLD LAUNCH

IOL mot pic mar10 Mercedes GLA 3

GLA cockpit is sumptuously equipped and extremely comfortable.

All the aggro hasn’t affected aerodynamics much, though, with Merc claiming the standard GLA, with its drag co-efficient value of 0.29, the best in its segment.

Driving the GLA at its world launch in Granada last week, I was hard pressed to notice any significant differences in performance or handling mannerisms in comparison to its more-familiar A-Class counterpart. Having said that, I only drove 4Matic derivatives, which do feel a little more solid and weighted than the regular front-wheel drive A-Class - especially when things gets twisty. The steering also feels a little more in-tune in the GLA, which could have something to do with the 4Matic set-up.

DEDICATED OFF-ROAD MODE

It’s a proper soft-roader too, it must be said, scurrying through a medium level off-road obstacle course with neither a rattle nor scrape.

It’s obvious that the dedicated off-road mode manipulates gearbox and accelerator response for a slower and traction-focused experience - while the Downhill Speed Regulator (with adjustable speed) had no problem lowering the GLA through the odd canyon or two. The optional off-road display is cool too, providing readouts such as like steering and roll angle, gradient, DSR, and even a little compass.

ON THEIR WAY

IOL mot pic mar10 Mercedes GLA 4

Optional off-road display provides a wealth of useful information.

Coming to South Africa in April 2014 will be the 115kW/250Nm GLA 200 (R400 749), the 100kW/300Nm GLA 200 CDI (R422 700), and the 125kW/350Nm GLA 220 CDI 4Matic (R490 231). These will be followed by the bigger guns in November: the 155kW/350Nm GLA 250 4Matic (R558 900), the 265kW/450Nm GLA 45 AMG 4Matic (R724 143) and the Edition 1 of the range-topper - which will add on a seventy five grand premium.

Engines are mated to six-speed manual or 7G-DCT dual-clutch auto (auto is standard in the GLA 250, GLA 220 CDI and the 4Matic models). In lower-range models where manual is standard, the auto ‘box carries an additional cost.

In summary then, this is more than an A-Class on stilts. The boys at Benz have put some real effort into the GLA’s dust-busting credentials, resulting in quite a capable little SUV. The 4Matic setup lends it some on-road credence too, which is a real bonus. - Star Motoring

Follow Minesh Bhagaloo on Twitter.


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