GLA: pavement hopper or bundu-basher?

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IOL mot jun20 Merc GLA ac

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Based on the Mercedes A-Class platform the GLA offers front-wheel drive or 4Matic 4WD options.

ROAD TEST: Mercedes-Benz GLA200 CDI

“What is it?” This seemed to be the most common question I was asked when testing Mercedes-Benz’s new baby SUV, the GLA, with some mixed reactions following from family and friends alike on its styling and general demeanor.

It’s a valid question though, and I reckon there are two answers, or two approaches really, to the GLA.

The first stems around what I reckon Merc intended with its latest creation. Sure, it’s based on the same platform as the Mercedes A and CLA ranges (sharing 65 percent of the same parts), but worth remembering here is that this SUV is made by a carmaker with some serious offroad experience – be it the extreme Unimog, the hardcore Gelandewagen, or the capable ML and GL ranges.

Granted, the approach with the GLA has been subtler, but for buyers willing to spec the vehicle with an offroad bias it can be more than a capable bundu-basher. To most the GLA may look like an A-Class on stilts, but two models in the price guide (220 CDi and 250) offer 4Matic all-wheel drive with variable torque distribution, along with the option of an offroad suspension which offers 200mm of ground clearance.

GOING THE EXTRA MILE

IOL mot jun20 Merc GLA bc

The 200 CDI turbodiesel delivers 100kW and a relatively meaty 300Nm.

I drove these pukka bundu-bashers at the GLA’s world launch a few months ago, and they proved a steelier alternative to competitor softroaders like BMW’s X1 and Audi’s Q3. Here the GLA scurried through a fairly tough offroad course, with the additional ground clearance allowing for effective straddling over obstacles, and the 4Matic set-up ensuring traction was fed to all four corners.

And Merc really has gone the extra mile in the segment here – with the stability programme tuned for correction on different surfaces, the Downhill Speed Regulator (with adjustable speeds) easily lowering the GLA through the odd canyon or two, the offroad driving mode creating a low-range response to throttle inputs, and the optional offroad display keeping the driver in tune with steering and roll angles.

Then there’s the second approach, in the form of the more generic GLA which is on test here.

Take away all the raised-this and 4Matic-that, and just like the VW CrossPolo and Renault Sandero Stepway, you’re left with a vehicle with dusty intentions but packing none of the hardware necessary to really get down and dirty.

Sure, all GLAs roll off the showroom floor with weekend-warrior gravel-kicking tidbits including an underguard at the front, grey cladding all-round, roof-trim strips (roof rails are optional), and side panels (which Merc reckons are meant to look like excavator’s teeth).

FAMILIAR FEELING

IOL mot jun20 Merc GLA c

The cabin is classy and well equipped.

But get behind the wheel and you would be forgiven for thinking you were piloting just another regular A-Class model.

Our GLA200 CDI took it a step further (perhaps it’s a case of A-Class sibling rivalry) and had the optional AMG-line lowered suspension treatment (there are three GLA suspensions on offer – comfort is standard; AMG firms up spring and dampers and lowers the GLA by 15mm; while offroad offers the most ground clearance). Now, while dropping the GLA may sound like a good idea, the look didn’t really suit this car’s butch wheel arches, or its bulky 235/50/18 tyre size for that matter.

Piloting the GLA was a familiar experience; in that it felt quite similar in ride and handling to the A-Class cars I’ve driven so far.

The 200 CDI powertrain is a familiar one, with the 100kW output at times a little sluggish off the line, but the 300Nm grunt feeding through front wheels nicely when the occasional truck or taxi needs passing.

I’ve always preached the cause for auto transmissions paired to turbodiesel powertrains, and the GLA200 CDI is no different. The 7-speeder dual-clutch ‘box takes the legwork, literally, out of the daily commute – and is more than efficient at campaigning the merits of the spunky powertrain. I thought the 7.8l/100km consumption was acceptable too.

The GLA’s cabin is luxurious and virtually identical to the A’s – but we did pick up two build-quality issues in our test unit. At highway speeds there was a fair amount of wind noise creeping in from the B-pillar area; and there seemed to be a constant rattle coming from the front passenger door area. Another criticism is there’s no spare wheel offered in the range, with run-flats an extra-cost option.

What I did like was the Traffic Management Channel (TMC), which since last June is standard tech in all Mercs when you order satellite navigation. It works off its own radio frequency, connects to the Altech-Netstar network (which monitors traffic flow through various towers), and will continuously find and redirect you to the quickest traffic-free routes. It may sound gimmicky, but I must say that it worked well.

VERDICT

The option is yours, really. You can go this pavement-hopping route, which negates the point of the GLA if you ask me – or you can get a “real” GLA, with some offroad-cred that will happily take you off the beaten path into rougher territory. The GLA200 CDI auto costs R452 400, before you start ticking any options boxes. -Star Motoring

Follow me on Twitter: @mineshbhagaloo

FACTS

Mercedes-Benz GLA200 CDI

Engine: 2143cc, four-cylinder turbodiesel

Gearbox: Seven-speed automatic

Power: 100kW @ 3400-4000rpm

Torque: 300Nm @ 1400-3000rpm

0-100km/h (claimed): 9.9 seconds

Top speed (claimed): 205km/h

Consumption (claimed): 4.5 litres per 100km

Price: R452 400

ALTERNATIVES

Audi Q3 2.0 TDI SE (103kW/320Nm) - R410 000

BMW X1 sDrive20d (135kW/380Nm) - R420 423

Volvo V40 Cross D3 (110kW/350Nm) - R376 200


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