FIRST DRIVE: Getting dirty with the hot new Mercedes-Benz GLB 220d 4Matic
JOHANNESBURG - We've been waiting for what seems like forever, but it's finally here and we've finally driven it on local soil. The all-new Mercedes-Benz GLB compact SUV has been launched in South Africa.
The GLB is Merc's newcomer in the C-segment, looking to take the fight to cars such as the Audi Q3 and BMW X1, but where those cars are five-seaters, the GLB can accommodate up to seven people.
Beyond its seating capability, it has a cracking diesel engine and it is as capable off-road (in 4x4 guise) as you can expect it to be considering the segment that it's playing in.
The new GLB forms part of the Mercedes-Benz compact car family that includes the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists' Car of the Year-winning A-Class Hatch, as well as the A-Class Sedan, the B-Class, the CLA, and the GLA.
Since the first A-Class was launched in 1997, over seven million vehicles of this compact segment have already been delivered worldwide. "There is a growing interest for SUVs, while compact cars are also seeing an increase in sales. So a compact SUV such as the GLB blends all the success factors of our two segments," says Johannes Fritz, Co-CEO Mercedes-Benz South Africa and Executive Director Mercedes-Benz Cars South Africa.
Extremely satisfying drive
Powerful big-car proportions with short muscular overhangs and an off-road-oriented design with standard LED headlights, as well as 4Matic all-wheel drive in the GLB 220d make the vehicle a versatile SUV and a spacious family car alternative.
We took the GLB around Merc's purpose-built 4x4 track at the Zwartkops Raceway. This off-road track had originally been used for the X-Class launch activities, which means it's quite a rugged course.
There were certain sections where the GLB simply scampered across the sand and mud where the G-Class 400d behind needed a fistful more revs. In fact, it was only the front bumper of the GLB that snagged in one or two places on the course on approach to obstacles. Breakover angle and departure angle were also respectable considering that this is, after all, a road-biased family car.
The 220d engine fitted to our test car also purred like no other diesel I've experienced this year. For a four-pot, with a relatively high-compression ratio, you'd expect it to sound a bit agricultural but it's the opposite. In fact, some of the 200 petrol series Mercs actually sounded worse than the diesel we were driving. Beyond the smooth noise, however, comes the smooth power and torque delivery. There's very little turbo lag in the car and in the sportier driving settings it's actually quite spritely and fun to hoon about in.
The best part of the GLB though, as I came to realise after a few hours of thrashing it around Zwartkops, is that it truly offers so much of all worlds. It sipped so little diesel that you'd think it was some sort of super eco model, but considering the abundance of power and torque on taps, it's really a fantastic blend of performance, economy, practicality and style.
Packed with the latest technology
Like the voice control systems we're now used to testing in the larger Mercs, the GLB also features MBUX as an option.
It works well enough if you are straightforward with your commands and I didn't really have trouble working the system as needed. For instance, we said to the car that it was too hot. So, it adjusted the climate control to make the cabin cooler. Short sentences, loud, clear and precise seem to do the trick. You can ask MBUX a question too, but it's still learning and might get confused at the best of times. I'd say, as far as these systems go, the best one is Google Assistant on your Android phone, so I stick to using that.
Incidentally, Google's Android Auto system (and APple CarPlay) is available in the GLB and it's a fantastic solution if you make use of apps such as Waze or Spotify. I use Google Maps quite a bit together with Apple Music and had no problems streaming audio or making calls through the system. Using the car's on-board systems really frees up your hands to concentrate on what you are supposed to be doing, driving, and the GLB in this regard offers a really inviting system that will get you hooked on high-tech safe-to-use information systems in cars.
Added to all the connectivity technology is the safety tech, Mercedes basically offering everything you'd find in an S-Class (up to nine airbags if you option it to the hilt). As standard you can expect a sturdy construction using high-strength steel and aluminium and a front-wheel drive-architecture that can be optioned with 4MATIC. You also get the usual fare of Pre-Safe with ABS, EBD and variable mode stability and traction control, as well as several driving modes to suit your driving style or situation.
Naturally, our test car came fitted with nearly everything, pushing prices eye-wateringly high, but it is reassuring to know that should you want to build a really safe compact car for the family, you can. I particularly enjoyed the active cruise control with distance monitoring that maintains a gap to the car in front of you. It's nothing new, but the nice thing about the system in the GLB combined with the slick eight-speed DCT gearbox and the smooth engine, is that it responds with immediacy.
Worth it over a competitor?
The GLB is the freshest of the compact off-roaders to land in South Africa this year and thanks to its boxy styling and rugged appeal, it's certainly more alluring than that GLA in Merc's own stable.
Incidentally, Mercedes had a brand new GLA for us to drive at this event and having driven both the GLA and GLB back to back, there's this feeling that the A still feels like a car in your hands whereas the B has this heft to it giving it more an SUV feel.
Perhaps it was the rather large wheels and tyres on our test car that added to it's allure and meatiness in the hands, or its sumptuous interior package that captivated us the most. It's so challenging to nail exactly why the GLB makes sense even at its ludicrous pricing level, but it does.. if you have the bucks to spend in these trying times.
It's small, it blends in while having this ability to stand out, and it has all the benefits of the bigger Mercs for a fraction of the price. Go test drive one this weekend and see what I'm on about.