SINGAPORE – First things first: does it turn heads? Yes, but not like if you had seven eyeballs on your face.
But a few minutes in the GLA 200 and you’ll at least attract interested glances, which is saying something because Singaporeans are generally jaded people. I’ve driven new Porsches that drew no looks at all.
Of course, the whole GLA-Class is high on novelty value at the moment. It’s the first small SUV (or Sports Utility Vehicle) from Mercedes-Benz, and given that such a thing has never been, the GLA 200 is bound to make an impact.
Actually, ‘small’ is relative. In terms of length and wheelbase, the GLA 200 slots right in between the Audi Q3 and BMW X1, its principal foes. Here, see for yourself:
It’s not as if you’ll have a reason to pick any one of those over the other for reasons of size, then.
So let’s see what the Mercedes offers for your $186,888. It has five seats in the body and a 1.6-litre turbo under the bonnet that drives the front wheels, and through a seven-speed, twin-clutch transmission.
Family users are the target market, and so are people who have a lifestyle to cart around (or want to show off that they do). Fold the seats (which you can do one-handed), and that mountain bike will slip right into the cargo area.
There’s actually quite a bit of space under the boot floor, too, since there’s no spare tyre.
Local cars come with a space expanding feature. It allows you to put the rear seats into a more upright position, thus giving the boot an extra 60 litres (for 481 litres in all).
But then they become genuinely uncomfortable, forcing passengers to sit bolt upright as if they were being treated for bad posture.
This seems to be something of a theme with the GLA 200, in that it’s a car about compromises.
It’s a gorgeous car, for instance, and pretty much the summit of what lithe muscularity and an athletic crouch can do for two boxes joined together, but you get the sense that when the designers’ sketches of the car took flesh, precious little was allowed to interfere with them.
So the roofline is fashionably low and the glass area, sportily small. But when you climb into the back you have to dip your head awkwardly if you’re an adult who ate well in childhood.
There’s no shortage of actual headroom back there, but the seats there are seriously upright, even if you don’t have them in the cargo-expanding position.
Meanwhile, visibility from the driver’s seat is poor, especially out the back and over your right shoulder.
Surprisingly, there isn’t the typically towering view of the road ahead that has helped to make SUVs popular.
Mind you, that could well be because the Mercedes is biased more for tarmac than mud in general. On top of that, our cars are lowered by 15mm, as part of the ‘Dynamic Handling’ package that all GLA models here come with.
That includes quicker steering and firmer suspension, too, although on the standard 18-inch wheels the GLA 200 rides surprisingly well.
In fact, in many ways the GLA feels like the best-sorted of all the cars built on Mercedes’ compact car platform so far.
Despite a general ability to avoid being jolted by bumps, the GLA 200 resists body roll gamely when you corner hard. And while it never feels playfully agile, it at least manages to hustle through a twisty road with the sort of surefootedness that gives you the courage to push hard in the first place.
For all that, the GLA 200 isn’t a sporty car, at least not as sporty as its athletic styling suggests. The engine does feel like it took all its vitamins, but the drivetrain has a very relaxed personality. When you select the fuel-saving ‘Eco’ mode in particular, the accelerator pedal and engine sometimes make you wonder if they are still on speaking terms.
Thankfully there are gearshift paddles on the steering wheel, and with them you can coax the engine to show its livelier side.
Another plus is the front seats, which not only look racy but offer lots of lateral support. The upholstery is mainly made of fabric, but on the sweltering day I first drove the car that proved to be a boon.
And while you do have to pay for extras ($2,247 for satnav, for instance, or $2,100 for automatic climate control), the GLA 200 does at least have an automatic tailgate, which is unique in the car’s segment.
Mind you, there’s nothing to say that only direct rivals are worth considering. If you really, really want a Mercedes, you can buy a C 180 for a bit less and you’ll have more cabin space and a sharper handling car. Thing is, you’ll also end up with a car about to be replaced, instead of the newest one in town.
And right there is one major reason the GLA 200 looks set to be a monster seller here. SUVs are getting more trendy by the day, and right now the Mercedes is the trendiest of them all. In my view it doesn’t matter that it’s the last of the Germans to the party because it happens to be the best-dressed, too.
You’ll turn heads in one, anyway, and in these parts, that is far more valued than turning corners.
NEED TO KNOW Mercedes-Benz GLA 200
Engine 1,595cc, 16V, turbocharged inline four
Power 156bhp at 5,300rpm
Torque 250Nm at 1,250-4,000rpm
Gearbox 7-speed dual-clutch
Top Speed 215km/h
0-100km/h 8.8 seconds
Fuel efficiency 5.9L/100km
Price $186,888 with COE
Also Consider: Audi Q3 1.4 TFSI, BMW X1 sDrive20i