Baby Benz crossover - Bangkok Post

The compact SUV notion is something that can't be overlooked by any carmaker who wants to grow sales these days because practically everybody seems to yearn for such a body style. 

This phenomenon is also applicable in the luxury car market where BMW, for one, is now experiencing decent sales volume of its smallest and cheapest available SUV, the X1.

Although margins aren't that much as in its other bigger X brothers, the X1 has a dedicated body to clearly distance itself away from the 1-series despite sharing technologies.

Some other brands take the easier route by simply "jacking up" an existing hatchback model and pasting it with some fancy mouldings and wrenching on chunkier wheels to create an SUV-wannabe. An example is the Volvo V40 Cross Country.

So, you might have thought Mercedes-Benz has adopted a similar path as Volvo's when it developed its new GLA which, in many ways, appears to be an A-class hatchback on stilts.

Well, that's not totally the case. If you carefully peruse the GLA in detail, it has many different body parts and panels. The biggest differentiator is the chubbier rear lights along with the side window lines that gently rise to the rear.

And if you take out a magnifying glass, the front headlamps and bumpers are not the same, as well, with those of the A-class. Blimey, if Mercedes went through all that effort, they should have just made the GLA more different than this in an instant.

But Mercedes is seemingly making no bones about the GLA being a spin-off from the A-class in terms of the interior. Jump into the car and the GLA is all too familiar: bucket-style seats, circular air-con vents, free-standing info-screen and three-spoke steering wheel.

This isn't a bad thing, though, because the A-class has one of the best-finished cabins in its class when it comes to solidity and quality of materials used. The X1, in contrast, has more hollow plastics for people to rap a tune on.

In terms of practicality, the GLA's cabin space isn't as poor as its compact exterior design might suggest. In fact, there is enough space for people of most sizes in this country to sit in. The boot is also OK and is nearly flat when the rear seats easily fold down at the switch of a lever.

The X1 may boast fancier numbers on paper, particularly with its longer wheelbase. But once you get into both the Beemer and Merc, the perceptive differences aren't that much.

To give the GLA some kind of technical distinction from its A-class hatch and CLA saloon siblings, the Thai product planners have opted for the GLA200 sporting a 156hp 1.6-litre petrol-turbo motor, albeit with the family's seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

Broadly speaking, the GLA200 possesses some similar traits with those in the turbocharged A250/CLA250 and A180, including some driveline shunt at low speeds but smooth performance once things get going. The auto 'box, too, could have been slicker as a twin-clutcher. In terms of outright punch, the GLA200 lies (predictably) somewhere in between the 211hp 2.0-litre A250/CLA250 and 122hp 1.6-litre A180, which makes quite a good motor of choice because power is neither excessive nor lacking for a real-world SUV with practical intentions. Against the X1 in 1.8i petrol form and Mini Countryman in Cooper fit, the GLA200 has its rivals beaten for usable power. The V40 Cross Country in T5 spec is meaner but thirstier, which makes the Merc quite capable in its class here.

Sure, it would have been great for Mercedes to consider selling diesel derivatives which are rich in mid-range pulling power and fuel economy. However, the excise tax reduction for E20 gasohol has attracted the Thai Merc office in going only for petrol power in the GLA (and the A and CLA, as well). As the GLA has a higher ride height (and more suspension travel), the ride is more comfortable and isn't unbearably stiff as in the hatch. But the GLA's secondary ride can be vocal and knobbly over varying road surfaces.

There's ample space in the rear. Just.

While the GLA's handling obviously isn't as sharp as in the A-class due to a higher ground clearance, it still changes direction very incisively as an SUV and has more ideally-weighted steering than in the X1, which chooses to highlight a meaty version for high-speed express at the expense of low-speed driving ease.

Actually, when you compare the GLA's overall chassis properties with either the X1, Countryman or XC40 Cross Country, its driving dynamics feel the most balanced, if not perfect.

As an SUV with the black tarmac clearly in mind, the GLA generally suffices and explains why it is being offered in front-wheel-drive-only for Thailand. That's because it's really all you need if your commute isn't on ice.

That brings us to the price of the GLA200, for which Mercedes is asking 2.444 million baht in Urban trim. In its own game, that level seems acceptable because an A250 or CLA250 cost just slightly more.

Just don't expect to see goodies like automatic climate control, sat-nav or any kind of driver-assist technologies in the GLA.

And it's only when you bring its competition into perspective that the imported GLA200 looks expensive. That's because the BMW and Volvo are assembled in Thailand and Malaysia respectively at 500 grand less, which isn't necessarily small change for all potential buyers.

It's just a pity that Mercedes hasn't injected enough SUV styling into the GLA because we reckon that's surely another reason why people are buying X1s without caring about its engine and chassis compromises. That also verifies a rumour that the Thai Mercedes office is planning to sell a tougher-looking and taller GLA in the future.

On the other hand, though, the GLA can prove to be a worthy alternative for Benz fans finding the A-class too uncomfortable on the move.


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