Mercedes-Benz GLA 220d 4MATIC review: When you want a small M-B SUV

The 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 220d left me confused. It’s the first Mercedes I’ve driven since the excellent A-Class limousine, and the first GLA I’ve sampled since I had a go in the nutty GLA 45 AMG back in 2014. Back then, the family resemblance with the A-Class hatchback was clear, which it shared a platform with. The 2021 GLA seems to be another beast altogether. The sheer size of it confused me. This is what Mercedes calls a ‘small’ SUV?

Visually, the second-gen Mercedes-Benz GLA looks a lot larger than its predecessor. Image: Overdrive/Anis Shaikh

What is it?

Mercedes has an SUV analogue to each sedan it makes. The A-Class has the GLA, the C-Class the GLC, then there’s the GLE (E-Class) and the GLS (S-Class), along with various AMG and Maybach versions. The GLA is your entry into the Mercedes-Benz SUV range, though increasingly stringent safety and emissions regulations have produced a rather large ‘small’ SUV, compared to the first-gen GLA. Our test car was a 2.0-litre diesel with Mercedes’ 4MATIC all-wheel drive system. It’s a competent package with seating for four (five, if you really don’t like the passenger in the middle), good boot space and a well-appointed interior. It’s just that – with its caveats – I don’t really know who it’s for.

Interior: dark, luxurious, surprisingly small

For all the external volume the GLA occupies, the inside seems surprisingly tight. The front seats – which are powered, and have a memory function – are fine. Generous, even, and upholstered in luxe ‘DINAMICA’ microfibre that feels like Alcantara. They aren’t vented, however. The colour scheme is dark, adding to the sense of being closeted.

Twin-screen arrangement inside a single, seamless enclosure stands out on the GLA's dashboard. Image: Overdrive/Anis Shaikh

The dash is what we’ve come to expect on present-day Mercedes cars: an expansive, all-glass screen that’s actually two screens clubbed into a single, seamless enclosure. The one in front of the driver replaces the traditional driver binnacle and is quite easy to read. Easier, in fact, than other ‘virtual cockpit’ implementations I’ve seen. The infotainment screen to the left is about the same size, high resolution, plenty bright and the Mercedes MBUX interface is slick and large, which is important for a touchscreen that needs to be operated on the go.

The centre console is minimal, with only essential functions such as HVAC controls left as physical buttons. The space where a gear shifter would be is occupied by a capacitive touchpad to navigate the MBUX system. The steering, unfortunately, is not as minimal, with many backlit buttons. There are two capacitive pads on each spoke of the wheel, which are again used to navigate the MBUX and digital instruments display options. The rest of the dash sports turbine-shaped AC vents and not much else. There’s ambient lighting on offer that reflects off the turbine vents in a cool way.

Rear-seat space is not a strength of the new GLA. Image: Overdrive/Anis Shaikh

Step in the rear passenger area and things take a turn for the weird. For such a large SUV, there’s a surprisingly small amount of space on offer. You can technically fit three in there, but with a large transmission tunnel running down the centre of the car, the fifth passenger will essentially be squatting. The footwells themselves appear surprisingly deep – like you’re stepping over the door sill and into the car. Kneeroom and shoulder room are at a premium.

The boot is an acceptable 435-litre affair, with a powered hatch. Much of it is taken up by the large space-saver, which – ironically – saves no practical space in the boot. Still, the GLA carried a fair few bags of groceries.

The MBUX interface is delightfully fluid, but the system itself is not perfect. Image: Overdrive/Anis Shaikh

A word about tech: I can’t wait for the next version

Ever since I first sampled MBUX in the GLC a couple of years ago, I’ve had mixed feelings about the system. On the one hand, it’s one of the most beautiful interfaces to behold, especially with that seamless all-glass display. That said, it is not the most intuitive in many places, and lags in some places – no wireless Apple CarPlay for instance. The much-vaunted ‘Mercedes Me’ voice assistant is a frustrating mess – when it was first introduced, as well as today. This is disappointing. I tried a bunch of commands, and all the car would do is ask me to repeat the question. Asking for help sends you to what is basically an online manual. It will also not do as many things as MG’s ‘Internet Inside’ system, which itself is not great. MBUX is simply not worth anyone’s time. I tried it a few times, and quickly plugged in my iPhone for the familiar CarPlay interface, which works well.

Speaking of: Mercedes has gone all-USB-C for the GLA as with other models, so you’ll need to keep a compatible cable or adapter around. Most people use regular USB-A cables. There is a wireless charger in the central storage area, but it is rather small, and I imagine larger devices will be a tight squeeze. It’s also awkward to get a hand in there.

Using the capacitive controls for the infotainment can be a frustrating experience. Image: Overdrive/Anis Shaikh

I am also not a fan of the overall navigation UI with MBUX. The touchscreen is the most convenient way to navigate, though I prefer tactile controls and steering controls so I can remain focused on driving. Unfortunately, the capacitive pads – on the steering and the centre console – behave like trackpads. You have to move a highlight reticle to the interface element/button you want to interact with and press down. I don’t know how many people enjoy using a laptop trackpad while driving, but I certainly don’t. Even changing tracks using Apple CarPlay is a frustrating, imprecise experience – swipe right to highlight the ‘skip track’ button, press down. And if you happen to slip slightly, the reticle goes elsewhere, you’ve pressed some other button and distracted and frustrated yourself. It’s not ideal.

There are glimmers of hope, though. The interface is fluid and responsive, indicating a good selection of hardware. I understand the next version of MBUX that’s in the new S-Class will be an improvement. We’ll report on that soon, once the car is at hand.

The GLA's 2.0-litre diesel engine feels alert and happy to rev. Image: Overdrive/Anis Shaikh

On the go: quick, torquey, stiff

Driving my mother to physiotherapy in the Mercedes GLA should have been a serene affair, especially with a torquey 2.0-litre diesel motor that makes 190 hp and 400Nm. I had imagined a leisurely ride with the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic riding the meaty torque with little drama. But this diesel likes drama. Right out of the gate, the engine feels alert and happy to rev. The transmission keeps up and the thing makes a reasonably sporty sound even when I’m not trying. And this is a diesel!

With this sort of character, the engine quickly gets the GLA up to triple-digit speeds, but I’m not entirely confident when driving at an elevated pace. Our tester came with the AMG Line package that includes 19-inch wheels and relatively low-profile tyres. This means Mumbai’s roads feel mostly rumbly, except in the odd perfect tar patch. The suspension deals with larger imperfections easily, but sharp joints on the road are jarring. Combined with the quick transmission and engine, I wondered whether the AMG floor mats were doing more than keep my soles dry.

The suspension tackles most imperfections with ease, but driving over sharp joints can be jarring. Image: Overdrive/Anis Shaikh

The result was a sportier-than-expected driving experience. The GLA is equipped with four drive modes, but even the default ‘COMFORT’ setting tended to respond to throttle inputs aggressively. About the only way I could sedately ferry a senior citizen was by putting it into Eco mode. In effect, I’m complaining about the eight-speed DCT being too quick. This is making me incredibly sad about my advancing age. I may have to buy something unreliable and Italian. Oh wait...

The 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 220d 4MATIC is priced at Rs 47.69 lakh (ex-showroom). Image: Overdrive/Anis Shaikh

Who should buy this?

Perhaps it is my specific expectations that were not met by the GLA, but I couldn’t tell you who this vehicle is for. It’s all-wheel drive, but has 19-inch low-pro tyres, and I can’t imagine any owners taking this off-road. It’s an SUV, but with cramped rear quarters. It’s large enough to make an impression, with an interior that doesn’t give the same sense of space. It has a luxe interior and panoramic sunroof, but misses ventilated seats, and the tech stack does not compare to more rudimentary competition. At Rs 47.69 lakh (ex-showroom), it’s the cheapest way to get into a Mercedes SUV – but only if you simply must. There are other, more practical luxury sedans from a segment above, available for the same price.

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