By Jonathan Crouch
Imagine a MK3 model Mercedes A-Class hatch with a little extra practicality and a more adventurous outlook and you'll have this car in mind, the brand's GLA compact Crossover. Launched in 2014, it was the brand's answer to more premium offerings in the growing fashion-conscious family hatch-based SUV 'C'-segment and was engineered with the kind of thoroughness you'd expect from the Three-Pointed Star. Here, we're going to look at the suitability of early 2014 to 2017-era GLA models as a potential used buy.
According to Mercedes, this GLA model is 'ready to take you where no one has ever gone before'. Back in 2014, it certainly took its brand into a market segment it had never seen before, that of the compact Crossover. You'll be familiar with these Qashqai-class cars by now: ruggedized family hatchbacks on steroids that don't have the off piste capability of a Freelander-style compact SUV because most buyers don't want it.
The GLA was rather late to the party in this particular segment. Prior to its arrival, BMW's X1 had been plying its trade in the premium part of the compact SUV class since 2009, with the similarly-targeted Audi Q3 on sale since 2011. This GLA compensated with stylish looks and class-leading efficiency. There was even a potent AMG-engined sports model which was first offered with 355hp, a 2.0-litre petrol turbo engine then uprated to 375hp in 2016. The original GL range lasted until the Spring of 2017 when Mercedes announced a minor package of facelift updates. Here, we're going to look at the earlier model.
What You Get
Though Mercedes sees this GLA as part of its SUV portfolio, there's nothing very SUV about the way it looks. Inevitably, given the kind of car this is, the aesthetics do without the genre's cruder touches - things like an upright windscreen, a bluff front end or bumpers like railway sleepers: you might expect that. Buyers might though, be more surprised to find this design also doing without the sort of styling cues common to the kind of far less rugged Qashqai-class Crossover models this GLA is really designed to target.
At first glance, this car really doesn't look very much different from the MK3 model A-Class hatchback it's based upon, even though it's actually 127mm longer, 24mm narrower and 59mm taller. This is essentially an A-Class with an added dose of attitude, with looks centred around a raked-back windscreen and a front end that sports big air intakes, flutes in the bonnet and smart smeared-back headlights. Smart GLA-specific touches include the way the stylists have teased out the wheel arches, adding muscularity to the look. And the sleek integration of the aluminium roof rails.
In profile, as with the A-Class, there's an awful lot going on, with two prominent lines sweeping backwards from the front wing, one rising from just above the door sill and another falling from just above the wheel arch. Along with the rising beltline, they culminate just above muscular rear wheel arches, emphasising a feeling of width at the rear end heightened by the curved rear window and the sweeping chrome handle between the divided taillights.
Drop inside and depending on the suspension chosen, you can find yourself sitting up to 80mm higher than you would in a comparable A-Class model. This means a more commanding view out-front from a driving position easily perfected by wide adjustment possibilities for seat and steering wheel, positioning further aided by plentiful head and shoulder room. As with most of Mercedes' compact models from this era though, rearward visibility is compromised by the swoopy roof design and the angled tailgate, hence perhaps the decision to equip this car with a reversing camera as standard.
The cabin architecture of all Mercedes' smaller designs is pretty much identical from this period, which fortunately is no bad thing in terms of what you end up with here. So, as with any A or CLA-Class model, you get the same deeply-cowled twin-dial instrument binnacle viewed through a lovely, grippy nappa leather-trimmed three-spoke multi-function steering wheel. There are the same five chrome-trimmed SLS supercar-style air vents decorating a dash split into upper and lower sections. The upper part's dominated by an iPad-style free-standing infotainment screen that's stuck in the middle of it, controlled by a little rotary dial positioned where the handbrake would normally be if it hadn't been replaced by one of those fiddly electronic ones with a switch hidden away beneath the fascia.
In terms of look and feel, the materials used don't quite have the rich, deep hewn-from-granite feel you get in an Audi and there are harder, cheaper plastics if you go looking for them. Overall though, the finished effect is certainly a step up from anything BMW offers in a MK1 X1 and, as you'd expect from the Three-Pointed Star, build quality is faultless. Overall, we'd say that this is probably the most interesting cabin in the segment from this era, a classy effort with plenty of showroom feel good factor. In terms of practicality, as well as spacious door bins and a reasonably-sized illuminated glove compartment, plus original buyers had the option of storage boxes beneath the front seats and a place for sunglasses in the overhead control panel. One advantage of choosing an automatic model over a manual car is that the gear shift lever moves to the steering column which means that you get space for a deep oddments bin and two cup holders in the centre console.
It's when you move to the rear though, that you're more likely to realise this car's station in life as a family hatchback-based Crossover rather than a RAV4-sized compact SUV. Frankly, it's significantly smaller than one of those - as indeed this car has to be given that it must sit on the same compact 2,700mm wheelbase as its A-Class design stablemate. The prominent wheelarches mean that access is slightly restricted. Once you're inside, any thoughts of carrying three adults are hampered by the rear bench's uninvitingly sculpted middle section and the wide and rather intrusive transmission tunnel. Two passengers will be quite comfortable though - providing they're not tall folk in a GLA whose interior roof height has been lowered by the optional panoramic glass roof. And three children will be more than happy providing they don't object to the high, rising waistline.
One area where the GLA clearly betters the MK3 A-Class (and its direct rivals) is in the boot. You get 481-litres of luggage space, a big jump up from the 341-litre total offered by the MK3 A-Class and around 60-litres more than you'd get in a MK1 Audi Q3 or a BMW X1 from this era. These two competitors do reverse this showing when it comes to seats-folded capacity - push forward the 60/40 split-folding rear bench (which unfortunately doesn't fold quite flat) and the 1,235-litre total is about 100-litres down on the opposition. But for most, it'll be standard luggage capacity that counts, along with the fact that the cargo bay's square shape, low loading lip and wide tailgate access make loading in heavy objects easy. If you want to extend it yet still use the rear seat for passengers, a standard Load Compartment package allows the backrest of the rear seat to be moved to a steeper so-called 'Cargo position' which will gain you an extra 60-litres.
What to Look For
Though we came across plenty of happy GLA buyers in our ownership survey of this early MK1 model, inevitably, there were a few issues thrown up. The only major issue we came across was with the auto transmission. One owner found that with his auto GLA, whenever he initially went to go forward or back, the car would lunge forward or back. Apparently, a number of owners have had this issue. Another owner reported a general auto malfunction with his GLA 220CDI. And a customer with a GLA 250 4Matic noticed a very subtle 'clunk' noise coming from the rear of the vehicle while slowing down and coming to a complete stop. One GLA owner reported a front-end stutter during low speed tight radius turns, another noticed an annoying clicking rom the trunk area and another noticed a ticking sound when making a sharp right turn from stop or slow speed. Noises from the suspension were reported by some owners too. One owner got a rattle from the luggage cover. All things to look out for on the test drive.
Minor issues reported included one car where the power-folding side mirrors didn't work in the cold, another whether the engine stop/start system stopped working, another where the USB port didn't recognise devices and another that had issues with the anti-theft alarm. Look out for all these things on the test driver and check the main electrical functions of the car - plus have a good look at the alloy wheels to make sure that they're not kerbed or scratched. The small rear window means that reversing into spaces isn't that easy, so the changes of alloy wheel damage are probably higher than they would be normally - and this can be expensive to fix. In the highly unlikely event that some sort of engine problem presents itself, it would be expensive to repair because of the quality of the parts. On an older very high mileage car, you should have the timing belt replaced if it hasn't been already; should it not be replaced and it breaks, you expect a hefty bill and the engine compartment would be in bad shape if this were to happen.
(approx based on a 2014 GLA 200 CDI - Ex Vat) An air filter costs around £10-£21, an oil filter costs in the £6 to £11 bracket and a fuel filter costs in the £108 to £154 bracket. Front brake pads sit in the £45 to £55 bracket for a set, while rear brake pads cost around £52 for a set. Brake discs can cost as little as £45 but typically cost in the £97-£155 bracket. Rear brake discs cost in the £60-£88 bracket. You'll pay around £290 for a radiator and in the £4 bracket for a headlamp bulb. Wiper blades cost around £10-£20.
On the Road
A car that essentially is a family hatchback is likely to have the dynamic aptitude of a family hatchback. A model that, in contrast, is designed as a proper RAV4-style mid-sized SUV is never going to feel as sharp, no matter how compromised its Rubicon Trail pretensions might be. So if you like your driving, you'll give thanks that this GLA isn't setting out to rival RAVs - or indeed Audi Q5s, BMW X3s or Range Rover Evoques come to that. Mercedes designed a C-Class-based GLC model to do that. That frees this car to be a proper Qashqai-class compact Crossover. Or, to put it another way, to offer pretty much all the handling brio you'd get from the MK3 A-Class hatch it's designed upon, with pretty much none of the downsides.
In fact, everyone but truly committed petrol heads will probably find this a much nicer steer than its Stuttgart stablemate. The major dynamic issue with the third generation A-Class was its rather over-firm ride, something this GLA manages to do without thanks to additional spring travel, more forgiving spring rates and high-aspect ratio tyres. The result is a smoother ride that's especially noticeable on the poorly tarmaced urban surfaces where this car will be spending most of its life. We'd feared that a penalty would be exacted for this composure when cornering at higher speeds, especially given that this car can have a ride height up to 59mm higher than an A-Class. As it happens though, the GLA manages the twisty stuff very well and roll is decently controlled. Yes, the steering could still do with a bit more feel, but the electrically-assisted rack weights up with even progression and inspires confidence.
When it comes to drive traction and transmission, much will depend on engine choice. In 2016, Mercedes introduced a 154bhp 1.6-litre petrol engined front-driven GLA 200 base model into the line-up; this came with manual or auto options. From the launch of the GLA range in 2014 though, the emphasis was firmly on a 2.1-litre diesel line-up that began with the 136bhp GLA 200 CDI (later badged GLA 200d). This derivative again got manual or auto options but here buyers could add in 4MATIC 4WD too. In front-driven form, this base diesel model makes 62mph in around 10s dead en route to 127mph.
Further up the range, all derivatives are 4WD auto-only. The GLA 220CDI diesel has 170 braked horses to call upon and this version has a useful extra turn of speed, dispatching the 62mph benchmark in 8.3 en route to 134mph. The alternative 211hp GLA 250 petrol variant also should feel pleasantly rapid, delivering 62mph in 7.1s on the way to 143mph.
Rather more than pleasantly rapid is the frankly certifiable GLA 45 AMG, a car that rocked up in 2014 with 355hp beneath its bonnet. Its 2.0-litre petrol engine and 4MATIC all wheel drive catapult you to 62mph in just 4.8 seconds - which makes this model nearly a second faster than its direct rival from this era, the Audi RS Q3. On the way to a maximum velocity we can only guess at given that the car is artificially restrained at 155mph. Just to put that into context, we're talking here of faster acceleration than you'd get from a V10-engined BMW M5 or a Ferrari 512 supercar. In 2016, the engine output was increased to 375hp. There's something faintly comical about that sort of power shoehorned into a tiny Crossover.
And off road? Well, you might think that trying to take a car like this one into the wilds would probably result in a lot of pointing and laughing followed by a muddy trudge to find a tractor and a rope. Again though, this Mercedes has a few surprises up its sleeve. While we're not going to pretend this GLA to be able to get you places that would strand a Freelander, it's certainly not as hopeless as you might expect. We can think of a lot of Crossovers in this class from this era with a standard ride height lower than the 170mm boasted by a conventional GLA. This means you could probably get a surprisingly long way in this car, providing you didn't mind scraping it a bit. The short wheelbase and wheel-at-each-corner design certainly lends itself towards the sort of approach, breakover and departure angles that will get you out of a tight spot. The kind of place where you'd really appreciate the 4MATIC drive system's ability to direct up to 50% of drive to the rear wheels, according to the levels of available grip.
'Freedom', Mercedes says, 'is contagious'. Desire for premium-branded compact Crossover models of this kind certainly is - even if they cost as much as this one. It doesn't directly compete with RAV4-style SUVs but, given that it costs the same sort of money, we can see a number of people who'd previously have simply settled for another such CR-V-style soft roader being tempted by what's on offer here.
Some cheaper Crossover models of this kind seem a little crude in comparison with this GLA. Like them, it's essentially a family hatchback in a pair of hiking boots, but its transformation to meet that need has here been completed with a silken thoroughness typical of the Three-Pointed Star. That doesn't extend to any really serious off road capability but then, for many buyers, such a thing is neither wanted nor needed. Appropriate then, for this car to be so visually subtle in its expeditionary pretensions.
True, similar claims are also made in this segment by the BMW X1 and Audi Q3, rivals this car was directly pitched against. But these are SUVs with higher running costs, smaller boots and asking prices that are no cheaper. You can see then, why Mercedes did quite well in our market with this GLA. From its era, it was arguably one of the best compact cars the brand made.