Mercedes has sold a smaller SUV (the GLK) for a while in continental Europe, but that car was never available in right-hand drive. Now the slightly smaller GLA has turned up, and Mercedes UK is expecting to pull in lots of new buyers who want a family hatchback-sized model with a slightly higher driving position.
The key words there are 'slightly higher', because the GLA is very much a beefed-up hatch instead of a proper SUV. Indeed, on some of the lower suspension settings available (and there are several) you could mistake it for a modified A-Class. Still, it is available with Mercedes' latest 4MATIC four-wheel-drive system, including an off-road mode that incorporates hill descent control.
Mercedes is pitching the GLA above the A-Class, so that car's more modest engines aren't on offer here for now. Instead, the line-up starts (at £25,850) with the 134bhp, front-wheel-drive GLA200 CDI.
The four-wheel-drive models tested here are badged 4Matic, and they get more powerful engines: the 168bhp GLA220 CDI (from £30,030), and the £29,910 GLA250 turbocharged petrol, with 208bhp.
There's also the outlandish GLA45 AMG, which has a 355bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, the dual-clutch gearbox and four-wheel drive. It's not on sale yet, but it's likely to cost around £44,000.
What's the 2014 Mercedes GLA like to drive?
Mercedes has said all along that the regular GLA would focus more on comfort than the fairly stiff A-Class, and the good news is that the engineers have followed the brief. We tried both a GLA250 on sports suspension and a GLA220 CDI on the standard 'comfort' set-up, and both felt more sophisticated than any A-Class, even on relatively smooth Spanish roads.
You don't seem to pay any great penalty for this comfort, either, because the GLA doesn't lean particularly badly in corners compared with many other SUVs. The steering, meanwhile, is direct enough around the straight ahead, and nicely weighted.
Refinement on both cars is decent, too; the petrol motor is smoother overall, but the diesel engine is only noticeably vocal if you really force the standard seven-speed auto gearbox to kick down abruptly. At a motorway cruise, the GLA220 CDI is pulling barely 2000rpm and the engine fades into the background nicely; you're more likely to be bothered by wind noise (particularly around the windscreen pillars) and road rumble than engine roar. Both motors feel comfortable with the car's size, with more than enough torque for rapid progress.
The GLA45 AMG, meanwhile, is just plain fast. It'll crack 0-62mph in 4.8 seconds and it feels that quick, with a solid thud of power delivery from as little as 2000rpm and a gunfire-esque pop every time you shift up a gear. It handles surprisingly well, too - although it's a little odd to be chucking a car around from the slightly elevated driving position.
What's the 2014 Mercedes GLA like inside?
The front cabin of the GLA will look familiar to you if you've spent any time in the A-Class or CLA; in fact, it's a mixture of the hatchback's design with the slightly more upmarket finish of the baby saloon.
The fascia itself is dominated by the centrally mounted infotainment screen (some may feel that it looks 'tacked on', although its image quality is particularly crisp) and a large expanse of wood material.
Thankfully UK models won't get the dull brown wood finish of our test vehicle pictured here; we'll be offered piano black, 'black wood' or aluminium instead. The other materials are hard to fault, with solid-feeling switches and plenty of dense, soft-touch plastics.
The main controls are all conveniently positioned, with Merc's steering column-mounted gearshift for the automatic transmission freeing up a fair amount of front cabin space. The infotainment system – which is controlled via a rotary dial between the front dials – isn't quite as intuitive as BMW's iDrive system, but it's still relatively easy to use.
Clambering into the rear will remind you that the GLA is not a full-sized SUV; the aperture at the back doors isn't particularly wide and once you're in place, there's only average leg- and headroom for anyone beyond six feet tall. Think of it as a regular family hatchbackand you'll get the idea.
The boot is a fair size, at 481 litres, rising to 1235 litres if you fold down the 60/40 split rear seats. For comparison, that's 60 litres more standard capacity than Audi's Q3, but around 90 litres less with the seats folded.
The GLA does suffer from the same problem as the A-Class, with wide rear shoulders that don't help the loading access. An electrically operated rear hatch is offered as an option.
Should I buy one?
We can see why the GLA will have real appeal when it arrives in showrooms in late spring. It's nicely finished, roomy enough for two adults and two children with a fair amount of clutter, and comfortable enough, too.
However, it's harder to recommend the specific models wheeled out by Mercedes for this initial launch. The GLA250 is a small turbocharged petrol SUV with relatively poor fuel economy and high CO2 emissions, and while the GLA220 CDI is rapid enough, reasonably refined and pretty economical, it's also the thick end of £30,000. For that much money you could have a BMW X3.
There's still hope of a more resounding recommendation, though; there's enough promise here for us to suspect that the front-wheel-drive GLA200 CDI could be a genuinely serious rival for our favourite premium small SUV, the Audi Q3 2.0 TDI. We look forward finding out if this theory is correct when we get the entry-level GLA on UK roads.
What Car? says…
Specification GLA220 CDI 4MATIC
Engine size 2.1-litre diesel
Price from £30,030
Torque 258lb ft
0-62mph 8.3 seconds
Top speed 134mph
Fuel economy 55.4mpg
Specification GLA250 4MATIC
Engine size 2.0-litre turbo petrol
Price from £29,910
Torque 258lb ft
0-62mph 7.1 seconds
Top speed 143mph
Fuel economy 42.8mpg