Mercedes-Benz_GLA_frontThe sighs of relief from the chiefs at Mercedes-Benz Australia must have been heard all across Melbourne. The first shipment of the all-new Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class crossover SUV had finally reached the docks in Australia and big celebrations were underway.

A silly planning decision from Mercedes’ head office was made a decade ago and the local branch of Mercedes has suffered ever since. That decision was to build the small-medium Mercedes-Benz GLK crossover SUV only with the steering wheel on the left hand side.

Mercedes dealers in Australia, NZ, the UK and South Africa all complained bitterly and there were times it looked as though GLKs with the steering wheel on our side were planned, but it all came to naught.

In the meantime Audi introduced its Q3 and Q5 and is thought to be working on a Q1, BMW brought out its X1 and X3 – and both companies’ dealers laughed all the way to the bank, probably with a smirk on their faces as they drove past their non-competitors in Mercedes showrooms.

That’s all in the past. Mercedes-Benz GLA is finally here, and joins the big M-Class, extra-large GL-Class and the rough-and-tough G-Wagen in the German giant’s SUV/off-road range.

Incidentally, we have been assured an all-new Mercedes GLK is due out in 2015 – and will finally be offered with the steering wheel on the ‘proper’ side.

Based on the A-Class hatch and sedan/coupe, though there are no major external components in common, the GLA sits midway between an SUV and station wagon. The bold frontal style is very A-Class and makes a big play of the three-pointed star, very definite swage line in the sides work well and taillights look as though they could have been borrowed from big brother E-Class. The big rear diffuser gives the GLA a purposeful appearance, as do the roof racks.

Due to strong demand overseas, the range is rather limited in the early days. The only current import is of the $47,900 turbo-diesel GLA 200 CDI; it will be followed in July by a $57,900 turbo-petrol GLA 250 4Matic, with the eagerly awaited GLA 45 AMG variant, at a pretty reasonable $79,900.

Many will regard these prices as starting points as Mercedes bundles together many features in various packages that can soon cause a significant swelling of the bottom line. These packages have titles (usually self explanatory) of Comand, Seat Comfort, AMG Line, AMG Edition 1, Driver Assistance.

May we suggest you talk to your local Merc dealer for full information on the packs? Perhaps don’t wait too long because there’s been a huge amount of interest in the early days of this important new model.

All engines are four-cylinder in-line turbocharged units.

The turbo-diesel has a capacity of 2.1 litres and produces 100 kW of power, and 300 Nm of torque between 1400 and 3000 revs. It comes with a seven-speed automatic transmission and drives only through the front wheels.

The standard turbo-petrol is slightly smaller at 2.0 litres and can produce up with 155 kW and 350 Nm, the latter from an ultra-low 1200 revs all the way up to 4000 rpm. It too has a seven-speed auto, but all four wheels are driven to prepare it for mild to moderate off-road use.

The rip-snorting AMG powerplant is also a 2.0-litre unit, but serious modifications mean it has an amazing 265 kilowatts and 450 Newton metres on tap. Naturally it drives all four wheels, this time through the high-performance AMG seven-speed Speedshift double-clutch auto.

Five-star crash rating is achieved by many methods, including no fewer than nine airbags, including units providing knee protection for both front seat occupants.

Though the interior is different from others in the all-new A-Class range there are plenty of similarities in the dash area, which is no bad thing. The centre screen still looks like a bit of an afterthought, particularly when compared with the new S-Class, which has obviously been built around the latest in screen thinking.

Front seats are well-shaped and provide good comfort. Access is easy, which is one of the often forgotten reasons for buying a taller vehicle. The rear seats have good legroom even with the fronts well back. There is space for three adults in the rear, but only just.

Boot space is good and the area is well shaped and easy to load.

As mentioned, only the lowest cost model, the GLA 200 turbo-diesel is being sold at the moment. We found it an easy engine to sit behind, with minimal in-cabin noise once it had warmed up. Torque is good and turbo lag is seldom a hassle unless you want hard acceleration quickly to get past someone on a country road.

Suspension is well balanced and the steering gives good feedback for its class. Keep in mind the GLA 200 is driven only by its front wheels so we haven’t yet had an opportunity to try really hard driving.

Comfort is generally good and the extra suspension travel means the GLA is probably slighter better off than the A-Class hatch. Only a back to back test will prove, or otherwise, our feeling on this. Road noise is well isolated and coarse-chip surfaces didn’t intrude as much as in many small to medium European cars.

Eagerly awaited, and finally here, it’s hard to see the competent Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class being anything other than a big sales success.

The complete 2014 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class range is:
GLA 200 CDI: $47,900
GLA 250 4Matic: $57,900
GLA 45 AMG: $79,900
Note: These prices do not include government or dealer delivery charges. Contact your local Mercedes-Benz dealer for driveaway prices.

About Ewan Kennedy

Ewan Kennedy, a long-time car enthusiast, was Technical Research Librarian with the NRMA from 1970 until 1985. He worked part-time as a freelance motoring journalist from 1977 until 1985, when he took a full-time position as Technical Editor with Modern Motor magazine. Late in 1987 he left to set up a full-time business as a freelance motoring journalist. Ewan is an associate member of the Society of Automotive Engineers - International. An economy driving expert, he set the Guinness World Record for the greatest distance travelled in a standard road vehicle on a single fuel fill. He lists his hobbies as stage acting, travelling, boating and reading.
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