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By Charl Bosch

Motoring Journalist

Mercedes-Benz GLA’s star glows bright but could have been brighter

AMG Line does the ride no favours at all.

Catering for the needs of every buyer, no matter how left-field the final product ends up (Range Rover Evoque Cabriolet anyone?), is of course second nature to any manufacturer intent on plugging every existing segment gap in order to cash-in on its popularity, or avoid lagging behind the competition.

As such, it is not often that a marque admits to having too many models competing for the same market share or segment, but one which Mercedes-Benz boss Ola Källenius owed up to in an interview with Automotive News Europe last October.

According to an extract, Källenius stated that the three-pointed star “went a bit too far to cover each and every space into each and every segment”, pointing the finger at the lower-end of the line-up occupied by the A-Class sedan and hatch, the long wheelbase China only A-Class Sedan L, the CLA and estate-like CLA Shooting Brake, the GLA, GLB and B-Class, all based on the front-wheel-drive centric MFA2 platform.

Despite it being unlikely that any of the mentioned models would get the axe so long as demand remains, it does present an interesting predicament, especially the saga involving the GLA and GLB that touched down on local shores last year.

Whereas the former has served as Benz’s entry-level SUV/crossover since debuting in 2014, the mini G-Class styled GLB arrived two years ago as the filler between it and the GLC, with local models coming as standard with seven-seats as opposed to the five offered elsewhere, and according to Mercedes-Benz, with a decent amount of off-road prowess now that the non-AMG GLA no longer comes with all-wheel-drive.

As editor, Jaco van der Merwe, pointed out in his launch report of Benz’s SUV range in November, the supposed off-road ability of the GLB, notwithstanding its higher price, are likely factors that could turn buyers back to the sportier looking but less practical, off-road biased GLA this writer had for company towards the end of last year.

While unlikely to shake-off the “A-Class on stilts” tag it acquired not long after debuting, the second generation GLA is an altogether much better attempt at the “SUV-insed hatchback” than its predecessor on first glance. Sporting much softer lines, a distinct ‘forward’ look and SUV elements such as the roof rails, black cladding around the wheel arches, at the base of the doors and rear bumper, our tester added a further touch of sportiness to the mix by being the AMG Line infused with the jet wing front bumper and apron, black mirror caps, wider door sills and sinister looking gloss black AMG 20-inch alloy wheels that contrasted rather well with the white paint finish.

In a segment where aesthetics in-line with, but not adhering to full-on SUV principles are key, the coupe-like GLA plays it much better than its predecessor, with the same applying to the interior. Roomier on account of being 30 mm longer and wider plus 104 mm taller, the cabin look and design comes directly from the A-Class with our 200 not only being outfitted with the dual 10.25-inch instrument cluster and MBUX infotainment system combo, but also the grippy AMG steering wheels and a dual panoramic roof that infringes very little on rear passenger headroom.

Like the A-Class though, the tech filled interior with its minimalist facia and turbine-style vents still comes riddled with less than premium feeling materials, some being downright cheap, while the lack of electric seats as standard, especially at the AMG Line’s rather ludicrous R731 140 before options price tag, makes for a big no-no.

During its five-day stay, the MBUX, activated by saying that now famous line, Hey Mercedes, proved a boon to use whether by voice activation, using the trackpad or the display itself, while the optional Burmester sound system made for a welcome edition. Despite lacking electrical assistance, the seats are comfortable and supportive and the desired driving position easily found thanks to the height adjustable steering wheel. At the 435-litres, boot space is well down on that of the GLB, but will prove sufficient for most buyers.

Matters soon went downhill, and rather badly, once on the move. As its badge indicates, the GLA 200 makes use of the 1.3-litre turbocharged petrol engine parent company Daimler has co-developed with the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, which produces the same 120kW/250Nm as in the A200, B200 and CLA 200.

Matched to a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, the engine, rather surprisingly, pulls strong from the get-go unlike in its sibling, but runs out of steam soon after in addition to being hobbled by a horrible strained soundtrack when the revs climb or with the Dynamic Select system in Sport mode.

What’s more, the dual-clutch ‘box shifts too lethargically when you want to press on, although in everyday situations, the cog swapping is more agreeable. Of course, the use of the gear shift paddles makes for snappier progress, but chances are small that buyers would opt for anything but leave the column mounted selector in D.

Of greater concern is the ride. The biggest downfall of the AMG Line, the combination of an overly soft suspension and those 20-inch wheels makes for a simply intolerable ride akin to driving on a gravel road peppered with slippery stones. Adding to the willowy feel, not helped by our badly patched roads, the GLA’s nose tended to dart around way too much, while a persistent knocking noise, suspected to be the tyres despite no obvious warning, didn’t help refinement out on the highway or in town.

As much as Mercedes-Benz needs commending for improving the GLA from it once was, aspects blighting its range of small models from some of the interior fittings to the drivetrain continue linger. While likely to be looked-over by many buyers in lieu of three-pointed star SUV ownership, these, along with the avoid-at-all-costs AMG Line pack and silly price, conspire to tarnish what should have been an overall step-up from the model that preceded it.

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