The spending habits of younger consumers have changed drastically in recent years—especially when it comes to large purchases like cars and real estate. Whether due to economic forces or shifting social norms (or a combination of both), companies are racing to appeal to this new brand of consumer by combining the luxury of the past with the value this new generation of consumer seeks. With the successful launch of the Mercedes-Benz CLA—a high-end sedan aimed at drawing young professionals to the brand with a balance of luxury and value unlike anything on the market—the German automaker is continuing to expand its focus on new Benz owners with the 2015 GLA: an attractive compact SUV cross-over with the feel of a sports car and off-road capability. We recently had the opportunity to drive from Los Angeles to Palm Springs in the first GLAs to hit roads in the US. Though the face of Mercedes-Benz drivers behind the wheel is changing, the quality and inventive engineering that built the brand remains as cutting-edge as ever.
"With its striking features the GLA embodies our progressive thinking and enthralls with its off-road proportions," says Gorden Wagener, Vice President of Design at Daimler AG. "The clearly defined surfaces convey power, poise and assurance, and we have managed to combine as much emotional appeal as possible with as much purity as necessary." One look at the car reveals the design team's ability to hit their goals. On the one hand, the aggressive rear overhang and high bowing lines through the shoulder of the car gives it the classic G-Class SUV pedigree. Meanwhile, a simple elegance balances out the front of the car drawing on the sculpted notes of the C-Class. The GLA is a true crossover, with ample rear space and off-road driving abilities yet with the appropriate size, functionality and style for the city.
Style notes aside, the body of the GLA was designed specifically for aerodynamic driving to improve fuel efficiency and reduce wind noise. The front pillar of the car was lowered to improve overall aerodynamics, while mirrors and taillights are pulled in for even further reduced drag. A multi-level door sealing concept along with fortified roof and tailgate seals contributes to the near silent ride of the GLA.
Behind the wheel of the GLA, all of the team's design notes are made tangible. On city streets and highways, the car has a sharp response with the raw power we've come to expect from Mercedes. While not necessarily a "driver's car," the GLA is built for blending practicality with an emotional driving experience. Ample cargo room in the rear ensures enough gear for a weekend in the countryside will fit. The fully foldable backseat is also adjustable, making it surprisingly comfortable—even for two full-sized adults.
There are several engine variations of the GLA and we had the pleasure of testing a few. The entry-level GLA 200 is more focused on efficiency that power with its 156 horsepower four-cylinder, but still manages to provide quick acceleration for passing and city driving. However, for those looking for a more enriched drive and off-road experience, there's no other way than the GLA 250 4Matic, boasting 211 horsepower. The GLA is the first of the brand's SUVs to come equipped with the acclaimed all-wheel-drive system with fully variable torque distribution and a significantly lighter set of components than similar competitor systems. In loose surfaces, like the gravely dust roads outside Palm Springs, the GLA 250 4Matic grips where others fishtail. The brand is also offering an AMG version, complete with a dynamic handling package, lowered suspension and a sports steering system—not to mention all the eye-catching badges and sport-styling. With any of the engine options, the car's compact frame makes for impressive handling. Careening down the winding desert mountain roads—with sheer cliffs at every turn—the GLA suctioned to the road and barreled through turns with the tenacity of its higher-priced brethren.
The car's interior plays heavily on vertical lines, with a horizon aesthetic running throughout. Premium leathers, woodgrain and metals meld into the sophisticated contours. The luxuries one would expect from a Mercedes driver's seat are all present, including an intuitive climate control system, heated sport memory seats and all in a range of materials and finishes to suit every taste. The car's panoramic sunroof is perhaps its most attractive feature. A fixed, glazed section in the rear of the car bathes the backseat in natural light while the retracting front of the sunroof is designed specifically to reduce wind noise when open. An optional add-on sensor closes the retractable roof at the first sign of rain.
Though the models tested were not equipped with the highly anticipated Apple CarPlay, the existing system features simple smartphone integration with a focus on the iPhone. An in-car app allows for usage of supported functions such as Siri, Twitter, Facebook simply by voice command. Mercedes-Benz opted out of touch screens in favor of a dial command in the center console. While many of us may now "think in touch-screen," the dial actually feels less distracting once you get the hang of it, though there is a slight learning curve.
Part SUV, part sports sedan, the 2015 GLA offers the best of both worlds at a value that is sure to attract young, active consumers to this storied brand. The GLA hits lots across the US this fall. Though pricing details for the US market have not yet been released, expect them to be similar to the CLA, which starts at $29,900.
Photos by Hans Aschim