Sales of crossover/SUVs accounted for 30.2 per cent of the new-vehicle market in New Zealand last month – a statistic that suits Mercedes-Benz general manager Ben Giffin just fine.
The segment has grown just over three per cent since late last year when Giffin said he wished he had a vehicle to compete in the luxury mid-range sector. “The only reason Mercedes-Benz is not the number one luxury brand in New Zealand is because we don’t have a competitor for the Audi Q3 and BMW X1,” he said. “That will change when the GLA (above) arrives. It will change again in our favour when the GLK gets here in 2015.”
That was then – now part one of Giffin’s wish list is complete. The front-drive GLA diesel crossover is already here, and the first of two all-wheel-drive petrol units arrived this week. The GLK, said to be slightly larger and better looking than the current left-hook-only model, will wrap up part two next year.
Giffin believes the GLA, the small-medium CLA sedan, the medium C-Class range, due in September, and the GLK will indeed boost passenger sales to the point where Benz leads the way from BMW and Audi.
“In the first half of this year Mercedes-Benz sales in New Zealand have grown 34 per cent,” said Giffin. “The luxury SUV market so far in 2014 is up 57 per cent year on year and it’s one we have been missing … we lack exposure in that segment.
“There are not enough months left this year to overtake our SUV competitors – but from now on, when we start adding the SUVs, we can be number one overall.”
The GLA is more car-like than crossover/SUV rivals like the Audi Q3, BMW X1, and Range Rover Evoque, because it is based on the flexible A-Class platform. While it has a bigger body, more interior room, and 50mm more ride height, it carries over trademark A-Class design elements like the headlights, bold grille and curved roofline.
Compare the dimensions:
• GLA length 5300mm, height 1494mm
• Q3 length 4385mm, height 1608mm
• X1 length 5379mm, height 1535mm
• Evoque length 4355mm, height 1605mm
Now compare GLA dimensions against popular hatchbacks:
• Toyota Corolla length 4275mm, height 1460mm
• Mazda3 length 4590mm, height 1465mm
• Volkswagen Golf length 4255mm, height 1478mm
Get the picture? The GLA is about the striking side of a matchbox taller than a VW Golf and the length of a cigarette packet longer. And therein lies its appeal. It doesn’t look like a crossover/SUV, although its all-paw 4Matic system gets it where 99.9 per cent of SUVs go anyway – on to a little bit of grass or sloppy surface now and again.
New Zealanders get the choice of three GLAs, each with a seven-speed automatic transmission. The front-drive 200 CDI ($65,900) is already on sale, its 2.1-litre turbocharged diesel delivering 100kW between 3400-4000rpm and 300Nm between 1400-3000rpm. Fuel use is a claimed 4.9 litres/100km (58mpg) for C02 of 122gr/km.
It’s a good enough performer but is let down by a noisy diesel engine that clatters away on idle and even at motorway speeds never seems to get into the lazy lope good diesels are known for. It is noisier than 2.0-litre oil-burners from BMW and Audi. The 200 CDI rides on 18-inch alloys.
The 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol under the bonnet of the GLA 250 Sport 4Matic ($76,900) is much more refined and flexible, riding on 19-inch wheels and delivering 155kW at 5500rpm and 350Nm between 1200-4000rpm. Benz claims town-and-around fuel use of 7 litres/100km (43mpg) for C02 of 162gr/km.
It was the GLA 250 Sport that NZ and Australian motoring journalists drove on a mix of roads between Auckland and Tauranga this week. The third GLA, the 45 AMG 4Matic ($99,900), is not in New Zealand yet. It comes with 20-inch alloys and also uses a boosted 2.0-litre engine, especially tuned to generate 265kW/450Nm as it does in the A-Class A45 AMG, the most powerful production hatchback.
The GLA 250 Sport 4Matic is expected to be the most popular. In a nutshell, it trades on its hatchback underpinnings and offers safe and predictable handling with little body roll, despite a softer suspension set-up than the A-Class. It is not as accurate as the lighter and smaller A-Class but it rides better, certainly once speed builds. It also uses more high and ultra-high strength steel in its structure than the A-Class: 73 to 63 per cent.
Inside, it gets a tablet-style infotainment system that is in other Benz models and a nifty dash inspired by the SLS AMG. It’s a minimalist design, Benz at its best, with instrument dials and bezels that are perhaps a little dated but remain efficient. Benz fits some rugged touches to the GLA in the form of plastic body cladding and aluminium roof rails. There are even more aggressive add-ons in the option list.
The GLA 250 Sport 4Matic is the only model in the mix with a special off-road transmission mode that tunes into the terrain. Once this button is pushed, the tablet screen shows what is happening with the car, highlighting functions like hill-descent control. The off-road package works with the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and a rear differential Benz developed especially for the GLA and CLA with Canadian company Magna Powertrain.
It can send 50 per cent of the engine’s power to the rear wheels as soon as the front wheels lose traction, or begin to rotate faster than the rear rims. Benz claims everything happens inside 100 milliseconds, or a tenth of a second. It made easy work of a steep farm track that mixed mud and thick soles of grass overlooking the Coromandel.
The other car on the launch also made light work of the wet roads and wild weather. It was the CLA 250 Sport 4Matic, a four-door sedan with a coupe profile. The front-drive CLA 200 has been here for some months and runs a boosted 1.6-litre engine delivering 115kW/250Nm. The four-paw CLA 250 uses the same 155kW/350Nm engine as the GLA 250 and rides on 18-inch alloys. The third CLA variant is the 45 AMG 4Matic. It’s on its way here, priced from $107,900.