There’s really been no way to ignore it, consumer zeal for sport-utility vehicles has just kept growing and dominating the car marketplace. Just about everyone in the biz makes one now, from the Porsche Cayenne to the Rolls Royce Cullinan, to the somewhat awkwardly named Lamborghini Urus. BMW has an entire lineup of SUVs with its terrific X5 as a centerpiece. But Mercedes-Benz? The first Mercedes I ever drove was my father-in-law’s older sedan and while it was an old, tired car at that point, it still had an air of luxury about it that was impressive.
When I had the opportunity to drive the new 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA250 SUV, I jumped at the chance. First, however, I had to look up “GLA250” to identify the car style, as I was still thinking “sedan? that’ll be nice”. Turns out that the Mercedes-Benz “GLA” lineup was introduced in 2013 and the acronym has a specific meaning: GL = Geländewagen (“off-road vehicle”) and A = the class of the vehicles in the overall Mercedes lineup. Here’s what showed up for my test drive:
As you can see, it’s a beautiful little SUV with a nicely updated Mercedes-Benz grill and a fairly enormous logo medallion. Look beyond that, though, and the exterior is very much a typical compact SUV design. Surprise, though, the GLA250 is actually smaller than most compact SUVs. Compare it to the Toyota RAV4 or the Mazda CX-5 and it’s shorter, narrower, and lower to the ground: The GLA250 is 174″ long, 72″ wide, and 64″ high, whereas the RAV4 is 181″ long x 73″ wide x 67″ high and the CX-5 is 179″ long x 73″ wide x 65″ high.
Inside, however, it’s roomy and very well appointed, as you would expect from any vehicle in the Mercedes line. Here’s the front dashboard layout, an interesting mix of classic Mercedes elements and small car features:
The primary interface is a double-wide display screen, with the main gauge grouping immediately behind the steering wheel. The infotainment and navigational system screen are centrally located between the driver and passenger. Some of these design elements are definitely inspired by the Mercedes-Benz luxury sedan, notably the three circular air vents directly below the nav screen.
While the controls immediately below those vents might look like an old-school AM/FM radio with preset buttons (imagine that showing up!) it is actually the climate controls:
These climate controls are entirely functional, with easy toggle switches to adjust settings (the feedback info like desired temperature or fan level are shown on screen). It did take me a while to find the seat heater controls, which I figured logically would be on the climate control bar, right? Nope, they’re on the doors, as you can see in the dash photo, above.
While the infotainment display features a touchscreen, the main controls are all on the center console, between the front seats. It’s what Mercedes calls the “New Generation Touchpad” and it’s similar to the BMW iDrive touch interface:
On first glance, it seems to cover all the main functionality, but I found the buttons non-intuitive in practice. Zoom in the map? You can do a sort of reverse-pinch gesture on the touchpad itself when it works. Tune to a different radio station? You can’t use the touchpad at all, you’re stuck choosing Next/Prev channel buttons on the infotainment screen itself (or maybe it’s the next/prev button on the very top; but that’s one button with two functions, so it’s confusing. Or is it the up/down arrows on the top left?).
The control on the top left labeled “DYNAMIC” is the Dynamic Drive control. It makes switching drive modes really easy, and while you might be tempted to stick with ECO mode to maximize fuel efficiency, it’s a lot more fun in Sport mode instead. Try to change channels while viewing your radio screen with that control, however, and you’ll change drive modes instead. The touchpad is also quite sensitive, which I’ve always found problematic when driving since having your finger resting on the pad and hitting a bump causes a push event. Even if you didn’t want to choose that particular selection.
Back to the main gauge display, because you can see that the GLA250 gets acceptable fuel efficiency:
My Mazda CX-5 gets exactly the same mileage: 27.4mpg. Overall, the display is really fun with its little car and roadway. There’s some logic to the illustration too, with the fuel gauge on the left and a gas pump showing “miles to empty” on the right, at the end of the path.
I was confused by the “Charge” area on the left gauge – since it’s not a hybrid or EV – so I asked the Mercedes rep. She explained that in ECO mode that portion of the gauge “highlights when the car is in “gliding” mode i.e. when driving with foot lifted off the gas pedal. It means that the 12V battery is being charged.” This means that the right gauge, showing if you’re accelerating, at a constant speed or coasting, is somewhat redundantly displaying the same information. If you’re not using paddle shifters in Sport mode there’s no point in having the vehicle display a tachometer, though, so I appreciate that Mercedes is experimenting with what to display when you’ve got an 8-speed automatic transmission.
Before we leave the drive experience, I have to say that this had the most unusual gear shift I’ve seen in a vehicle:
Up for reverse, down for drive, push the end button in for park, and all of this is essentially hidden behind the steering wheel.
The GLA250 has a modest engine, a 2.0L inline-4 turbo, but the drive experience is really quite peppy. The suspension is tight, offering road-hugging turns – it corners well! – and generally allows you to drive as if you were in a sports car rather than a small SUV. Definitely a far superior drive compared to my little Mazda!
Let’s step out of the car for a few more photos. First off, a decent amount of legroom for rear passengers:
More interestingly, your rear passengers are going to love the smart design of the center console:
That’s two USB-C plugs and a 115V AC outlet behind the cover, with a handy phone storage shelf above it. I did find it a bit odd that there wasn’t a single USB-3.0 (rectangular) plug in the vehicle, meaning that owners will likely have to buy new USB-C cables to keep devices fully charged.
Stepping even further back, the rear cargo space is pretty typical for this size SUV:
With the rear hatch closed…
Overall, I really enjoyed a chance to drive the 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA250 SUV, it’s a comfortable and responsive drive and a luxurious cabin design, all at a surprisingly affordable price for a Mercedes. The greatest downside was the infotainment system, yet again demonstrating the challenge of getting the full vehicle occupant experience right. A peppy drive? Sure. But if you can’t figure out how to change your music, map the route to your favorite café, or end up pushing the wrong buttons from trying to use the trackpad on a bumpy road, it’s disappointing, requiring the driver to adjust to the system, not vice-versa.
VEHICLE INFO: 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA250 SUV with Night Black exterior and Macchiato Beige interior. Powered by a 2.0L inline-4 turbo engine with 8-speed automatic and ECO start/stop. MSRP: $36,230. OPTIONAL PACKAGES: upgraded wheels, XM radio, heated front seats, interior ambient lighting, USB-C adapter cable (yes, they charge an extra $25 for that), multimedia package, and premium package. AS DRIVEN: $42,645.00.
Disclosure: Mercedes-Benz loaned me the 2021 GLA250 in return for this write-up. Which was darn nice of ’em. Thanks, Mercedes!