Mercedes updates its smallest of five SUVs, the GLA, for the 2017 model year, but, aside from a power hike for the range-topping (and largely irrelevant, here in Ireland) AMG 45 model, very little has changed on the German machine. And that, we fear, means it is slipping further behind key rivals and a new crop of impressive metal from 'lesser' manufacturers...
In the metal
Mercedes left well alone when it came to giving the handsome GLA a facelift for the 2017 model year, so that means the familiar 'like an A-Class but a tiny bit taller' aesthetic is carried over. The headlights are now LED units on all versions, rather than bi-Xenon affairs, there has been some extraordinarily minor sculpting of the bumpers front and rear and fresh alloy wheel designs are drafted in. As is Canyon Beige, a new colour for the bodywork of the GLA that is not, as might be implied, a hue you'd find on surgical stockings, but rather a quite natty burnished bronze that suits the GLA. Nevertheless, distinguishing a 2017MY GLA from one of the original 2014 cars will mainly come down to checking out the number plates affixed fore and aft, because to all intents and purposes the Mercedes is identical to its pre-facelift predecessor.
The interior is even more restrained in terms of alterations, as all Mercedes has done here is introduce some chrome chintz to a few of the switchgear surrounds, provided a couple of new upholsteries for the seats and slotted the 360-degree camera into the options list. So it's much the same as what went before: a pleasant cabin, built to a high standard, but featuring some questionable-quality plastics in out-of-the-way locations, Mercedes' defiantly different ergonomics (electric seat controls, where applicable, that are split between the side of the seat frame and the door card; lights, wipers and indicators on one stalk to the left of the steering wheel; and a column-mounted gear lever) and that eight-inch infotainment display screen that looks like it was bolted on in a hurry as the GLA was just about to leave the production line.
Still, overall we like the way the GLA looks inside and out, despite it appearing very 'car-like' from the kerb and even more like being behind the wheel of an A-Class when you're... well, behind the wheel. Even though right-hand-drive models all ride on 30mm-taller Off-Road Comfort suspension as standard, the GLA does not feel like it has a semi-command driving position, so if you want to sit up high looking down at other road users, this particular Mercedes crossover is not for you. It does, however, have a cabin that is roomier and a boot that is more capacious than the A-Class's, so it is not without a significant degree of practicality.
If we say the Mercedes GLA is uninspiring to drive, that makes it sound bad. Which it isn't. Many things about it are very commendable. Its hatchback-like stance makes the GLA (predictably) drive like a hatchback, which is to say in an unflustered, composed manner that belies its 'SUV' status. Grip is good, the steering is well-weighted, the body control is better than many similarly-sized rivals' and there's a general air of refinement to the ride comfort, plus the suppression of wind noise and tyre roar, that makes the GLA a really easy-going companion if you're just cruising along a motorway or making decent (if not breakneck) speed on a back road.
But taking much of its dynamic make-up from the supple-but-safe A-Class means this isn't one of the finest-driving SUVs you can buy. It doesn't really do a lot beyond corner acceptably and there's an edge to the low-speed ride on larger alloys that's an annoyance in this particular sector of the market. The GLA 220 d's big failing, though, is under the bonnet.
Despite the fact Mercedes invested many millions of Euros on a new 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel engine (seeing service and reaping plaudits in the E-Class) and despite the fact the German company said it would supersede the old 2.1-litre unit in a phased roll-out from 2016 on, for our liking there are still too many new cars sliding off the marque's global production lines that utilise the venerable old diesel. The GLA is one such example and, as a result, the 220 d is noisy. Noisy, and vibrant, and we don't use that latter word in the context of 'full of energy and life'; we use it to mean shaky, shivery, shuddery.
Vibrations reverberate through the pedals, steering wheel and seat bases whether the engine is idling or being pushed round to its redline, and if you do rev it out then the 2.1's voice becomes strained and gruff. There's nothing wrong with the motive power 177hp and 350Nm bestow on the 1,595kg 220 d, but in terms of drivetrain finesse, this GLA is now feeling a long way off prevailing class standards.
What you get for your money
Mercedes Ireland has confirmed it is actually slightly cutting the list prices of the GLA, while simultaneously introducing around €6,000 of additional equipment to all models. This looks to be a great move on the face of it, and the equipment added - heated front seats, Garmin satnav preparation (just prep, mind, not actual mapping and guidance; that’s still an option), air conditioning, Dynamic Select drive settings, remote online connectivity, the aforementioned LED headlights and the High-Beam Assist function - brings the car in line, in equipment terms, with GLAs offered in other countries.
Anyway, the improved-spec GLA range now starts from €34,759 for a GLA 180 d, which is the best-selling model here, and that prices it competitively against the Audi Q3 and BMW X1 families, which both start nearer 40 grand. However, it still looks expensive when you could get, say, a top-spec SEAT Ateca for about the same cash, badge status aside.
If Mercedes had drafted in the newer, slicker 2.0-litre diesel engine, or given us a bit more power on the more accessible models below the AMG 45 variant, or at least changed the shape of the headlights and the grille a bit, then the 2017MY GLA might have edged closer to the class elite. But we can't help feeling Mercedes has missed a considerable trick here. Very, very little has changed and while the most compact Mercedes SUV was something fresh and different three years ago, today it is in danger of being swamped in the face of a highly appealing, fresher BMW X1, the twin Audi threats of the latest Q2 or the polished, obvious-rival Q3, and any number of competitors from SEAT, Peugeot, Hyundai and Kia that all offer more equipment, more space and - most crucially of all - a more obvious SUV aesthetic/driving position than the GLA. That the GLA is also not a conspicuous bargain nor the most thrilling thing to drive means this Mercedes feels like it isn't anywhere near challenging for class honours. And that's a real shame, because it has potential to be a highly amenable car otherwise; potential that looks like it will be unfulfilled until an all-new model arrives in another two or three years' time.