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2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB-Class first ride: Just-right-sized SUV

Riding shotgun in a Mercedes-Benz GLB250 prototype reveals a lot to like about this compact SUV.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB250

The 2020 GLB-Class hits dealers in late 2019.

Mercedes-Benz

The Mercedes-Benz GLC-Class is one of the better offerings in the compact luxury SUV space. Quiet, comfortable and easy to drive, it makes a solid case for being considered amongst a growing crop of small, premium offerings.

But if you're like me, you miss the GLC's predecessor: the GLK. Boxy and charming, it had a certain curb appeal that the new GLC, good as it is, simply can't replicate. That's where the 2020 GLB-Class comes in.

Sandwiched in the middle of Mercedes' alphabet soup of SUVs, the GLB splits the difference between the subcompact GLA and larger GLC. Compact and cute, the squared-off look of the GLB is something I can really get behind -- and Mercedes hopes many of you will, too.

The 2020 GLB isn't quite ready for prime time just yet; expect it to hit Mercedes-Benz dealers right around the end of this year. But back in July, I spent a day riding shotgun in an almost-done GLB250 prototype on a scenic drive through Colorado's Rocky Mountains, in the hopes of getting a better sense of what Mercedes' new little guy has to offer. Here's what I learned.

It's a cutie

Street-parked outside a hotel in downtown Denver, the GLB doesn't blend in to its surroundings anonymously. In the same way that the GLK had a bit more presence than other compact SUVs, so too does the GLB.

Dimensionally, the GLB is only slightly smaller than the GLC. It's 182.4 inches long, riding on a 111.4-inch wheelbase -- both measurements just 1.4 and 1.7 inches shy of the GLC. Standing 65.3 inches tall, the GLB is basically the same height as its bigger brother, though at 79.5 inches wide, it's actually 3 inches narrower.

All GLBs come standard with 18-inch wheels, with different designs depending on whether or not you pick the AMG styling pack. I like the way the gray, plastic cladding lines the wheel wells and blends into the front fascia -- it gives the GLB a little extra rugged je ne sais quoi, even if this is an SUV that'll definitely see more use in the city than out on a dusty trail.

The GLB is almost the same size as Mercedes' GLC-Class SUV.

Mercedes-Benz

It's spacious -- mostly

The cabin is where the GLB's upright design really pays dividends. Both front and second-row passengers have lots of headroom, and despite it being narrower than a GLC, you don't sit uncomfortably close to your passengers. The second-row seats can slide fore and aft for increased legroom, and the seat-back angle is adjustable, too.

The GLB is super easy to get in and out of, and once you're seated up front, there's a commanding view of the road ahead. The SUV has a low beltline for great outward visibility, and its gauge cluster and infotainment screens are positioned below the driver's line of sight on the dashboard; an optional head-up display helps here. The look of the three central air vents will be familiar to anyone who's been in one of Mercedes' recent products, as will the simple row of climate controls underneath. Large door pockets offer plenty of space for water bottles and snacks, and overall, the interior's design is clean and modern, with high-quality materials on most surfaces.

Mercedes will offer the 2020 GLB with an optional third row of seats, and that's where my "mostly" caveat comes in. The GLB250 prototype I sampled in Colorado didn't have this option, which is comprised of two individual flip-up seats. After climbing around in the second row and having a gander at the cargo area from the back hatch, I don't see how those way-back chairs could be even remotely useful for adults. Kids? Maybe, but only on short trips. Of course, I'll reserve final judgment for when I can actually shoehorn myself into said third row, but I have to imagine that, all loaded up with seven passengers, the second-row seats slid forward to accommodate, the GLB will feel super cramped.

The GLB's interior is familiar in the best way -- easy to use, nicely appointed and loaded with MBUX tech.

Mercedes-Benz

The tech game is strong

Nothing about the GLB's infotainment or driver-assistance technology offerings will surprise you -- it's the same stuff you'll find in several other Mercedes-Benz products. The SUV's base configuration gets you a 7-inch gauge cluster and 7-inch multimedia display, but an optional premium package ups both of those screens to 10.2-inch units, like what you see in the car pictured here.

Infotainment duties are handled by Mercedes' MBUX software, with its natural-speech voice recognition (the "Hey, Mercedes" command). The displays' designs are customizable, and in addition to voice prompts, you can interact with MBUX by touching the screen or, if you prefer a fingerprint-free approach, a trackpad on the center console or smaller thumb pads on each side of the steering wheel. The optional navigation system has the augmented reality directional overlays that I love, and while the amount of functionality built into MBUX can seem a bit overwhelming, the more I use it, the easier it gets.

The GLB doesn't skimp on safety tech, either. Buyers will be able to spec it with the same features available on more expensive Mercedes models, including adaptive cruise control, active steering assist, lane-keeping assist, lane-change assist, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and more. In other words, if Mercedes offers it, the GLB has it.

Mercedes-Benz GLB250: Way more comfy than an Amtrak sleeper car.

Mercedes-Benz

Power is fine, but more is on the way

In the US, Mercedes will only offer the GLB250 model, with a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. Power comes from a 2.0-liter, turbocharged I4 engine, making a respectable 222 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, mated to an 8-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission. I didn't get the chance to actually drive the GLB myself -- that opportunity will come closer to the SUV's on-sale date. But if my experience in the new A-Class, which uses a less-powerful version of this powertrain, is anything to go on, I'll bet the GLB is a perfectly smooth operator.

That's the impression I get from the passenger seat, anyway, where the GLB never feels sluggish while climbing Colorado's mountain passes. Not too much engine noise permeates the cabin, and the eight-speed DCT is mostly well behaved, only executing an oddly timed downshift or two while traversing steeper grades.

The GLB comes with Mercedes' usual Comfort, Sport and Eco drive modes, which change the throttle and transmission programming, as well as the steering's weight. 4Matic all-wheel-drive models get an extra Off-Road setting, which decreases throttle response at initial tip-in and adjusts the intervention points of the antilock braking system. The Off-Road mode also adds hill-descent control, which sort of works like a cruise control for a pre-selected speed between 1 and 11 miles per hour, for descending super-steep slopes. That said, I don't really see most customers throwing their GLBs into serious off-road situations. But hey, you do you.

The upright, boxy design means there's room for a third row of seats... technically.

Mercedes-Benz

Instead, the GLB will spend most of its time in the city and on the highway, where it offers a complaint ride. Minimal impacts aren't transferred into the cabin, though the GLB's upright design allows for a bit more wind noise than more rakish SUVs.

Following the GLB250's launch, Mercedes will offer the AMG GLB35, with a 305-horsepower, 2.0-liter engine, and the appropriate chassis upgrades to improve handling. It looks pretty cool, too -- there's more visual flair than a standard GLB, but not so much that it feels overwrought. It probably won't set the world on fire in terms of performance, but as a sort of tall hot hatch, the GLB35 out to be a fun steer.

Starts around $37,000

When the 2020 GLB-Class hits dealers later this year, it'll be priced from $36,600, not including $995 for destination, so well below the $42,500 MSRP of a 2020 GLC300. Naturally, being a Mercedes, the options list is extensive -- look for add-ons like active parking assist, LED front lighting, a high-end sound system, adaptive suspension-damping tech, wireless phone charging, 64-color ambient lighting, heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel and, yes, a silly light-up star on the grille. All told, a fully loaded GLB will surely end up in the mid-$50,000 range. That might seem excessive, but remember, a similarly equipped A220 sedan can also reach as high as 50 grand these days.

My first impression of the GLB250 is a strong one. Unless it totally falls apart in terms of behind-the-wheel behavior -- and I can't imagine it will -- the GLB should be a pretty great little SUV. Yes, it only narrowly splits the difference between the GLA and GLC, and I don't really buy the whole seven-seater pitch, but the GLB feels like a just-right-sized compact crossover -- and one that has a lot of appeal. 

Mercedes-Benz

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

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