Mercedes goes small, rugged with the GLA250

Betting that wealthy people also want smaller cars, Mercedes-Benz introduces the GLA-Class compact SUV at the 2013 Frankfurt auto show.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
3 min read
Watch this: 2015 Mercedes GLA

FRANKFURT -- Car buyers may not be quite ready for a premium compact sedan, but a compact SUV might just be the right bait to get wealthier buyers looking at smaller cars. Or such seems to be Mercedes-Benz's logic with the new GLA-Class, which debuted at the 2013 International Motor Show in Frankfurt.

This new car will be sold as a 2015 model, and although the European market will enjoy a variety of engine choices, including a diesel, the only version coming to the US will be the GLA250. Powered by a turbocharged 2-liter gasoline engine, the GLA250 will be available in front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive formats.

Bearing the Mercedes-Benz tri-star, you might expect the GLA to be somewhat effete, but in person it pulls off a rugged look. Notched plastic runners under the rocker panels protect the car from rocks and brush, while a good gap between wheels and fenders suggests decent suspension travel. It looks a little like the Subaru XV Crosstrek.

While those features may be more cosmetic than anything, it's important to remember that Mercedes-Benz makes one of the more potent off-road production vehicles available, the G-Class.

Mercedes-Benz notes that the GLA will use a newer version of the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, capable of moving 100 percent of torque between front and rear axles. It will also include a descent control program and a special off-road driving mode, affecting the transmission shift points and throttle control.

Mercedes-Benz joins the compact SUV crush with GLA-Class (pictures)

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At less than 5 feet tall and 14.5 feet long, the GLA certainly qualifies as compact. Like the BMW X1, with which it directly competes, it's short enough that most people will be able to look right over the roof when standing next to it.

Despite the compact dimensions, the front features a prominent, two-bar Mercedes-Benz grille. The headlights, bearing jewel-like LED parking strips, add a little finery.

With its upright seating position, the cabin is easy to access, and the front feels roomy. The rear seating area feels a little spartan, and legroom quickly diminishes when the front seats are pushed back. In good Mercedes-Benz ergonomic tradition, the power seat controls are located on the front door panels.

Much of the interior looks stock for Mercedes-Benz models. As in some of the company's newer cars, the LCD is not set into the dashboard, but sits up on its own. A dial and a panel full of plastic buttons, just below the LCD, control onscreen content, accessing features such as navigation, phone, and stereo. This system is similar to that seen in Mercedes-Benz's lower-end models.

Rounding out the typical Mercedes-Benz equipment is a Harman Kardon premium audio system, most likely an option.

As with most other Mercedes-Benz models, the drive selector, which controls the seven-speed automatic transmission, is a stalk hanging off of the steering column. The GLA250's 2-liter engine turns out 208 horsepower and a meaty 258 pound-feet of torque. That engine tuning should make the GLA250 feel sprightly off the line.

The Mercedes-Benz GLA250 goes on sale in fall of 2014, and should make for an all-around vehicle -- commuter, errand runner, and weekend road-tripper -- for couples, parents with one child, and empty nesters.