Rental Car Review: 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 4Matic
It was another one of those hectic travel days. As I lay there trying to fall back asleep, my wife Jennifer nudged me and asked me what time I was supposed to get up. Then she told me that it was almost 45 minutes past that time. Panic, expletives, the most impressively-efficient shower I’ve ever taken, dress, grab my bag, hit the road for the train station. Made my usual train instead of an earlier one I’d intended. The reason for all this is that it was the Monday after Thanksgiving and I knew that the airport would be busier than usual. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to avoid having to fly that day to see a customer in northern New Jersey, via Philadelphia’s airport because flight choices at Newark weren’t very good. On top of that, bad winter weather was in the forecast for the northeast. I managed to get to the gate on time since the crowds were not as bad as I expected, and in a bit of luck, there was a short flight delay so I even got a bite of breakfast. The snow-dump that Philadelphia was expecting didn’t show up, so it all went smoothly. And as I stepped off the rental car shuttle, I wondered as usual if there was anything interesting available.
I did briefly spot this one car that I had written most of a review for and was waiting to rent one again so I could complete that review, but quickly forgot about it when I saw a shiny little black Mercedes-Benz crossover. Could a Mercedes really be available in the non-upgrade section? Yes, and I focused on it so quickly that I didn’t see the bigger black Mercedes SUV a few spaces down, which, as I was exiting later, pulled out in front of me suddenly-enough to find out that the brakes in the car I got were A-OK. That bigger model looked nice, but what I got was a GLA 250 4Matic, which was just fine for me and my gear. Small and nimble is usually better in my book. But I’m getting ahead of the story here. Once I decided to go for the cute little GLA, I noticed that whoever backed it into the parking space had backed it within inches of the guard-rail which meant that I would have to move it forward to load my gear.
Before climbing in, I did notice that the interiour looked very comfy and inviting and tastefully appointed. One visual thing that made an impression was that the floor mats were edged in the same colour as the seats. It’s a little thing for sure, but it screams NICE. The seats looked really comfy too, but I have yet to get into a rental car that didn’t need its seats adjusted to fit my tall frame, so I took note of the adjustment multi-button on the side of the seat and gave it good long pushes in both back and down. Then I sat down and found my head touching the ceiling! This didn’t seem right. Push the button in the downward direction again, and hold it for a good few seconds. Nothing. Hmmmmmmmm. I wondered if there was some seat-memory issue that was keeping me from adjusting the position, so I looked over to the door where most manufacturers put the memory buttons…and right there next to the memory buttons, was a set of buttons shaped like a side-view of a car seat. It makes sense on one level, but not on the obvious level since most manufacturers put those buttons on the side of the seat. I adjusted the seat for comfort and noted that it could go back REALLY far, much farther than even I need. Remember the 1970s TV-ad in which Wilt Chamberlain drove a Volkswagen Rabbit? He would have done even better in this car. What, then, did the button on the side of the seat do? Turns out that it controls the lumbar-support, which has no fewer than THREE different adjustable segments. If you’re a control-freak with a sensitive back, YOU NEED THIS CAR.
Not to be out-done by the seat, the transmission then gave me its own challenge. No shift lever in the center console, no knob to select a gear, nothing obvious. Another Hmmmmmmmmm, then after a moment I spotted it. The stalk on the right side of the column, not very big or obtrusive, had some letters and arrows on it that suggested that it might be what I needed. Sure enough, move it up or down to get into reverse or drive respectively, and a little button on the end puts it in park. Finally, I was able to pull the car forward to load my gear. Remember the gear? With that and everything else done that needs doing when I get into a rental car, I was under way, but noticed before leaving the lot that I wasn’t done with confusing controls. The headlight switch isn’t visible from where my eyes are in this car, obscured by the steering wheel. It’s in the position on the left end of the dashboard that is familiar to other cars, but I still had to look around the wheel to see what the positions of the switch were. And as I got into the line for the check-out, it hit me that I didn’t see cruise control-controls anywhere. Really? I know that this isn’t an inexpensive car. How on earth can you sell a luxury car without cruise control? I did remember that a BMW X3 I’d had on a trip a while back was surprisingly spartan in its features, so maybe this was more of the same. But just by chance when I turned the steering wheel at one point, I saw a second stalk on the left side of the column, smaller than the one for the turn signals, and farther down…right where the wheel completely obscures it most of the time! And to add to the frustration, you have to give the wheel a good turn to see the markings that indicate which way to move the stalk to make the cruise control do which function. If I owned this car and drove it on the highway a lot, I’m sure that I would eventually remember which direction to push the stalk to do what, but during my time with it I did require some trial-and-error to get it right.
So, finally out on the road, my first impression was that this car felt like pretty much every car these days. Yes, we have reached the point where, the carmakers scared by the economies of scale in today’s gigantic market that give so little room for error, every car drives about the same. With more time behind the wheel, I formed the impression that the steering was light but precise. This combination can be good if you’re paying attention or bad if you’re not. Power from the turbocharged 2-litre 4-cyliner engine is okay but not spectacular, at a claimed 208 hp moving a 3340-lb curb weight via a 7-speed Dual-clutch automatic transmission and an automatic all-wheel-drive system. It’ll move when it needs to, but won’t leave you breathless. But This is a luxury car, not a sports car. The GLA 250 handled well on the wet pavement, and after about 45 minutes it began to snow- but at no point did the car show any sign that I should lose confidence, at least until once near my destination, I pulled into a parking lot and gave it a sharp turn to see how it did in the fluffier fresh snow…and it did very poorly, taking the steering input as a mere suggestion. I daresay that my six-year-old FWD Mazda 3 would have handled that moment better.
Shortly after that snowy skid I parked the car for the night, and the next morning it was covered with a 4-inch layer of snow with an icy base. I was pleased with how quickly the front and rear defrosters did their job, but this does bring me to the temperature controls. Thankfully they’re not as difficult to initially figure-out as the systems mentioned above, although I did notice one odd quirk. With many cars, instead of having a button for every possible way to aim the air, there is one or two buttons that allow you to toggle through the possibilities. In the case of my Mazda, it’s a button with a left and right arrow that you press either end of to scroll through the choices. This Merc has a pair of MODE buttons, one above the display and bearing an up-arrow, and one below the display and bearing a down-arrow. Not having the buttons immediately adjacent to each other is a little awkward, and that awkwardness is driven home by the fact that unlike cars such as my Mazda, you cannot use one button to scroll through a loop of the choices- press one MODE button enough times and you’ll reach the end, and must use the other button to go back through the choices.
The location of the climate controls down low near the console made them seem a bit far away, especially since the dashboard as a whole feels very tall and wall-like. Even as tall as I am, I did feel much of the time like I was down in a hole whenever I looked at the dashboard. The tallish band of textured silver plastic (poplar-wood can be had for $325, which I’d gladly pay to save me from staring at that too-coldly teutonic silver plastic all the time) that contains nothing except the upper vents only encourages this effect, as does the ledge of black that slightly protrudes above it, as does putting the audio and climate controls fairly low, and as does putting the tablet-like display screen way up high. And if that wasn’t enough, the lower edge of the windscreen is higher still. Forward visibility still isn’t bad though, but it does seem to clash with all that verticality inside the car.
Over the next few days I did note that once you get used to everything enough to relax, the GLA is very comfortable. The seats have plenty of support and adjustability, including the length of the thigh-support. The steering wheel feels good in hand, the climate control kept me cozy. The driving itself pleasant, the ride being smooth without feeling disconnected, and it was easy to put the car where I wanted to put it without thinking about it too much. I did find a twisty two-lane through the forest nearby, and gave the GLA a good thrashing there. I was impressed by the car’s abilities in that regard, especially since because the road was unfamiliar to me, I changed speeds a lot. The handling somewhat reminded me of a VW Mk IV GTI I once had, with its combination of sure grip, rubbery smoothness, and just enough sensory feedback. Ergonomics were good for my tallness, and I had no problems with ingress or egress. Cargo space is quite decent too, and will certainly meet the needs of anybody buying a compact SUV.
The GLA 250 4Matic has a starting MSRP of $36,250, which is $2000 more than the FWD version, and whether that difference is worth it to you is quite subjective- some people think that AWD is a MUST in a family-car these days, and I think that that is by far more true in marketing than it is in the real world. Mercedes-Benz’s website didn’t make it clear whether some features were package-only or could be had as standalone options, but I was really surprised that keyless entry is not a standard feature. There are plenty of features though, too many to go into much detail about, and there are several connected technology features that are free to use at first, for example one called ‘Mercedes me connect’ for which three years of use are included at no charge. There are of course many option-packages for everything from maintenance-plans to AMG exteriours. Smartphone integration requires a package rather than being a standard feature, but at least you get the option of the $350 Smartphone Integration Package (Android Auto, Apple Car Play) rather than being forced to swallow the $2300 Multimedia Package, which includes the same integrations plus several other features. If you check all the most expensive boxes in the options and packages on the website, you’ll arrive at a maximum price of $56,745. I seriously doubt that very many GLA 250s get sold at that level, and when I ran the version that I would prefer -moderate equipment, tasteful aesthetics, not fully tech-loaded and no AMG- it came to a much more sensible $41,600, not a bad stretch from the base MSRP when you consider how extremely you can raise the price of cars in the luxury market-segment by adding options. If I run my version again in the FWD version, I can get it under $40,000.
Overall, I liked the GLA 250 4Matic. It did take a little getting used to, and regular readers may recall that I mentioned quirky controls in a review of a Volvo XC60 too- but the Volvo’s quirky controls were much easier to get the hang of in a short time. But if everything else about the GLA appeals to you, don’t let the quirks hold you back. Compact luxury cars are a good thing, and this one definitely felt good. I can see living easily with this car. The luxury wasn’t so far over the top that it constantly reminded me that I was driving an up-market vehicle, and for that I give it much credit. If a compact luxury SUV sounds like your kind of easy living, check out the GLA 250.