Hard to go gaga over the Mercedes GLA

Merc's first compact SUV is high on features but low on driveability

BMW has a knack for making cars which display driving characteristics that are, well, BMW-ish.

Besides the electric or partly electric cars in its new "i" range, every BMW, in its most distilled form, feels like a BMW.

Anyone behind the wheel bearing the blue-and-white emblem will instantly recognise this. Even its garish X6 and ungainly GT models are hard to fault at the wheel.

The same cannot be said about Mercedeses.

Take the new GLA200, for instance. Even though it has all the cosmetic trappings of a Mercedes, including an oversized three-pointed star in the middle of its radiator grille, an E-class owner will find it as alien as a crop harvester.

Even a GL-class driver will have difficulty relating to it.

So what is the GLA?

The car is a compact sport utility vehicle based on the A-class, a reasonably attractive hatch which will make those eyeing the Volkswagen Golf pause. But like the CLA "coupe" which the A-class spawned, the GLA is a little disappointing in its 200 form.

The GLA200 is powered by a 156bhp 1.6-litre turbocharged engine mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch autobox. It is the same drivetrain found in the CLA200 and A200.

You would think the output is more than adequate for a car weighing slightly more than 1.5 tonnes. The performance specs are rather impressive too: 8.8second century sprint, 215kmh top speed.

But this GLA is anything but impressive on the go.

Looking a tad less purposeful than the VW Tiguan and not quite as dynamic as the BMW X1, it is also miles behind these two key rivals in terms of driveability.

Its main flaw is a dreadful throttle response. In default mode, the right pedal feels like marshmallow for the first several degrees. It is as if your foot is making contact with a cadaver.

Perhaps switching to Sport mode will help, you think. Well, not quite. All you get is an exaggerated build-up of revs which is not matched by a pick-up in speed.

First you get a disconnect between pedal pressure and motion, then you get a disconnect between aural feedback and motion.

So you think, maybe it is better in Manual mode. After all, there are convenient steering-mounted shift paddles to facilitate manual gear changes. Then again, why should you bother in the first place, since this is an automatic transmission car? Going "manual" should be an option, not a must.

The other thing about the GLA is that you cannot quite make out what you are driving. It is not tall enough to be SUV-like, yet it is clearly not a proper hatch or wagon. But, admittedly, crossovers can be a little confusing like that.

The car is also less rugged-looking in reality than in photos which appear in Mercedes' marketing materials.

And if you want something you can actually drive off-road, you have to go for the GLA250, which has intelligent all-wheel drive and automatic hill descent.

The GLA200 is purely a front-wheel drive. But it is still decked out with all the latest safety features, such as Collision Prevention Assist (which includes autonomous emergency braking) and Attention Assist (which gives out a warning if the driver displays erratic behaviour symptomatic of fatigue).

It has a host of other things which give it a premium feel, such as parking assist, memory seat, climate control, cruise control, a Hold function, which allows the Merc to be stationary without you having to engage the brakes, and a motorised tailgate.

Alas, the test car's tailgate malfunctioned after the first day.

But, really, that can happen to any car (although far less likely to a Japanese make) and should not be held against the GLA. Neither should its vague proposition or underwhelming presence.

In fact, it is heartening to note that the GLA is actually better finished than the CLA.

The car's only unforgivable sin is its dreary driveability. In fact, if not for Attention Assist, you might just doze off at the wheel.