Mercedes smartens up snappy off-roader

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How's this for a curious twist: to best tailor the only version of its GLA small sport utility that has off-roading potential to New Zealand conditions, Mercedes-Benz adds as standard an ''off-road pack'' equipment enhancement that is optional in most places.

Yup, you read right. The GLA 250 4Matic is an off-roader with, for here, extra kit to make it work better off road.

David McCarthy, senior manager of public relations for Mercedes-Benz New Zealand and Australia, says it's about degrees of ability. The standard car would cope with light off-road duties, but the tweaks do make a tangible difference that will be appreciated nonetheless.

Why? ''Because of the traction control abilities and the hill descent abilities. The transmission is intrinsically the same, but it's the software in the system that will give it that extra ability off the beaten track.''

However, those who don't feel the need to explore in this car shouldn't misconstrue the package, for Benz isn't saying that only proper outdoorsy types need apply.

''Customers should see the off-road pack and the capability it provides as being a bonus.

''We wanted to differentiate, because it is a SUV. People want it for going to the snow, country properties and so on. We wanted to give it that extra capability.''

But it's still a car, right?

''The technology of the off-road system is very advanced ... [but] it's not a bush-basher. At the risk of using another brand's name, it's an all-road vehicle.''

With or without the pack - and there's no choice anyway - it's clear this is the only one of the three GLAs coming here that will survive away from civilization.

The $12,000-cheaper 2.2-litre CDI that arrived two months ago, while meted the right kind of engine, has the ''wrong'' drive system, being front-wheel drive.

The $23,900-dearer AMG 45 flagship here in the fourth quarter matches the 250 in having the all-important ingredient of 4MATIC four-wheel drive. Yet the snags are obvious: It's a tarmac-hugging racer. So if you ever saw one of those off road, it'd be fair to assume driver error was involved.

So that just leaves the one in the middle, which seemed okay coping with farm tracks around a Clevedon property that has become a popular stop-off for launches.

True, we took the easy way around, avoiding bog holes or big bumps, and taking an access track to a top paddock scenic viewpoint that, while rutted and slightly muddy in spots, presented no particular challenge. Obviously, we had to bear in mind the limited ground clearance and that the 45-series rubber (on 19-inch rims) is road-suited, but overall there was very little drama.

In the mindset of potential owners, this kind of thing is very possibly enough of a jaunt to count as an adventure. In fairness too, at least the downhill run provided an opportunity to try the package's most immediately beneficial attribute, its Descent Speed Control. This is the usual kind, operated via the cruise control, and working with the gearbox and braking systems, that pins the car to no more than 18kmh and down to just 2kmh without driver intervention.

The car has more tricks to demonstrate; an element of the off-road mode is a display to show information on steering, incline, transverse and longitudinal angles. Had we been there after nightfall, we would have witnessed another clever tweak. The lighting system increases its beam
output from the on-road setting and spreads it wider so more terrain is revealed.

It was interesting to sample the power plant in a low-speed slog; turbo-petrol engines have a tendency toward peakiness that makes it hard to negotiate tricky terrain smoothly, yet this one was pretty good.

Out on the road, of course, it's right up to the mark with class consideration. As you'd expect, the GLA with this much power and traction is immediately one of the sportier kinds of SUV; nippy and confident through corners and no slowpoke down the straights.

The performance aspect comes to the fore when the drive setting is removed from its default ''eco'' position and reallocated to ''sport'' and ''manual'' modes.

The ride is really quite good, given the wheel and tyre package, and though inevitably some road noise is generated on coarser surfaces, it's not a deal-breaker by any means.

What's especially impressive is how planted the car feels through the bends. It is more resolved than the front-drive diesel, with less body roll and a greater ability to absorb mid-bend bumps. The all-wheel-drive electronics are so on the button they can send up to 50% of drive to the rear axle in only 100 milliseconds, so there's never any risk at being caught short for traction.

As much as anything, the GLA will probably win attention for being incredibly un-SUV-ish in its looks. Basically, it's an A-Class with a snappier bodyshape; it isn't overly tall or expressively butch in appearance. The emphasis is more on suave sophistication and it pulls this off really well.

The interior design is in accord with hatchback design trends; even the seating position isn't especially lofty. Rear passengers do okay for headroom but knee room is not fantastic and Mercedes can hardly say they have made sacrifices for luggage space, for that's not huge either.

Naturally, it's stacked with gear: Full electrics, heated front seats with memory function, a panoramic electric sunroof, intelligent light system with bi-xenons and LED DRLs, sat nav and a powered rear tailgate are among highlights.

Mercedes smartens up snappy off-roader
At a Glance


Price: $76,900

Engine: 1991cc four-cylinder direct injection turbo petrol, maximum power 155kW@5500rpm, 350Nm@1200-4000rpm

Transmission: Seven-speed direct shift automated manual

Brakes and stability systems: Discs, ABS, ASR, BAS, EBD, ESC

Wheels, tyres: 235/45 R19

Fuel and economy: 7 litres per 100km on Australian Design Rules cycle, capacity 50 litres

Dimensions: Length 4417mm, width 1804mm, height 1494mm