MARBELLA, Spain – Whoever said the “rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” (Noel Coward?) had no idea what he was talking about. The Costa del Sol reportedly enjoys 320 days of sunlight annually, but here we are, slogging through teeming rain, the Mediterranean obscured by fog, tires and shoes encased in gumbo-like mud of a most unfortunate colour and consistency. We were almost pathetically grateful for the return of blue skies and warm sun for the next day’s drive in Mercedes-Benz’s latest addition to their SUV portfolio.
But despite its transformative effect upon our attitudes, we still weren’t convinced by Mercedes’ latest sleight-of-hand nomenclature. If you believe their marketing lexicon, the brand-new GLB is the eighth model to join Mercedes’s front-wheel-drive compact-car class. Sure, the GLB is built on a modified version of the MFA2 platform that first appeared under the A-Class sedan, but as far as I’m concerned – a tall, boxy outline, rear lift-gate, and all-wheel-drive system (complete with off-road mode) are all standard earmarks of an SUV or crossover.
It’s not a car.
But then again, these are the same people that managed to transform the entire auto industry by convincing the public that a four-door sedan could be a coupé.
Whatever you want to call it, the new vehicle – which slots in above the subcompact GLA and below the GLC crossovers – is a winner. Pygmalion references aside, “by Jove I think they got it.” The GLB hits the sweet spot, size-wise, combining compact manoeuvrability with generous and flexible interior space. It also joins the Volkswagen Tiguan and Land Rover Discovery as the only vehicles in their class to offer an optional third row.
AWD standard, 221 hp to start
First impressions are most favourable. The GLB’s straight lines and squared-off stance recall the previous GLK’s military-inspired, baby-Geländewagen boxiness, and its short overhangs suggest off-road capability. In a generic sea of round and smooth, the GLB stands out.
External design cues differentiating the AMG GLB 35 from the GLB 250 include additional black cladding on rocker panels, fenders, and fascia that serve to visually slenderize while contributing to its overall attitude. The face is defined by the same vertically barred grille worn by the AMG-GT and flanked by rounded rectangular headlights that Mercedes calls “squircles” (another piece of jargon I won’t be using). Instead of the chrome skid-plate inspired fascia of the GLB 250, the AMG boasts a front splitter and large air inlets. In behind is a diffuser-style chrome rear apron with round exhaust inlets, versus the rectangular (squircle?) pair on the 250. Particularly flashy are the optional 21-inch, multi-spoke alloys on our tester, although 18-, 19-, and 20-inch options are also available.
Powering the GLB 250 is a 2.0L turbocharged inline-four-cylinder producing 221 hp and 258 lb-ft, mated to an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission; the AMG GLB 35 gets a 2.0L twin-scroll turbo inline-four that puts out 302 hp and 295 lb-ft matched to an AMG eight-speed DCT. According to Mercedes, the GLB 250 4MATIC has a (European) fuel efficiency rating of 9.2 L/100 km city / 6.4 highway / 7.4 combined; and the AMG 35 is rated at 9.3 / 6.5 / 7.6 L/100 km city/highway/combined.
Though other markets will receive additional models, including a diesel, only the GLB 250 and AMG GLB 35 are coming to Canada. Mercedes’s 4Matic all-wheel drive will be standard here on both vehicles.
Compact body packed with seats, technology
The interior will be familiar to anyone who’s driven a current-model Mercedes. There’s an abundance of plump leather, quality craftsmanship, and genuine aluminum trim. Reflecting its status as a compact, or entry-level vehicle, however, is an abundance of hard plastic cladding below knee level and in the footwells. It’s a clean, modern environment with the familiar round aluminum “turbine” climate vents, and a pair of 7-inch instrumentation and infotainment screens, which bumps up to 10.2-inch screens with the optional premium package.
Mercedes’ familiar MBUX connectivity offers several modes of interaction, from the touchscreen, steering wheel controls, or by summoning the concierge with a “Hey Mercedes”. The voice function became rather annoying when it repeatedly interrupted our conversation with “How can I help you” until we learned not to mention the Mercedes name. Apparently you can choose your own custom “wake word” to request help with weather, traffic, navigation, music etc.
Mercedes claims best-in-segment front headroom, but they also say the optional third row will accommodate a pair of 5'6" adults. Front seating is indeed very comfortable, especially if you factor in the optional massage function, but third row’s best used only in a pinch – or when boasting about its seven-passenger capacity. Second-row passengers have plenty of leg- and headroom however, and the dipped beltline helps visibility. Better yet, the second row has eight recline settings, and slides fore and aft for easy entry, or to increase either legroom or rear space. Fold the seats down and cargo space increases from 570 L to 1,680 L for the seven-seater, and 1,805 L for the five-seater.
All the usual toys – and then some
There’s a long list of standard equipment on the GLB, including rear-view camera, rain-sensing wipers, panoramic sunroof, memory driver’s seat, paddle shifters, USB ports, LED head and taillamps, standard MBUX touchpad with handwritten character recognition, and radar-based driving assistance system with enhanced brake assist, distance warning, collision warning, and autonomous emergency braking.
There are several additional options packages: two Premium Packages, which add a suite of driver’s assistance systems, larger display screens with more functionality, foot-activated tailgate, wireless charging, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Sport Package adds AMG styling, sport seats, 19-inch AMG wheels, enhanced engine noise, Nappa sports steering wheel with silver paddle shifters. The Night Package is another appearance option which includes all the above and adds black roof rails, bi-colour 19” wheels, and dark chrome trim.
The Technology Package adds multi-beam headlights, adaptive high-beam assist, and Distronic adaptive distance assist. Navigation adds MB nav with traffic sign assist, connectivity, and augmented reality. The Intelligent Drive package adds a full-suite of advanced driver assist including active blind spot assist, active distance assist, lane-keeping assist, and steering assist.
Quietly confident, on or off the road
Our first day was spent with the AMG GLB 35, where despite the driving rain, we enjoyed the mountain passes and the Scottish-moor-like terrain on the way to Rondo, an ancient city built around Spain’s oldest bullfighting ring. The AMG 35 is surprisingly car-like in manners (but it’s still an SUV) thanks to its wide and low stance, extra diagonal chassis bracing, an aluminum front “shear plate”, and engine struts to increase its rigidity. Adaptive AMG ride control suspension is linked to the Dynamic Select drive mode system available on both models. Optional is the AMG Ride Control, which controls the adaptive damping for each individual wheel.
It’s plenty powerful for a vehicle this size and the AMG DCT transmission executes rapid-fire shifts in Sport and Sport Plus mode. Though the cabin feels adequately insulated, the engine sounds artificially enhanced, and does tend to drone over a full day’s drive. The speed-sensitive steering is a little overly boosted and light for my liking, although you can increase its heft by changing drive modes, or even using the “individual” setting to change just the steering weight.
We actually preferred the more-humble GLB 250, and it will undoubtedly be the volume seller of the two. It’s quiet and responsive and proved comfortable over an entire day’s meandering route from Marbella to Malaga. There are plenty of pockets and cubbies for cell phones, sunglasses, or snacks; and the cargo hold easily handled a week’s luggage for two people.
All 4Matic-equipped GLBs – thus all GLBs in Canada – come with an off-road package that includes downhill speed regulation, active torque distribution, and a trick cornering light for all those customers who’ll take their Mercedes for night-time trail bouncing. We tested the GLB’s off-road prowess with an impromptu diversion up a washed-out road to check out what we thought was a hill-top ruin – but turned out to be a cleverly disguised abandoned water tower for a golf course that was never built. While the road looked impassable in spots, we made it up with no wheel spin; its 200 mm clearance, 18-degree approach and 18.3-degree departure angles helped us get back down again without any hard-to-explain dings or scrapes.
An entirely pleasant vehicle to explore just about any terrain, the GLB should appeal to the urban buyer who appreciates their luxury in a compact size, but with the ability to accommodate a family’s needs. The Mercedes GLB 250 should arrive in Canada by the end of the year, with the AMG 35 to follow. While pricing has yet to be announced, it will probably fall between the $39,500 GLA and the $48,800 GLC.Big ambition 11/26/2019 6:01:00 PM 11/26/2019 6:01:00 PM