FEW SPORTY SUVs are as well resolved as the Mercedes-AMG GLB 35. Quick and clever, this compact all-wheel-drive wagon delivers a convincing combination of performance and practicality. Thatís a rare achievement.
The GLB 35 sits atop the line-up, which will reach Australia around June or July next year. First to arrive will be the Mercedes-Benz GLB 250 4matic. This all-wheel-drive mid-range variant will be quickly joined by the base-grade front-drive GLB 200, and the GLB 35.
GLB, as the name suggests, is intended to fill the gap between Mercedes-Benzís existing small GLA and medium GLC SUVs. But the newcomer isnít a precise in-betweenie fit. While the GLB is built on the second generation of Stuttgartís MFA architecture, the same as the new A-Class and CLA, its wheelbase is a neat 10cm longer. This means the GLB is close to the GLC for length and wheelbase, while standing taller. And itís way bigger than the soon-to-be replaced GLA. The GLB is the size it is for a reason. The Chinese market expressed a strong desire that it should have seven seats, and Mercedes-Benz decided to oblige.
FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE
The individually folding pair of seats that make up the third row will accommodate adults without a problem. With the seven-seat interior comes a centre bench with 140mm of fore-and-aft adjustment, plus extra curtain airbags. The backrest folding split is 40/20/40, while the slider mechanism divides the seat 60/40. The angle of the centre-row backrests is also adjustable.
With the local launch of the GLB so far off, M-B Australia is still some way from finalising specification and pricing, but the seven-seat interior is likely standard across the range in Australia.
From the front seats the view contains both familiar and fresh elements. The widescreen display of instrumentation and infotainment wonít surprise anyone who has been inside a current A-Class, except the screen is set into a ledge carved into the chunky, SUV-style dash.
Making room for seven seats has rendered the GLB a little boxy. The upright shape, with its deep windows, means visibility from the driverís seat is better than average in this age of chubby pillars and swoopy rooflines.
Flexible, practical interior; ride and handling; performance!
Dual-clutch transmission calibration; steering lacks feel; high price
So the GLB is persuasively practical, but the real magic is in the way this new SUV drives.
Ride comfort was a priority during chassis development, in line with the GLBís keep-the-whole-family-happy mission. The GLB 250 was superbly smooth on the lumpy roads of southern Spain, site of the international launch. The test cars were equipped with the adaptive dampers likely to be standard for the GLB 250 for Australia, and in Comfort mode, the SUV has a soft, loping ride thatís only slightly degraded by switching to Sport mode.
Work with the relaxed cadence of the suspension, and the GLB 250 reveals unexpected dynamic depths. While the steering is somewhat lacking in feel, the chassis can be counted on to deliver predictable responses. Itís a fluid and faithful handler.
Performance from the GLB 250ís 165kW 2.0-litre turbo four is way better than adequate for a family-focused SUV, but the software calibration of the eight-speed dual-clutch transmission
The Mercedes-AMG version amps up the GLB experience. The GLB 35ís 225kW 2.0-litre turbo four is basically the same engine as in the GLB 250, but AMGís ministrations add a dose of intensity. The official 0-100km/h claim is a believable 5.2 seconds, which is a cracking pace for a seven-seat SUV.
More attention seems to have been given to the transmission calibration of the íbox in the GLB 35; itís much more likely to pick the right gear at the right time, though itís still not flawless.
Thereís a lot of AMG-specific hardware in both the front and the rear suspension of the GLB 35. Compared with the GLB 250 it has different steering knuckles, front arms, rear wheel carriers and a direct-mounted rear subframe. Bigger brakes front and rear are also fitted. Neither of these changes radically alter the dynamic character.
All GLB 35s at the launch event wore the biggest available rubber. The 21-inch tyres and the chassis upgrades deliver sharper steering and extra front-end bite. The wider contact patches also bring a noticeable increase in tyre noise, especially on coarse-surfaced roads.
Though itís not as quiet and refined as the GLB 250 as a consequence, AMGís changes to the GLB 35 do deliver the kind of stellar handling - for an SUV - they were undoubtedly aiming for. Even more impressive is that the GLB 35ís ride is also outstanding for a sporty SUV. Yes, the ride is firmer, but itís nowhere near harsh. Even switching from Comfort to Sport mode of the standard adaptive suspension doesnít turn the GLB 35 into a bucking disgrace.
On the subject of modes, the Mercedes-AMG offers a broader range of options than Mercedes-Benz-badged versions of the GLB. As well as the expected - in an AMG - Sport+ and pickínímix Individual modes, the GLB 35 has a new Slippery mode engineered for driving in low-grip conditions.
Sport+ was the natural choice for sinuous sections of the Spanish drive route. In this mode, the GLB 35 is a high-rise all-wheel-drive hot hatch. The AMG-programmed 4matic system does a great job of apportioning the engineís hefty torque between the axles, and thereís next to no scrabbling or scrubbing.
While the steering is weighty, the GLB 35ís responses to inputs are quick, accurate and reliable, and the big brakes donít wilt under pressure.
Given the need to position the GLB between near-equivalent GLA and (just facelifted) GLC models, smart guesses on price would be around $65,000 for the GLB 250 and about $85,000 for the GLB 35.
The GLB is a sensible and practical SUV from Mercedes-Benz. The AMG version adds an amusingly potent dose of genuine driver excitement without affecting these virtues. Thatís a rare accomplishment.
AUDI RS Q3 $90,000 (ESTIMATED)
Due to land in Oz in Q2, Audiís high-po Q3 variant brings 294kW/480Nm to the table against the AMGís 225kW/400Nm, plus a claimed 0-100km/h dash of 4.5sec to the GLBís 5.2sec. While its 2.5-litre turbo five-pot gets the chocolates over the GLBís 2.0-litre turbo four, the RS Q3 also promises sporty dynamics underpinned by quattro AWD, but only five seats and 30 litres less luggage space. Price estimates favour the GLB, just.
Model Mercedes-AMG GLB 35 4matic