Mercedes-Benz GLB: One of the most impressive SUVs of the year

Engine choices include all-electric seven-seat version which goes on sale in 2021

Mercedes-Benz GLB
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Year: 2019
Fuel: Diesel

Mercedes-Benz is adding yet another flavour to its alphabet soup of SUVs.

Still don’t believe it’s about crossovers and not cars these days? How about the fact Mercedes-Benz now offers eight different sizes of SUVs these days. To name them all is a 10-pointer in any pub quiz - and the honour of anorak of the evening. It’s up there with being able to recite Pi to 10 decimal points.

The latest addition by Mercedes is the GLB, squeezing into the car maker’s alphabet soup between the current GLA and GLC. A futile waste of metal and marketing effort? Surprisingly not. This is one of the cars of 2019 that has really caught us by surprise. For a start, there are seven seats as an option, in a car that we had tackling 47 degree off-road inclines and descents, at one stage balanced on two wheels atop of mountain pass, and pitched sideways at an angle of nearly 35 degrees when driving along an embankment. This is no overdressed family hatchback.

Driving it last week sent us back to the drawing board on our list of top cars for 2020. It’s that impressive.

What you have on paper is supposedly a small hatchback on the CLA car platform that has been tweaked to offer crossover appeal. The innards are lifted from the A-Class, so it’s all derived from the hatchback end of the Mercedes-Benz range. And yet what you get is much better than the end result of other models the company has created with these parts. Forget about this being a larger version of the award and less than impressive GLA. In reality this would make many potential GLC buyers think twice about their purchase.

In terms of looks, there is nothing small about the car itself. It takes some styling cues from the company’s glorious G-Wagon, though not quite enough in our opinion. It’s in the silhouette that the similarity stands out, but Mercedes really should have just stuck the G-Wagon design in the photocopier and hit the shrink to fit button.

The big news for family buyers will be the chance to avail of seven seats, or rather a 5+2 format. There’s no point exaggerating it, the legroom in the third row is tight and with the seats in action the boot disappears. But for school runs and the like, it’s a useful option to have. And without them in action you have a decent bootspace and remarkable legroom in the higher seated second row. That’s the staggering thing about the GLB: it’s got a much bigger footprint and spacious cabin than you’d expect from a car that’s supposed to be the little brother of the GLC.

Spending time with the car, you do start to notice the subtle differences. The body is noticeably narrower, both on the outside and in the cabin, where three across the back is cramped, and where you can sit on the passenger seat and easily grab the handrail on the driver’s side. Yet girth is not always a dealbreaker in a car sale.

Another difference is the lack of adaptive suspension in the GLB, which means no adjustments to the ride along the way. Again that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker for Irish buyers. In truth, the ride and handling of the GLB is remarkably astute. The steering feel is direct and responsive, with little play, while the car’s ride is firm and it never seems to wallow into bends, despite some very twisting mountain roads that we pitched at it.

On the road, the engine choices are Mercedes’ impressive new 2-litre diesel engine in either 116hp (GLB220d) or 190hp (G200d) format, or a 1.33-litre four-cylinder 163hp petrol engine in the GLB200. A 2-litre 306hp E35 AMG version is also on offer. No hybrid is going to be offered, but a fully electric version , the EQB, will land in showrooms in 2021 – and yes, it will be available as a seven-seater as well.

The diesel will be the big seller in Ireland, according to Ciaran Allen, sales manager at Mercedes Ireland. We tested the 190hp 220d and it has all the pep you need for a car of this size, even with three well-fed adults inside.

The soundproof cladding isn’t perhaps as good as in the GLC, so engine noise is more evident when it’s put under a bit of strain, but it’s not agricultural at any time and surprisingly responsive. Both automatic and manual transmissions will be offered, but automatic is the obvious choice. Similarly, you can get it front or all-wheel drive, but for the this car it would seem sensible to opt for the latter. Even if you don’t go climbing mountain passes, the added grip will always pay off in winter time.

So too is the optional third row of seats. Even if you don’t need them, they’ll add to the value of the car when it comes time to trade it in. All pricing has yet to be confirmed but we can expect it to start close to €43,000 for the five-seat GLB200d manual, which is €5,000 less than the equivalently powered GLC. The extra row of seats may add close to €2,000 to a GLB’s price.

It's hard to nail down exactly which rivals this GLB faces off directly. There's a touch of the BMW X3 about it, and it has more character than the Audi Q3. It could steal a march on the likes of the Subaru Forester market if it played up its off-road prowess a bit more, and similarly challenge niche versions of premium estates. But there is no need to get bogged down in finding the ideal buyer. Crossovers aren't niche anymore, they are the mainstream, so many everyday premium buyers looking for a seven-seat option will rightly take a close look at this new arrival in the new year when it arrives in showrooms.

Mercedes-Benz GLB 220d 4Matic AMG: The lowdown

  • Engine: 2-litre diesel putting out 190hp
  • CO2: 138-146 g/km
  • Price: TBA but likely starting at €43,000
  • Our verdict: One of the big surprises for 2020 – it quickly finds its niche
Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer is Motoring Editor, Innovation Editor and an Assistant Business Editor at The Irish Times