Eric Adams finds Mercedes' three-Row basically wins the compact crossover war

Eric Adams is an automotive, aerospace, and technology journalist/photographer for titles including Wired, Gear Patrol, Popular Science, Men's Health and DriveTribe.

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Driving the new Mercedes GLB down the highway in Arizona, several thoughts bounced around inside my head. One of them: Why doesn’t Mercedes have an “economy” brand? (No, Smart doesn’t count.)

Not that I think that the new compact crossover GLB is any kind of econobox — it’s not, not by a long shot — but it is affordable by most reasonable standards, starting at $36,600 (or £33,000 in the UK). That made it all the more curious that in the U.S. the company doesn’t have the same breadth of models that it offers in Europe, where Mercedes sells a variety of entry-level products. While nobody there seems to be too concerned about brand dilution, when the company began expanding its market downward in the U.S. recently with the A-Class sedan and GLA crossover, that was a very big deal indeed.

The fact is that Mercedes is simply perceived differently here, and the brand is protective of that differentiation. So wouldn’t an economy spinoff allow it to go nuts with its products, giving tech a pathway for trickling even further down to the masses? Who knows, and realistically it just ain’t gonna happen. So for now we should simply appreciate the fact that its new layer of “entry points” retains that cache — and quality — while being far more accessible.

Chunky lines give the GLB plenty of presence despite its relatively compact dimensions

Chunky lines give the GLB plenty of presence despite its relatively compact dimensions

This admittedly convoluted thinking led me to the other, much simpler, thought that bounced around in my head in Arizona: Damn, this thing is good.

The GLB fits in between the aforementioned GLA and the slightly larger GLC, earning its place as an affordable option for those looking to upgrade from other carmaker’s economy brands. It’s also on the more traditionally SUV-like side, compared to the GLA. Its shape is boxy and comfortingly familiar, and its more vertical visage lends it a more substantial presence, visually. It looks substantial, and that’s half the battle with any small-ish vehicle.

That vertical shaping also gives it good cargo space in the rear, and room for an optional third row. Though that is clearly marketed as something intended for folks below 5’ 6” in height, its presence gives a degree of day-to-day utility, such as when you want to bring your kids’ friends along on an adventure or need to shove an adult friend in there, even if it is tight.

A comfy ride and an effortless ability to maintain momentum makes the GLB drive like one of Mercedes' larger SUVs

A comfy ride and an effortless ability to maintain momentum makes the GLB drive like one of Mercedes' larger SUVs

But the real goodness that resonated so profoundly with me comes from the ride. It again feels much larger than it is, but in an actually positive way compared to the usual negative impact of size. It’s smooth and stable, something that tends to originate in vehicular mass. Credit the optional adaptive damping suspension, and the generally silky powertrain — in this case a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four that’s good for a surprisingly modest 221 horsepower. It honestly felt like there was about 50 more horses lurking under the hood, if not in raw acceleration at least in the ease of maintaining your pace.

There are limits to this — push it too hard and you’ll find them in both acceleration and cornering. (It reaches 60mph in a leisurely 6.9 seconds.) But for a $36,000 SUV, it’s ridiculously agile and confident. I saw this in the twisty roads outside Scottsdale, where the GLB shined as much in my mind as it did in the high-desert sun. Its eight-speed dual-clutch automatic further helped smooth out the performance, and allowed for granular control of the drivetrain, via the paddles, when you wanted to take over just for fun. That transmission and modest engine size has another payoff: MPGs. The GLB scores a rating of 26 mpg combined, 23 city, and 30 highway. That’s respectable.

The optional 4Matic all-wheel-drive will deliver some additional on-road enhancement, particularly in slippery or variable conditions, but it also lends the GLB a degree of modest soft-roadability, especially with the optional off-road mode that helps dial in engine and suspension to maintain traction on trails and sandy terrain.

The GLB might be more expensive than mainstream rivals, but boy does it feel it on the inside

The GLB might be more expensive than mainstream rivals, but boy does it feel it on the inside

Inside, the GLB really brings the Mercedes thunder — both with the quality and design of the interior and also the tech. The seats are comfortable and supportive, the touchpoints satisfyingly Mercedes-like in texture and substance. It’s also notable that the middle-row bench can slide nine inches fore or aft. Ostensibly, this helps make the third row more palatable, but it’s also one of those things that just comes in handy generally, for giving larger folks more room or simply adjusting available space either in front of or behind that row for storage.

Tech-wise, the new voice-controlled MBUX infotainment system is next-level good, and seriously the best such system on the market right now, by a significant margin. It has its moments of clunkiness, which is disappointing because it’s supposed to work using fully-natural language, but once you fall into a groove with communicating your climate, navigation, and entertainment desires, it syncs up brilliantly.

Other advanced Mercedes technology is optional, including automatic cruise control, available in the Driver Assistance Package — and they of course have the effect of jacking the price up to more familiar Mercedes terrain. You can quickly get the GLB above $50,000.

But even if you nix all that out in the interest of keeping your entry point to the Mercedes brand on the modest side, the core produce is exceptional, and you get a lot more product for just a little more scratch than you’d pay for a comparable crossover from an economy competitor.

Want a small version of a proper Mercedes SUV? Then how about this 1:43 scale model of the G-Wagon complete with a display plinth that's set to turn your model-loving friends green with envy.

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