Truly honest, functional design is a philosophy that’s not all that common in cars these days, but is what makes the 7-seater Mercedes-Benz GLB a compelling choice.
What’s a sure-fire recipe for car sales success in Singapore right now? Given current trends, a sport utility vehicle (SUV) is probably a good place to start. And despite its premium price tag, you can’t really go wrong with a Mercedes either; Singaporean car buyers just love the bling of that three-pointed star. Finally, if there’s one thing that exemplifies car buying here, it’s opting for as big a car with as small an engine as you can.
Those are all the boxes ticked by the new Mercedes-Benz GLB then. It’s a seven-seater SUV, the largest member of the company’s family of “compact” cars, which means that, like the B-Class, CLA, and GLA, it’s also closely related to – and thus shares a lot of parts with – the A-Class hatchback and saloon.
Unsurprisingly, the GLB is a fair bit larger than its siblings; at 4634mm long, it’s over 20cm longer than the other SUV, the GLA, with 10cm of that being given to its wheelbase.
Size aside, it’s also the most purposeful-looking member of the family, with a distinctly boxy, chunky appearance that prioritises function over form. It’s a refreshing and appealing look that bears some passing resemblance to the company’s legendary G-Class off-roader, and a welcome respite from the infuriating trend of absurd “coupe-SUVs” that the industry is currently besotted with.
The squared-off profile enables the fitment of the extra row of seats in the back, which is what gives the GLB its raison d’être. This is one of only two premium-branded 7-seaters you can buy for under S$200k now, and the only SUV; its closest rival is the BMW 2 Series Gran Tourer MPV.
“7-seater SUV” sounds all well and good, but a common caveat with cars of this type is that their people-carrying abilities aren’t as impressive as you’d think, as their high ride heights results in a high floor which compromises foot and legroom. Inevitably, this applies too to the GLB, although it’s not as bad as initially feared, especially considering Mercedes itself doesn’t recommend people above 1.68m-tall folding themselves into the back.
To test this out, I roped in a couple of, erm, amply sized friends to help, and we found that you could juuuuust about squeeze in three six-footers sitting in tandem (thanks to the sliding second row and underseat footwells deep enough for even steel-toed work boots). Given everyone’s size, naturally it wasn’t particularly comfortable, but neither was it torturous; certainly adequate for tompang-ing the office team to lunch, especially if your colleagues are more average-sized…
… But only as long as the weather’s cool – the lack of air-conditioning in the rear two rows means things can easily get unbearably hot in the back. The one other bugbear of the GLB’s seating arrangements is that with all the seats up, cargo space is so limited that you’d be spending a lot of time catching bags as they spill out the moment the tailgate opens. Fold the third row down though and you get 500 or 700-litres (depending on whether you measure up to the top of the seats or to the roof), and up to a maximum of 1680-litres with the middle row collapsed too.
Apart from that, the interior of the GLB is mostly the same as the GLA’s, with the exception of a slightly different dashboard sculpting on the passenger side. That means there’s a sleek, high-definition twin-screen display on which all the driving readouts and infotainment functions are presented, with a quintet of turbine-style air-con vents across the dash, and a laptop-style trackpad down in the centre console.
As with the rest of the compact Merc family, the GLB’s cabin is probably the single most impressive aspect of the car. The dual screens and ambient lighting give a tremendous sense of occasion to the cabin that no competitor can match, and which belies these cars’ position at the base of the Mercedes-Benz ladder.
Unfortunately, the extensive parts-sharing means that a familiar bugbear also rears its head again – the engine. Nice as the GLB is to sit in and look at, the experience is far less positive once you get moving, as the drivetrain’s manners aren’t befitting of a Mercedes’s premium experience at all.
Setting off from stationary, the gearbox keeps tripping over itself, its laggy response to any initial request for movement forcing a harder step on the throttle, at which point it finally wakes up its idea and actually gets going, leading to a lurchy, head-bobbing getaway.
Compounding that is both the aural and physical harshness of the 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine above 3,000rpm – sounding like gravel being blended and feeling like the entire firewall is made of incessantly vibrating handphones. It’d suit the mood terribly well when you’ve got the throttle pinned on a race track, but much less so when all you’re trying to do is merge smoothly into expressway traffic.
Thankfully the swell of acceleration from its turbocharged output of 163hp and 250Nm means you don’t usually have to suffer the engine’s protestations for too long at a time, and exhibits a level of refinement more typical of the three-pointed star once you’re cruising along below 2,500rpm.
And, not that it matters terribly to buyers of family SUVs, but the GLB is perfectly competent (though no more than that) in the handling department, with slightly less roll in corners and body heave in directional transitions than you might expect, and a reassuring buildup of heft in the steering once cornering forces increase.
There aren’t many pluses or minuses to remark about the ride comfort either, retaining an adequate level of cushioning from the road underfoot for all aspects of urban use. That said, splashing out S$4,100 on adaptive suspension is worth considering, as – based on our experience in the A-Class – it adds a level of plushness and pliancy to the ride that wouldn’t be out of place in a model that’s S$100k further up the model range.
As the only sub-S$200k premium 7-seater SUV in the market now, the GLB finds itself in the enviable spot of having this segment to itself; the rival BMW 2 Series Gran Tourer simply simply doesn’t have the cool factor of the GLB.
Make no mistake though, you’re paying a hefty premium to have that big star on the front grille. If you regularly ferry more than four passengers around, then other non-SUVs like the Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-8, and Skoda Kodiaq, or even proper MPVs like the Honda Odyssey and VW Sharan, provide alluring, more spacious alternatives that are friendlier on the wallet.
That said, the GLB is accomplished enough to more than stand on its own within the Mercedes lineup. There’s a sense of honesty about it that stems from its utilitarian fitness for purpose, and next to the smaller, only S$3,000 cheaper GLA, seems like a no-brainer to anyone wanting a small Mercedes SUV. Hottest new thing on the roads then? You betcha.