Auto review: Mercedes’s new small SUV a winner, despite goofy driver-assist feature

The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB250 4Matic. (Mark Phelan/Detroit Free Press/TNS)
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By Mark Phelan Detroit Free Press (TNS)

If you haven’t figured out how to learn from your mistakes by the time you’re 94 years old, you’re probably doing something wrong. After missing the mark with its first subcompact SUV, Mercedes-Benz — founded in 1926, if you just got on the metaphor bus — learned its lesson and got just about everything right with its second try, the 2020 GLB250.

The GLB is the follow-up to the GLA, a small SUV that proved too small and car-like to win many American buyers. Based on a new architecture, the GLB, which recently went on sale, screams SUV, with traditional boxy styling and a practical interior.

Commercials for the GLB even tout an optional third row of seats, although I suspect the average owner will use it about as often as their appendix. Unlike your appendix, though, the GLB’s rear seat is treated as a selling point, allowing the little SUV to claim seven-passenger status, a rare feature in its class.

How much?

Prices for the GLB250 start at $36,600 for a front-wheel drive model. All-wheel drive, which Mercedes calls 4Matic, starts at $38,600, and is likely to be the better-selling drivetrain.

All GLBs come with a 2.0L turbocharged engine that produces 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, typical output for its class. The transmission is a quick and smooth eight-speed dual-clutch automatic.

Other standard features include:

Apple CarPlay

Android Auto Push button start

Dual-zone climate control

Power tailgate LED headlights and taillights

Drowsy driver assist

It’s a Mercedes, so the option list is as long as the company’s storied history — which actually predates the brand’s founding to Karl Benz’s first car, built in 1885. Options increased the price of the GLB250 4Matic I tested 31% from the base model, to $56,475.

The GLB250 4Matic competes with all-wheel-drive versions of small luxury SUVs like the Audi Q3, BMW X1, Cadillac XT4, NS Lexus NX.

Its price is at the high end of the class.

Quick and comfortable

The GLB’s styling is straight out of the SUV handbook: Upright sides and grille, level roof, big windows and a wide-opening tailgate. It’s a far cry from the GLA, which was smaller, with sleek lines that sacrificed practicality and SUV character for style. A new bigger version of the GLA, based on the same architecture as the GLB, should go on sale later this year, but I expect American buyers to gravitate to the boxier and more traditional GLB.

The ride is smooth, with little road or wind noise even at highway speeds. The SUV accelerates well, thanks to peak torque from 1,800-4,000 rpm, and a 3,759-pound curb weight that’s lighter than most competitors despite the fact that the GLB’s 111.4-inch wheelbase and 182.4-inch overall length lead the pack.

Steering is responsive, and there’s very little body roll, squat or dive in fast curves, acceleration and braking.

The front seat is accommodating, with easy controls and a roomy center console. Etched aluminum switches on the steering wheel and dash look great, but are not the most legible.

Rear legroom is not a strength, but the cargo space beats all competitors except the X1, and the GLB’s conservative styling contributes to a big, useful opening for loading large objects.

Is this really driver assistance?

The GLB offers lots of standard and optional driver assistance features, including a couple I’d probably turn off most of the time. The adaptive cruise control slows the vehicle in response to changing speed limit signs, curves and exit ramps and upcoming traffic.

That’s great in theory, but the system braked hard as I pulled into the left lane to pass on a divided highway and passed a 45-mph during construction sign. There was no construction, and my apparently random sudden deceleration justifiably annoyed an F-150 driver who thought I’d pulled out just to brake-check him.

On another occasion the system braked hard when I was in the middle of an urban highway, apparently in response to map data on the speed limit of a nearby service drive. It also appeared to slow me in response to a “truck speed” sign at one point.

The system was also quite conservative in braking for a very manageable curve on the highway.

Not deal breakers, but not the way to make new friends on your commute, either.

Mercedes should refine its sensors and software. There’s an off switch for those features, but “You can always turn it off” isn’t a strong selling point for features that are part of a couple of option packages that add up to over $3,000.

Despite, that, the GLB250’s room, comfort and other features make it a strong contender among small luxury SUVs.

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2020 Mercedes GLB250 4Matic

Base price: $38,600

Price tested: $56,474 (excluding destination charges)

Subcompact all-wheel drive luxury SUV

Seats five, with optional third row

Front-wheel drive midsize sedan

Engine: 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder

Output: 221 hp @ 5,500 rpm; 258 pound-feet of torque @ 1,800-4,000 rpm

Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch automatic

EPA: 23 mpg city/31 highway/26 combined

Wheelbase: 111.4 inches

Length: 182.4 inches

Width: 72.2 inches

Height: 64.1 inches

Curb weight: 3,759 pounds

Assembled in Aguascalientes, Mexico

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Options on my test car included:

Metallic gray paint

Titanium and black leather upholstery

Natural grain Linden wood trim

19-inch AMG 5-spoke wheels

Heated and ventilated front seats

Panoramic sun roof

Burmeister surround audio

Wireless charging

Adaptive cruise control

Route-based speed adaptation

Sign recognition

Blind spot and cross traffic alert and assist

Lane keeping assist

10.25-inch touch screen

Navigation system with augmented reality

Gloss black grille, mirror and window trim

AMG Line body trim, perforated brake discs and diamond-block grille

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ABOUT THE WRITER
Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at mmphelan@freepress.com.
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