2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB First Drive
A Small Luxury SUV That’s Nearly Compromise-Free
Cheap and luxurious are not words that easily coexist. They either conjure images of counterfeit "Guchi" belts and "Proda" purses, or they turn out like the first entry-level Mercedes-Benz SUV, the GLA-Class. Although it's popular with consumers, the GLA-Class sometimes feels cheaper than it is, and its peaky 2.0L turbocharged I-4 and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission can be unrefined and jerky. However, as we learned on our first drive of the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB, the company has learned how to make its inexpensive SUVs feel genuinely luxurious.
The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB, which will be available in GLB 250 and GLB 250 4Matic trim levels, is based on the same modular front-drive architecture as the A-Class sedan and CLA-Class "four-door coupe," and it's powered by the same 2.0L turbocharged I-4 as those models. Although dimensionally and architecturally related to the 2019 GLA 250's 2.0L four, the GLB's powerplant produces more power (221 hp) and as much torque (258 lb-ft), thanks in part to a new twin-scroll turbocharger, higher compression, and revised tuning.
The GLB 250 rides on a 111.4-inch wheelbase, longer than that of its A and CLA platform-mates by 4 inches and longer than the old GLA by 5.1 inches. (The new-for-2021 GLA-Class will ride on the same wheelbase as the current A and CLA.) Perhaps more interesting, the GLB is only 1.4 inches shorter than the GLC-Class SUV, and its wheelbase is but 1.7 inches shorter.
And in spite of being smaller in every dimension than the GLC, the front-drive GLB is so well-packaged that it can accommodate five passengers in reasonable comfort, and an optional third-row seat opens up room for two more (children or emergencies only, please). Cargo space for the seven-seat GLB is impressive, with up to 56.7 cubic feet of space available behind the first row, 24 cubic feet behind the second row, and 5.1 cubic feet with all three rows up.
How does the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB Drive?
There was once a time when everything wearing a three-pointed star needed to drive with a peerless indifference to the environment. Whether broken or smooth, every road needed to be dispatched with solidity, safety, and refinement. While Benz engineers or their string-pulling accountant bosses may have phoned it in a bit in the past—2002 C-Class Sport Coupe, anyone?—it looks like those days might make a return.
The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB 250 drives very nicely, belying its reasonable base price but befitting its heritage and bloodlines. Power from the turbo-four comes on relatively smooth, but there's an admittedly small amount of lag before the boost sets in and pushes the SUV forward. It's better than the outgoing I-4 and in line with the rest of the class, but there's still room for improvement.
However, the new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission is stellar. In low-speed driving (where DCTs often show their warts), shifts are smooth. But switch the drive selector to "Sport," and the gearbox livens up with snappy, nearly instantaneous shifts, a willingness to hold gears to redline, and eager downshifting for added engine braking.
The rest of the SUV backs up that dual nature. In sedate freeway or in-town conditions, the GLB 250 fades to the background, but any time we wanted to cane it down a canyon road, it responded with ample grip and a well-damped suspension that kept body motions in check. Dynamically speaking, we have few complaints—pervasive tire noise at higher speeds and lifeless steering that is well-weighted but provides no feedback.
We didn't get a chance to get off the pavement much, but 4Matic models come standard with the Off-Road Engineering package, which includes hill descent control, hill start assist, and selectable tuning for the throttle and traction controls. We took the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB 250 down one pretty rough road and were able to get the rear wheels to lift over relatively small obstacles, so suspension travel isn't the SUV's strong suit. Treat it with the care a compact crossover deserves, and you'll be able to tackle fire roads and unmaintained pavement OK. For anything more severe, better save up for a G-Class.
How Luxurious Is It?
The GLB does a decent impression of a more expensive SUV, offering Mercedes' latest and greatest in-cabin technologies. "Hey Mercedes" voice activation works as well here as it does in the GLS and GLE—that is to say, it's mostly glitch-free and easy to use, but the disembodied voice occasionally balks at some commands. The GLB comes standard with dual 7-inch instrument cluster and infotainment displays, though all of the models we tested came equipped with the much prettier 10.25-inch twin screens. They are easy to operate via touchscreen, console trackpad, or thumbpads on the steering wheel.
Any materials you're likely to touch are pleasant enough, with one glaring exception. Taller drivers such as yours truly will find their outboard elbows constantly rapping on a nasty seam in the door panel that's unpleasantly hard. It drove this author crazy. Otherwise, armrests are thickly padded, and the dashboard and door panels do a decent imitation of stitched leather. Extensive reconfigurable mood lighting is a very disco touch, one that's surprisingly playful for a Mercedes. It is a feature that's sure to capture your passengers' attention, though after seeing it in a few recent Benzes, we have to admit it's starting to feel a little "Pep Boys."
Interior space is deceptively large, and thanks to big windows, the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB feels airy and open. An available panoramic sunroof adds to the effect. The GLB is a bit width-challenged, which made its presence known when stuffing the rear seat with three adult males. Also, the front seat bottoms are a bit narrow between the bolsters—we did drive this thing right after the holidays, but we doubt our own weight gain was the cause (at least we hope). A third-row seat is an $850 optional on all models, but we weren't able to test out its comfort or space, as none of the vehicles we drove were so equipped.
How Much Will It Cost?
The GLB starts at $36,600 with front-wheel drive or $38,600 with 4Matic all-wheel drive, but adding options causes that price to balloon significantly. Our 4Matic tester cost more than $51,000 thanks to adjustable suspension damping, the Premium package and its 10.25-inch display screens, embedded navigation, a panoramic roof, leather seats, flashy wheels, and more. Our more palatable front-drive tester was $45,265, thanks to standard paint, standard wheels, and standard black MB-Tex seats (honestly, they look and feel almost as good as leather). Optioned with Distronic adaptive cruise control, massaging seats, and more, the front-driver struck us as a bargain-priced, comfortable grocery getter and family wagon.
Each 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB will get reasonable fuel economy, at 26 combined mpg as rated by the EPA. Curiously, the 4Matic model gets slightly better fuel economy, at 23 city and 31 highway mpg, while the front-driver makes do with 30 on the highway. The onboard computer backed up that claim, boasting around 31 or 32 mpg on long freeway stretches.
Is the GLB a Real Mercedes?
It's easy to look at cheap luxury cars with cynicism—dolled-up economy cars with fancy badges, tailored to lure mainstream shoppers into the showroom on the promise of a low lease deal. That's a fair criticism (and to be honest, you probably get more for your money buying a loaded Mazda CX-5 than a base GLB). But there's no denying that Benz's newest small crossover feels as premium and, je ne sais quoi, as special as its larger siblings. Working in its favor are a big interior, balanced dynamics, and snappy styling. Whether that's worth the coin is up to you.