The 2020 Mercedes GLB Is A Small SUV That Feels Big In Good Ways

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Photo: Andrew P Collins
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The 2020 Mercedes GLB is basically a lux Jeep Renegade. In other words, it’s a compact car with an aura of toughness articulated exclusively by its design, but it’s also very practically proportioned and really quite decent to drive around in. Meanwhile, the interior looks like a nightclub on a spaceship. Why not!

(Full Disclosure: Mercedes-Benz flew me to Arizona, proved food, coffee, and a very nice hotel room, so I could test drive the GLB SUV and CLA sedan. The other car will be in another post.)

Mercedes-Benz has one of the best sport utility lineups going right now. I’m serious, actually. The GLS is a powerhouse station wagon. The G is genuinely capable off-road... if you put off-road tires on it. But the new GLB, the second-smallest Benz SUV that’s basically just a tall car, might be my new favorite.

Specs That Matter

The GLB shares a lot of hardware with the CLA compact sedan, which Mercedes insists on calling a coupe, and so far this model can be had as the front-wheel drive GLB 250 or GLB 250 4MATIC which is all-wheel drive in the sense that it’s front-wheel drive but can occasionally send some power to the rear axle to find traction. Either way, the transmission is a smooth eight-speed dual-clutch automatic.

The front-drive version is supposed to be able to get 30 mpg highway, which I believe based on my short mountainous road test of the all-wheel driver that returned fuel economy figures in the mid-20s.

The 4MATIC model does have an “off-road” mode, which locks power output to 50 percent front and 50 percent rear, helping preempt slippage on loose or icy surfaces. We’ll get into that more later.

All GLBs are powered by a modest 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that Benz claims can generate 221 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. That’s not a lot. Until a more aggressively-tuned GLB 35 AMG version hits the U.S., this is not a quick car.

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But what it lacks in punch it makes up for in practicality. The GLB has comfortable seating for four adults, viable seating for five, and in a pinch, you really could cart seven people over some distance if you spec the optional third-row seat. Or, if you’ve got two adults and four kids, you might hear plenty of complaining but none of it should be related to legroom.

Mercedes claims a total of 62 cubic feet of cargo space. With the first two rows in place, luggage capacity is cavernous and you should have no problem getting two kids to grandma’s without a roof box. Unfortunately, like all three-row SUVs, it’s going to be tight if you need to haul humans and stuff simultaneously.

Otherwise, the GLB can be very well-equipped, but you’ll have to spec it up if you want all the fun and safety-enhancing features that really make the vehicle stand out. An all-wheel drive GLB rings up below $40,000 before you add options; our car listed at over $57,000 with a long list of toys including everything from ambient lighting to an augmented-reality navigation system, special seating colors, parking assistance, a digital instrument cluster, AMG bodykit, 20-inch wheels, and a suite of driver-assistance features like lane keeping and emergency braking.

If you’re thinking to yourself: “Hey, isn’t a lot of that stuff standard on, like, Hyundais?” Yes. Car options are like hotel Wi-Fi. The fancier the foundation, the more expensive the add-ons.

What’s Great

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Mercedes-Benz has masterfully boiled down the look of a large SUV onto a compact platform here. The GLB appears bigger than it is; it looks like it means business. But according to the spec sheet, this SUV is (just a tiny bit) shorter front-to-back than a Honda Civic sedan. Take a closer look at the spec sheet if you’d like to get a little more granular on the GLB’s dimensions.

But the jewel of the GLB is the human-machine interface. Or, rather, the giant Pentagon control room-style screen array spread across half the dashboard.

Mercedes’ new MBUX software, which is what you have to talk to if you want to get anything done in this car, is reasonably intuitive, highly customizable, and visually gorgeous.

My photography wasn’t good enough to really illustrate just how sleek and sexily-lit the cockpit of this car is, so here’s Mercedes’s own shots of the shiney deets:

You don’t literally have to talk to it, you can control it by touching the screen or using a touchpad, but you can talk to it if you like. Saying “Mercedes” in the cab brings up a Siri-like virtual assistant that I found fairly useless in answering my questions about the mysteries of the universe but somewhat helpful in managing the car’s operation.

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You’re supposed to be able to control it with natural phrases, like, say “I’m cold” and the car turns the heat up. I hate that shit. I’m not used to interacting with machines that way, so I find it creepy and off-putting. But you might feel differently.

I can get pretty curmudgeonly when it comes to infotainment systems – I like my personal cars to be old enough to vote for that reason – but even I have to admit that outside the voice controls, the new Benz menus and displays are pretty slick.

The augmented reality navigation display is unique in that it turns the center screen into a live video feed of the road ahead, which might seem redundant until you realize it overlays street names and turning directions over what you see ahead of you. Necessary? No. But, neat, certainly. And exactly the kind of flashy innovation that attracts people to luxury cars in the first place. It’s part of a $1,150 navigation package in the GLB.

If you spec the $1,650 digital cluster you see in these pictures, you can program several versions of the main gauge pod to suit your preferences, and the menus for making adjustments to secondary systems are full of smooth animations and details that make the car feel futuristic like colorful speedometers and illustrated vehicle vital signs.

The cabin is comfortable with nice seats and materials all over the place, and it’s very well-insulated from the outside world. The driving experience itself is smooth, refined, and unremarkable. Driving enthusiasts will be disappointed by its numbness but the average commuter will interpret and appreciate that as a luxury. You’re barely driving, basically, but you’re doing it in a very nice and artful seating area.

What’s Weak

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My praise of the GLB’s styling applies to the silhouette and the base model without the AMG appearance package. If you order that, you get stuck with silly front scoops and egregiously overdone rear diffuser slats on the back bumper. God, do they look dumb.

Benz’s 2.0-liter turbo under the hood of this thing can (and has) been tuned up to spit fire, proverbially speaking, in other models but not this one yet. The GLB 250’s never in a hurry. I mean, it keeps up on the highway and if you’ve got some momentum with the snail spooled up, the vehicle can surge from 50 mph to 70 mph in reasonably short order. Just don’t get too excited about skurting off stoplights or making ambitious passes on two-lane roads. Climbing up long hills might also feel a touch arduous.

I’m also a little dubious of the thing’s bad-weather abilities. In the briefest off-road test ever, I put the GLB 4MATIC through a 10-point turn on a skinny, slushy, snowy dirt road I quickly realized I didn’t want to travel down, and in doing so had to work pretty hard with left-foot braking and a very careful throttle application to keep the car from sliding. Yes, I was in “off-road mode” forcing a 50/50 front/rear power split.

You need to understand that this an SUV built with the bones and hardware of a compact car. While that grants it pleasant on-road driving dynamics and efficiency, it also means shouldn’t fling this thing into obstacles or off the pavement with the same reckless abandon you could have in a G-Wagen or a 4Runner. Despite the fact that it looks tough on the outside.

Early Verdict

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The GLB combines two things that are popular right now – SUV styling and highly polished digital controls – and pairs them with good cargo and passenger capacity in a reasonably proportioned car that gets decent fuel economy.

That formula alone should make this thing a hit, but it also happens to have a cool-looking cabin and a well-respected emblem in the grille so I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot of these on the road in short order.

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I’m on board with that. In fact, I could see myself driving one, maybe with a light bar and some rally wheels if I could find any that fit, to give it the “modded Crosstrek” treatment. I think I’ll wait for the AMG-tuned variant, though. Then again, I said that about the GLK, too. (Another great small SUV design that’s aged well!)

If you’re considering a larger SUV, I’d suggest you take a close look at the GLB. It should satisfy the styling needs you’re hungry for and you might be surprised just how well utilized the interior space is here.