We’ve all seen it happen: luxury brands that lose cachet after confusing class production for mass production solely in the name of profits.
True luxury brands are rarified and rarely seen but highly coveted — like a Hermes Birkin bag. Then there are designers like Ralph Lauren, whose Purple Label consists of clothing of the highest quality, made in some of the world’s finest workshops. Of course, you’re more likely to associate Lauren with the piles of poorly made Polo shirts and chinos that litter the aisles of Macy’s; Purple Label is more of a loss-leader marketing exercise meant to maintain the upscale illusion of his mainstream merch.
The same tragic down-market slide happens to cars, and one has to wonder, is it happening to Mercedes-Benz? The thought occurs as the company expands its portfolio of lower-priced front-wheel-drive vehicles, which include the GLA, CLA, A-Class and the new for 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB 250 4Matic.
The new SUV slots between the smaller front-wheel-drive GLA and the larger rear-wheel-drive, but still compact, GLC. At 111.4 inches, the GLB’s wheelbase is 5.1 inches longer than the GLA, but overall length is 1.7 inches shorter than the GLC. At 182 inches long, it’s fairly large for a compact, offering a surprisingly spacious cabin with two rows or three. And it seems somewhat affordable given that the front-wheel-drive GLB 250 starts at $36,600, with all-wheel drive costing an extra $2,000, along with a $995 destination charge.
But the GLB is affordable only if one goes easy on the options.
For example, the GLB’s leather seats? A $1,400 option. Then there is the AMG sport steering wheel ($360), 20-inch AMG wheels ($1,050), heated and ventilated seats ($1,030), Panoramic sunroof ($1,500), adjustable suspension damping ($900), SiriusXM Satellite Radio ($460), and a Burmeister surround sound system ($350). But you have to wonder why increasingly common items like ambient lighting ($310), and wireless charging mat ($200) aren’t standard.
The test car also had a number of packages, such as the “Premium Package” that includes the center 10.25-inch digital display, 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster, and auto-dimming rearview and side mirrors. There’s also the worthwhile $2,250 “Driver’s Assistance Package” that adds brake assist, cross traffic alert, blind spot detection, active cruise control, lane keeping assist, lane changing assist, emergency stop assist and evasive steering assist. There is also a $1,090 “Parking Assistance Package” that allows the car to park itself, a $900 “Exterior Lighting Package” with active LED headlamps and automatic high beams, an $1,150 “Multimedia Package” that adds a navigation system with augmented reality and speed limit assist, a $400 “Night Package” that adds high gloss black exterior trim, and $2,250 worth of “AMG Line” trim along with front perforated discs.
The bottom line was $57,475. I wondered what the vehicle would be like with the $17,880 worth of options eliminated. It must have all the charm of a taxi cab, for the luxury is optional.
Nevertheless, the Monroney sticker had answered my question. Given that many of the optional items are standard on less-expensive cars, Mercedes-Benz is indeed a luxury automaker, and the GLB 250 is a laudable addition to the luxury brand.
Even though it’s a cliche to say that the GLB has a solid feel typical of German cars, the fact is that it does. One gets the sense that in the things that matter, Mercedes-Benz didn’t stint. Climbing inside the cabin, front seat occupants are greeted by the same long twin screen display seen in tonier siblings. It’s dazzling and helps offset the sea of hard plastic surfaces that diminishes the interior’s opulent touches, one of which is the new version of the Mercedes-Benz User Experience infotainment software. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, and it’s far more intuitive to use than the old version, with impressive high-definition graphics and a large touchscreen that works much like an iPad, although a center console mounted touchpad can also be used. A litany of shortcut buttons eases its use. Still, it takes too many steps to do certain functions, although overall, the system is far better than previous ones.
The seats are comfortable in the first two rows, with more than enough head and legroom, but opting for the third row seems like a waste of money given its tight legroom dimensions and how much it diminishes cargo space. That said, the firm unyielding seats provided decent support over long distances, and the front seats in particular seemed less narrow than those in the mechanically-similar CLA.
The GLB 250 comes with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine producing 221 horsepower and paired with a newly developed eight-speed dual clutch transmission to the front wheels, or all four if your order the optional 4Matic option. The new GLB makes the most of its available power thanks to the new eight-speed dual clutch transmission, which always seems to be in the proper gear, although paddle shifters on the steering wheel are there if you want to quickly shift. The all-wheel drive works invisibly, with no interaction needed from the driver.
It’s fairly quiet, although highways driving elicited more road and tire noise than expected, although its poise remained excellent through corners and over bumps. It’s overall demeanor and performance is more like a car than a true SUV. Consider it more of a foul-weather friend than a true off-road boulder basher. The only unexplored territory this trucklet is taking is that unknown road through a subdivision.
But you can motor there proudly, as its styling looks like a shrunken version of its larger siblings, with upright styling that makes the most of its dimensions. While it calls to mind a modern version of the old GLK, it also might make you think twice about spending more for the slightly larger GLC.
Still, its demeanor as an affordable Mercedes-Benz luxury SUV works better than you’d expect, as long you go easy options.
One drive and you’ll understand that the GLB 250 is no pretend Mercedes-Benz, and it sure beats a pair of Ralph Lauren chinos or a Polo shirt.
Larry Printz is an automotive journalist based in South Florida. Readers may send him email at TheDrivingPrintz@gmail.com.