2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB 250 First Drive

The previous-generation Mercedes CLA may have been a flawed car, but it was a success for its brand. At its sales peak, about 70% of buyers were new to Mercedes and of those, 65% traded their CLA in for another car with a three-pointed star. A similar trend is currently being seen with the new A-Class. Mercedes calls this growing collection of less-expensive compact vehicles "gateway" cars, and the new 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB-Class is poised to throw the gates open even further.

The GLB rides on the same front-drive platform as the new A- and CLA classes as well as the next-generation GLA that arrives next year. But the GLB, with its 111.4-inch wheelbase and 182.4-inch overall length, stretches further than its stablemates as well as the BMW X1, Audi Q3 and Volvo XC40. Its back seat and cargo space are comparatively excellent as a result, benefitting from the GLB's boxy shape.

That boxiness is certainly on trend at the moment, as can be seen in vehicles like the XC40, Kia Telluride and Mercedes' own G-Class. There's something charming about the little Benz box, although from certain angles (higher ones) and in certain configurations (the AMG Sport package), it can look a bit slammed, like a Kia Soul donning a fancy suit. The all-wheel-drive Mercedes GLB 250 4Matic includes an Off-Road Engineering package and a smidge more ground clearance that makes a subtle SUVish visual difference, but it doesn't go far enough. Even if just for aesthetic purposes, it would be nice if there was a variant that's even higher off the ground and more of a mini G-Wagen. A Jeep Renegade Trailhawk donning a fancy suit, if you will.

Of course, part of that equation also includes the engine: the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four good for 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque that's shared with the new CLA (the A-Class has a less-powerful 1.8-liter unit). Mercedes estimates a 0-60-mph time of 6.9 seconds for the all-wheel-drive GLB 250 4Matic. That output is effectively the same as the X1 and Q3, which curiously both produce 228 hp and 258 lb-ft. The Q3 is a tenth slower to 60 than the GLB; the X1 0.6 second quicker. Perhaps back-to-back drives would reveal some advantages one competitor has over the other in terms of response, sound or refinement, but on paper, flip a coin. What's under the hood is unlikely to push someone toward or away from a GLB. Ditto the all-wheel-drive system.

Value is a more complicated story. The front-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz GLB 250 starts at $37,595, including $995 for destination, while the GLB 250 4Matic goes for $39,595. That's more than both the X1 ($36,195) and Q3 ($35,695), and while the GLB at least has more standard equipment than the BMW (LED headlights, driver inattention monitoring, sliding and reclining back seat, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay), it has less than the Audi Q3 (which gets leather upholstery, heated front seats and a panoramic sunroof standard). Given the GLB's aesthetic and space advantages, this price premium seems fair. At the same time, you can also get more equipment on the GLB, which can elevate its price far beyond the others. Among those is the adaptive suspension, the third-row seat and a far more expansive array of safety and driving aides, which are very well executed. Even those with over-zealous nanny tendencies (the automatic speed-limit reduction for the adaptive cruise control, for instance) can be turned off. It's pretty much the same stuff you can get on an S-Class.

In that way and many others, the 2020 Mercedes GLB is more than just a gateway to the brand. It's a fully-fledged member and one that doesn't constantly remind that you bought one of the cheapest Mercedes. Given the front-drive small-car platform and past experiences with the current GLA, we frankly weren't expecting this to be so. Yet, with its ritzy interior, generous cargo space and refined driving experience, the GLB 250 is the real deal.