MERCEDES-BENZ has a proud history of producing SUVs, and we with long memories will forever associate them with the uber-boxy 4x4 G-Wagen that is somehow still in production.
The German company's new GLA-Class SUV is about as far from the utilitarian G-Wagen as you could imagine: sleek, small, stylish and perfectly practical for the modern market.
Mercedes suggests that if the G-Wagen is the beefy leather hiking boot originating from the 1970s, the GLA is today's super-soft trail shoe.
With that picture painted, Merc's first effort at the increasingly-important compact SUV segment is an impressive one, and the GLA adds to a Benz range that is at present rammed with appealing and practical offerings at competitive prices.
If you have $50-60 grand burning a hole currently, you could do a lot worse than popping down the local Benz shop.
The GLA-Class complements Mercedes' A- and B-Classes, with the new compact SUV longer than the As and Bs; taller than the As but sleeker and more low slung than the Bs.
The GLA isn't a million miles away from these entry-level offerings from Merc, so is there much point to the model at all?
In these style conscious days, Merc can't afford not to have this segment covered. Small SUVs with almost coupe aesthetics plus an elevated driving position are now luxury range staples - think BMW X1, Audi Q3 or Range Rover Evoque.
The GLA's cabin reflects Merc's current design direction; it looks similar to the well-received A-Class's interior. Absent are the true luxury soft-touch finishes your typical Benz buyer would expect, but the dash layout is good even if the 14.7cm touch-screen infotainment unit would look better integrated into the dash.
With electric seats that are both comfortable and supportive - especially in optional AMG guise - the cabin's a decent place to spend a long journey, while leg room is good for rear passengers, and head room sufficient for a small SUV.
The GLA's driving position doesn't feel too elevated despite its SUV status. You're perched higher than in a Merc A-Class, but you often feel like you're sitting in a hatchback with the seat raised, and for some buyers, myself included, that's no bad thing.
At launch the sole offering is a front-wheel drive 200 CDI diesel aimed at city slickers and style conscious school runners, and this will be joined later in 2014 by a GLA 250 4MATIC all-wheel drive petrol and the soft-roader with track potential: the GLA 45 AMG 4MATIC that will hit 100kmh in 4.8-seconds.
Only the basic 200 CDI was available on our soggy Melbourne road test, and with sensible hat on, this is the value choice of the range at $47,900.
For your cash you're buying an attractive looking SUV with numerous styling cues shared throughout the Mercedes-Benz range.
Toughening it up are nice bulges in the bonnet - Mercedes calls these power domes - the side skirts have bucket teeth for a rugged, more off-road look, and 18-inch alloys as standard ensure it doesn't look under-wheeled. And as big bums are currently in vogue, the GLA has kept itself bang up to date with a hefty booty.
On the road
Whether your GLA will be used as a city style statement or a soft-roader will dictate if all-wheel drive is needed or not.
The front-wheel drive 200 CDI model wouldn't be the one for dirt driving despite its aesthetic hints suggesting otherwise. It looks like a sporty junior 4x4, but aside from a slightly higher ride height, won't have any more off-road ability than Merc's A-Class hatchback. For that, you'll have to wait for the 4MATIC versions later this year.
With just 100kW from the 200 CDI's 2.2-litre diesel it can be sluggish on the open road, but returning fuel consumption of 4.6-litres/100km is a massive upside. Although the engine's clatter at idle does feel a bit un-Merc like. This makes the stop/start function much more noticeable when it kicks in.
Positively, the engine does show its smooth class once it gets going, and with peak torque arriving at a low 1400rpm it has decent pull while never delivering a thrill.
But the expected buyers of the 200 CDI will no doubt be more concerned with its performance on the daily drive, be it city, suburbia or highway.
Here the GLA goes about its business with aplomb: it is smooth, comfortable and absorbs road imperfections impressively.
It proved a decent steer too on our very wet test drive, with good turn in, balance and impressive ride quality, while the seven-speed auto is a gem when out on the open road.
For an extra $2490 you can tick the AMG-line box and enjoy fancier body styling, 19-inch wheels, sport seats and sport suspension. The ride is a tad harsher over the bumps with the AMG-line setup - yet still perfectly comfortable - so the improved handling characteristics suggest it will be a popular add-on for those who like to leave the city behind.
What do you get?
Buyers of the 200 CDI won't be too fussed with the small SUV not being a back lane hero - those shoppers will gravitate towards the AMG 4MATIC editions if funds allow - so entry-levellists will be more smitten by the basic GLA's features and toys.
As standard you get cosseting artificial leather upholstery, navigation, bi-xenon headlights, dual-zone climate control, reversing camera, automatic tailgate and it even parks itself if you run out of ability.
Also included are nine airbags, collision prevention assist, blind spot assist and driver fatigue monitor to help protect you and your investment.
With the cachet of a three-pointed star on the steering wheel too, it's an appealing package for the coin.
As a package, the GLA 200 CDI may not set the heart racing but its all-round practicality, style, features and value should make this a popular choice at the entry-level end of the Benz range.
The company needed a small SUV, and it's an excellent and desirable latecomer to the segment.
When the 155kW petrol GLA 250 arrives in July it will offer a greater level of driver satisfaction, and although Mercedes expects this to be the volume seller, at $10k over the 200 CDI many buyers - especially city dwellers - may disagree.
Mercedes has come to the small SUV party late with the GLA, but is sure to drag buyers away from the BMW X1 and Audi Q3. The GLA is an excellent introduction to this segment, offering style, great value, high levels of standard equipment and an assured if hardly overwhelming drive in the 200 CDI which is the only variant available now.
Later this year we'll have the GLA 250 petrol and rocketship GLA 45 AMG - both with all-wheel-drive - and they should raise the model's appeal further, albeit for a hefty jump in price.
WHAT MATTERS MOST
What we liked: Brand allure at good value, equipment level, style, decent ride, fuel economy.
What we'd like to see: A less sluggish diesel engine that feels more refined at idle and low speed.
Warranty and servicing: Three-year unlimited kilometre warranty. Servicing is at 25,000km or annually, capped price package available for three years.
Model: Mercedes-Benz GLA 200 CDI
Details: Five-door front-wheel drive premium compact SUV.
Engine: 2.2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel generating maximum power of 100kW @ 3400-4000rpm and peak torque of 300Nm @ 1400-3000rpm.
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic.
Performance: 0-100kmh in 9.9 seconds, top speed 205kmh.
Consumption: 4.6 litres /100km.
Bottom line: $47,900.