We know what you’re thinking. Not another pseudo-hot SUV. But let’s not dismiss the GLB 35 too quickly; the market for compact, hatchback-derived crossovers with 300+hp possesses (we're told) the growth equivalent of pond weed. The potential for increasing AMG's reach is therefore dramatic - particularly so far as its 35-badged models are concerned. So long as it's good, mind. Because direct rivals are plentiful.
Perhaps the GLB’s boxy design is a reflection of the close fought battle it’ll face. Compared to the soft-roader bodies of the BMW X2 M135i and Land Rover Discovery Sport, the GLB is deliberately tall and squared-off. The 35 does, admittedly, ditch some of the regular GLB’s G-Wagen-inspired bits for a cleaner, more sporting look. But there’s no getting past its silhouette, which ought to carve it something of a niche in the segment. There’s practical reward for the 1,662mm-tall form, too, as it allows space for seven seats (like the Disco Sport) and 1,800 litres of storage (102 litres better than the Disco). That’s a lot more room than the CLA 35 Shooting Brake, so the GLB certainly brings a unique blend of performance and usability to AMG’s line-up.
Still, what lies beneath the skin is largely familiar, including the M260 2.0-litre turbo, which like the other 35 models has 306hp and 295lb ft of torque and a front-biased all-wheel drive system. But the GLB 35 gets Mercedes’ newer eight-speed automatic in place of the A-Class’s older seven-cog unit, while an independent brake-controlled traction system ensures it can still cope with the mucky stuff. That being said, not even Mercedes is suggesting that this 35 would regularly be subjected to such a life, so we’re sent out onto the off-road course in a non-AMG GLB for proof of concept.
The 21-inch-wearing GLB 35 is for the tarmac, that much is clear from the stance provided by its firmed-up suspension. In truth the GLB 35 rides rather well, a lot better than the brittle A35 in fact, probably thanks to the thickness of its Conti Sport Contact 6s and a difference in tuning priorities. It feels smartly damped in Comfort, allowing some squidginess over bigger compressions in the road, with the only notable challenges provided by small, rough bumps and cracked surfaces. Yet even then there’s a rubberised feel to the firmness, so as far as compact performance machines of this type go, this one is certainly amenable. The verdict is hammered home by the GLB’s leather seats, which place you more upright as per SUV requirements and provide good support.
A stint on Spanish motorway allows time to appreciate the functionality of the GLB 35’s cabin, which gets Merc’s MBUX architecture and the impressive augmented reality satnav that it brings. In the GLB the system is placed into a flatter, chunkier dash design, which works well and actually adds to the cabin’s airy feel. Like the tall look, it comes as a design trait to appease those SUV fans, and is helped by the expanse of near vertical glass around the cabin which provides great visibility. The flat bootlid, for example, makes reverse parking a doddle, even if those thick C-pillars leave you relying on the camera for full rearward visibility. And we’d even say that the fit and finish is a step up on the A35 cabin, although in the back there are some scratchy plastics. Bringing back the brownie points are surprisingly large optional third-row seats, which get their own USB ports.
The main drawback of the GLB’s butch shape is wind noise, which presents itself as an audible whistle at motorway speed. It’s not like there’s much road noise to drown it out either, the cabin being otherwise very well insulated. But set to a cruise the GLB is a perfectly adequate place to cover great distances with the family aboard; it’s safe, sturdy and uneventful – like a more forgiving version of the A35. It’s only when you ask the engine for some action that the inevitable hindrances appear. A combination of that blunt face and heavier mass ensure that the flat mid-range of the M260 feels even flatter, so it’s not until you get into the motor’s peak from 5,800hp that it begins to shift in the manner of an AMG. But even then, it’s effective, not inspiring.
That’s of little surprise, the A35’s A250-related engine having never evoked much emotion like the four-pot in the 45 models. What does set the GLB 35 apart from its siblings is the arrival of that new eight-speed, which is more decisive, quicker shifting and smoother in action than the seven-speed this engine is mated to in the A35. Its effectiveness is somewhat accentuated by the 2.0-litre’s shortcomings, as it’s forced to work harder on the inclines of our mountainous test route in order to keep in the meat of the performance. It’s good in manual mode, too, with instantaneous responses to up and downshifts and small thuds when you pull for a full throttle change.
Handling is decent and we don’t doubt there’s some talent in the chassis - but you’re never let completely off the leash to explore it. In Sport mode, the adaptive damping keeps the tall body tightly held without becoming harsh, the steering is nicely weighted and the brakes feel capable of withstanding heavy work. And grip on warm, dry tarmac is enormous. But anyone paying the AMG premium for a third, thrill-seeking dimension is likely to be frustrated by Mercedes' decision to make the stability system a non-switchable affair. The technology wilfully intrudes during corner entry with a pinched rear brake, and enthusiastic mid-corner acceleration triggers the power-sapping traction control on the front axle, even when the ESP claims to be extinguised.
The safety-first attitude is hardly exclusive to Mercedes - and is unlikely to trouble 99 per cent of GLB buyers - but it does contribute to the lingering thought that AMG's entry-level SUV is segment-pleaser first and bonafide badge-carrier second. That was all but inevitable with the endless broadening of the lineup, and the everything-from-Land Rover-to-Porsche scale of the competition. You certainly don't have to stand far back to see why a middle of the road approach works best - or why those jump seats are going to earn it some brownie points. But injecting a little more dynamic zest into the AMG version would surely have done it no harm. And it would be more consistent with what's written on the tin.
SPECIFICATION – MERCEDES-AMG GLB 35
Engine: 1,991cc, 4 cyl, turbo
Transmission: 8-speed twin-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 306@5,800-6,100rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@3,000-4,000rpm
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Price: est £45,000-£50,000