The facelifted Mercedes-Benz GLA (in 4Matic form) stakes its claim against the smallest member of BMW’s X family...

Convoluted would best describe the parentage of these vehicles. The first-generation BMW X1 was based on the E91 3 Series Touring platform and took the form of a bumped-up 1 Series hatchback. This second generation, meanwhile, has morphed into a fully fledged member of the BMW’s X family of SUVs (despite sharing its platform with a few Mini models). Conversely, the Mercedes-Benz A-Class that began life as a distinctly tall, wedge-shaped family van has, three generations later, transformed into a more conventional 1 Series-rivalling hatchback with an obligatory bumped-up version known as the GLA.

Sharing its platform with the 2 Series Active Tourer, the current X1 range consists of front- and all-wheel-drive versions, with 70% of local monthly sales favouring the former (sDrive) layout. In most conditions, even xDrive models have power delivered predominantly to the front wheels. As forecast, the transition from the old model’s more driver-focused RWD to a packaging-friendly FWD configuration has garnered nominal backlash from BMW’s traditional customer base. The X1 continues to be the manufacturer’s third-best-selling model globally.

Equally profitable for its maker, the Mercedes-Benz GLA shares its MFA platform and much of its production line with the current A-Class. While these underpinnings have been criticised for a firm ride quality, the GLA’s slightly raised ride height does improve things. The model’s recent midlife update also saw the addition of the Comfort suspension setup as standard (adaptive damping is a R20 499 option), which offers an additional 30 mm of ground clearance.

Further enhancements to the range include revised bumpers and headlamps, a lightly updated interior and the introduction of optional LED headlamps. Flattering what are mildly puffed-up A-Class wheelarches, the GLA220d is fitted only with 4Matic all-wheel drive. While it’s questionable whether or not this technology truly benefits anything other than the mighty 280 kW GLA45 AMG, it does pitch the GLA220d as an interesting alternative to this cheaper sDrive20d and the dearer X1 xDrive20d, which wasn’t available for this test.

Packaging

Boasting greater overall dimensions than the Mercedes-Benz, the X1 has afforded BMW’s engineers more freedom in which to work in terms of interior packaging. And, while the X1 offers both a higher driving position and superior all-round headroom compared with the GLA, it’s the inclusion of an optional sliding (60:40-split) rear bench that unlocks the BMW’s packaging potential. A further boon is the ability to lower the 40:20:40-split backrests individually via levers positioned in the boot.

A negative shared with the similarly packaged (now locally discontinued) 2 Series Active Tourer is the particularly small, firmly bolstered front seats that, over long distances, can prove uncomfortable. The GLA counters by offering impressively comfortable front seats set as low in the cabin as in the hatch on which it’s based. This translates to a more purposeful, dynamic driving position compared with the more SUV-like X1. The trade-off for these heavily bolstered front pews, however, is their infringement into rear-passenger legroom. Also, by being the narrower of the two, squeezing in three adults onto the rear bench is nigh on impossible (once sardined in, they won’t find much headroom, either).

It doesn’t get better for the Mercedes-Benz when it comes to luggage-space measurements where, even with the X1’s sliding bench centred to offer a matching 256 litres of space, the GLA’s packing potential is hampered by a raised (but well-protected) load sill. Where both test units were fitted with an optional electrically assisted tailgate, only the lower-slung GLA’s hatch opens high enough for taller testers to load the bay without risking a head bump.

While the highlights of their respective cabins include a crystal-clear, tablet-sized infotainment screen with a plethora of storage options and generally nice-to-touch surfaces in the Mercedes-Benz and a modern, clear and concise facia layout and above-average plastics in the BMW, you’d need to exercise careful consideration when speccing both models (and, in some cases, be willing to fork out a large sum; climate control and a reverse-view camera, for example, aren’t standard on either). Parents of toddlers should be pleased to know the X1 features additional Isofix anchorage points on the front passenger seat that complement the two sets of rear mounts. With the passenger airbag deactivated, this affords you a tad more flexibility when it comes to transporting little ones.

Drivetrains

With efficiency front of mind, both these direct-injection turbodiesel engines deliver at the pumps. Mated with an impressively intuitive eight-speed automatic transmission, the X1’s 2,0-litre isn’t the quietest at idle, yet performs admirably once on the move. It returned an average consumption of 5,4 L/100 km over our standard fuel run. Marginally quieter at idle, Benz’s soon-to-be-replaced 2,1-litre turbodiesel loudly betrays its age higher in the rev range. Despite its vintage, however, it remains eager to please, with grunt on hand (350 N.m from 1 400 r/min) to complement the GLA’s sportier stance compared with that of the X1.

Off the line, the Mercedes is beaten to 100 km/h by 0,4 seconds because of its 50 kg weight penalty over the BMW and its somewhat lethargic seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Similarly, the Benz couldn’t quite match the average fuel consumption offered by the X1, returning (a still-respectable) 6,1 L/100 km over our 100 km fuel route.

On the road

Curiously, considering both these platforms aren’t exactly known for their high levels of bump absorption, these test units arrived fitted with a wheel-and-tyre combination two inches larger than standard issue. Those wheels may look good, but they certainly don’t do the ride quality any favours. Interestingly, the GLA makes the best of this disadvantage, offering a slightly less fussy experience that’s allied with a welcome level of surefootedness when pushing on.

By contrast, the taller (by 118 mm) X1 suffers most due to its optional M Sport package that includes firmer suspension and larger wheels. This is the second X1 test unit we’ve assessed that’s shod with 225/45 R19 rubber and it’s the second time we’ve been disappointed by a family vehicle that should offer a more refined and compliant driving experience. That’s a pity, as the vehicle we sampled on the X1’s international launch was not only less fidgety on road, but also transmitted less unwelcome road noise into the cabin via the wheelarches. As mentioned, specify your vehicle carefully.

On the positive side, the BMW’s Servotronic speed-sensitive steering assistance is a boon, making the X1 easy to manoeuvre around town, yet confidence-inspiring as speeds increase. By this token, the GLA’s system, while by no means poor, lacks the same level of precision. Where the GLA220d 4Matic’s Drive Select system includes an off-road setting, by far the most useful tool when it comes to taking this raised hatchback off the beaten track is its standard hill-descent control. Consider prudently your sense of adventure in the GLA, however, as it offers only a puncture repair kit as a backup plan.



TEST SUMMARY

The timing of this test does neither of these two contenders any favours. In the last six months, we've driven various examples of three of the best modern compact SUVs, the Volkswagen Tiguan, Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage, all of which are more versatile, comfortable and affordable - while offering better levels of standard specification - than these two Germans.

Added to that, we've also recently tested one of the finest BMWs and one of the best modern Mercedes-Benz offerings to date. While it's hardly fair to compare a BMW 540i and Mercedes-AMG C43 Coupé with an X1 and GLA, what the exercise highlights is just how large the gap is between the products at which these two manufacturers excel, and those vehicles with which they're still finding their feet.

While there's little doubt a more conservatively specced X1 would close this composure gap to its larger siblings, we were given the sense by one or two unwelcome squeaks and rattles in the cabin of this smallest member of the BMW X family that, transferring the lofty levels of overall refinement and perceived build integrity offered in a modern 3 Series, remains a challenge.

By a similar token, it's telling that, only one generation in to the MFA platform, Mercedes-Benz will heavily rework these underpinnings for the forthcoming, all-new A-Class. That vehicle, and its various sister models such as the GLA, will reportedly offer a longer wheelbase (and increased interior space) from a lighter, yet stronger frame (dubbed MFA2).

Back to this test. We may have highlighted these models' obvious flaws in this test, but BMW and Mercedes-Benz will point to robust local and international sales figures. And so be it. It's not that either of these vehicles is deeply flawed; it's just that, for similar or even less money, there are better value propositions to be had. That said, for its wider breadth of ability, the X1 scores the win in this test.

*From the August 2017 issue of CAR magazine


See Full BMW X1 price and specs here