Why this new model is the future of SUVs.

Is this the future of the SUV? Well, perhaps according to Mercedes-Benz.

And they should have a pretty good idea – they all but invented the SUV category in the 1990s with their first M-Class off-roader. Almost two decades later, it seems they’re reinventing the category.

Benz says its new compact SUV, called the GLA, is a “wanderer between automotive worlds”. Translated, that probably means it’s almost as much a hatchback as it is a pseudo off-roader.

But if recent reports are correct, it is also a marker of where the German marque’s off-roader and soft-roader design language will go in the years ahead.

The GLA is, in effect, an SUV based upon the compact A-Class – hence the A in its name.

In future, we can expect the current M-Class to become known a GLE – an SUV based upon the E-Class executive sedan. And the car known as the GL will become a GLS – signifying its sizing and pricing affinity with the flagship S-Class saloon.

So, if all that comes to pass, we can look forward to an exciting future from the folk at Stuttgart.

There’s no question the GLA is different from just about any Mercedes we’ve driven before, and is one of a number of models reshaping the way we look at the soft-roader category.

The GLA’s looks are deceptive. It’s more car-like and more sporty in its stance than either of its German rivals – or those from Japan, for that matter.

One acquaintance looked at the GLA and asked: “Is it one of those new rally racing things?” Well, no.

In fact our test machine, the diesel-powered GLA200, is fairly modestly performed.

However, further up the tree there’s a more powerful GLA250 – with punchy turbo petrol four-cylinder engine an all-new 4Matic all-wheel-drive system; plus the fire-breathing GLA45 AMG – which boasts the most powerful four-cylinder engine in history with acceleration to shame many sports cars.

As I said, the GLA is rewriting the SUV rules.

Its appearance, inside and outside, breaks new ground for Benz.

While delivering slightly higher ride than a sedan or hatch, the GLA nonetheless looks well grounded and sporty. Minimal overhangs, its high hip-line and strong contouring of most panels emphasise its athletic intent.

Inside, too, it feels modern and fresh – with a vivid display screen taking pride of place atop the centre stack; five turbine-style air vents and nicely designed knobs and switches. The instrument panel is crisp and clean and includes a useful multi-information display for trip, economy and navigation info.

Despite its compact dimensions (4417mm long, 1804mm wide), the GLA feels airy and roomy inside, with generous rear-seat space and a decent 421 litres of cargo space, complemented by a clever underfloor storage section and handy side pockets.

The GLA uses the same stalk-mounted gearshift lever as in some of its more expensive siblings – the ML included – which becomes quite intuitive once you are used to it but there’s the risk of flicking the car out of gear while searching for the indicator stalk.

There’s also an electronic push-button park brake, which along with the absence of a gearshifter means the centre console is free for additional storage space.

We drove the entry-level GLA200 (from $47,900 plus on roads) – representing solid value in the Mercedes domain with standard inclusions such as 18-inch alloys, MapPilot navigation, electric tailgate, dual-zone climate control air, active parking assist and reversing camera.

The base model’s 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel is functional enough but hardly one to write home about – its 0-100km/h acceleration time of 9.9 seconds is evidence of that. The payoff is a tiny thirst of just 4.6L/100km.

The oil burner is also a little harsh under heavy acceleration and on start-up – something experienced frequently thanks to the inbuilt stop-start system that kills the idle at traffic lights.

Dial up sport mode with the push of a button on the centre stack, however, and the engine is more responsive and punchy.

The GLA200 is driven through the front wheels only – step up to the GLA250 (an additional 10 grand) and you’ll get 4Matic all-wheel-drive plus more power and standard features.

All models enjoy high-end safety features such as a frontal collision avoidance system, blind-spot assist and Benz’s class-leading Pre-Safe pre-collision occupant protection system. We had the opportunity to drive the GLA directly after we tested one of its main competitors – the Audi Q3 – and it made for an interesting comparison.

The Audi, despite its smaller-capacity turbocharged petrol engine (of just 1.4 litres) was clearly the more spirited performer.

The Benz, though, offers substantially more style and appeal, and delivers a slightly more resolved, pleasant ride.

The machines are comparable in interior space, although the Audi’s higher-riding, more upright stance gives better all-round vision. The GLA sits closer to the ground for a sportier, more engaging drive.

Its seven-speed dual-clutch auto is a good one, too, providing nicely calibrated gear changes and helping deliver the GLA’s frugal 4.6L/100km thirst.

The transmission can be adjusted to three modes (Economy, Sport or Manual), and a fourth Offroad mode is available on its higher-spec all-wheel-drive siblings.

That might tempt a few owners to venture off the beaten track, although most of these vehicles will spend the majority of their time within city confines.

Which, when it’s all said and done, truly is the future of the SUV.

MERCEDES-BENZ GLA200

DETAILS: Five-door, five-seat compact SUV with four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine and seven-speed automatic transmission.

TECH STUFF: 2.2-litre, common rail fuel-injected four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine produces 100kW@3400-4000rpm; 300Nm@1400-3000rpm.

FEATURES: Five-star safety rating with frontal collision avoidance system, blind-spot monitors; Pre-Safe pre-collision system; active parking assist with reversing camera; colour screen with satellite navigation; electronic tailgate, electric windows and mirrors; dual-zone climate control airconditioning, cruise control.

THIRST: 4.6L/100km (combined average).

PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h in 9.9 seconds.

VERDICT: A funky, spunky, punky Benz.

BOTTOM LINE: $49,600 plus on road costs.