I remember the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show like it was yesterday. Confinement has its way of making memories of a not-so-distant past free of face masks and undrinkable alcohol a little more distinct. Memories of Mercedes-Benz’s elaborate setup at the Festhalle for one; a world-class presentation on electric mobility headlined by the Vision EQS, an ultra-futuristic concept that is slowly but surely making its way towards production.
Impressive as the showcase was, none of the cars that graced the stage that day could trump the Mercedes-AMG GLB35 parked near the entrance of the exhibit as far as first impressions went. It helped that Merc went with a ‘Patagonia’ red paintjob which held its own visually amidst an already vibrant backdrop. Here was a car that’d give you the most seats you can hope to find in an AMG (seven). And it pulled that off without having to go anywhere close to the biggest frame or the most powerful engine in the company’s catalogue; a cheeky little flex laced with a sense of charm that was as devilish as the registration number on the tester gracing my driveway 15 months after that fateful encounter.
Yes, Mercedes-Benz Malaysia certainly took its time to launch the GLB on our shores. The pandemic and ensuing Movement Control Order (MCO) certainly didn’t help, but here we are at last. Sadly, the range-topping GLB35 doesn’t even come with the third-row bench that’s optional in other markets. Five seats in a car of the GLB’s vast proportions – it’s 24mm wider and 216mm taller than a W205 C-Class despite riding on the smaller MFA2 platform that also underpins the W177 A-Class – effectively turns it into a ridiculously practical hot hatch instead of the high-performance compact SUV it was meant to be. Not that we’re complaining.
The five-seat spec does add a dash of peculiarity to something that was likely an acquired taste to begin with. That said, we’d still have it over any other 35-numbered AMG in a heartbeat, such is the charisma that oozes from every corner of its utilitarian frame. We’d be lying if we said its boxy silhouette didn’t remind us of things like Perodua Kenari and Renault Kangoo in the slightest. Blasphemous as they sound, parallels drawn to those Tupperware on wheels will hardly scratch the image of what is essentially a G-Wagen junior – one that’s just as liberated in its own sheet metal despite what the fashion police say – with the clout to match.
Like the A35 sedan to which it’s closely related, the GLB35 packs a two-litre four-pot turbo good for 306hp and 400Nm of torque. It’s not handcrafted in Affalterbach like the 400+hp M139 power units propelling AMG’s 45-series compacts. But there’s still enough on tap to send the most vertically-endowed member of Mercedes-AMG’s compact family to 100kph from a standstill in 5.2 seconds. That’s just 0.1 seconds shy of the Volkswagen Golf R’s century sprint; a truly commendable feat for a car of the GLB’s supermarket-optimal proportions.
As is the case with any Merc that rolls out of the factory with a Panamericana grille and a three-pointed star the size of a personal pizza, the GLB35 is properly hasty for what it’s worth; it’s every bit as fast as a car that costs RM363k should be. That said, the leap towards three-digit speeds can be a twitchy one, such is powertrain’s high-boost and high-revving nature that’s rather uncharacteristic in this segment. 3,000rpm is a pretty late entry point for maximum twist by modern standards, especially when engines used in rivalling performance hatches like the Golf R and Honda Civic Type R scale similar torque peaks at 1,850rpm and 2,500rpm respectively.
The GLB35 is properly hasty for what it’s worth; it’s every bit as fast as a car that costs RM363k should be
The GLB35’s unique engine response manifests itself as a split-second hint of lag whenever the throttle is used as a tool to disrupt a gentle cruise – you can easily maintain a steady 110kph at 1,6000rpm in eighth gear if you’re not in a hurry, such is the flexibility of AMG’s Speedshift dual-clutch gearbox. This momentary lull is quickly negated by a power surge and a fitting side of playful vocals that tread the fine line separating loud from noisy. It’s not the most polished approach to sportiness there is, but Merc has hit the mark nonetheless as far as imbuing an idea as bold as the GLB35 with a fittingly eccentric character is concerned.
Things are similarly entertaining on the ride and handling front, starting with the sharp (if somewhat edgy) steering response that truly makes the GLB35 feel like a plus-size hot hatch from behind the wheel – the LCD-heavy ‘minimalistic’ dash it shares with all other Merc compacts still leans towards premium rather than sporty though. There’s also a clever 4Matic all-wheel drive system in place, which can switch from a full FWD setup (again, like a conventional hot hatch à la Renault Megane RS) to a 50:50 torque split to combat slip in the rear under spirited driving conditions. The official press release mentions ice and snow as well in case you’re curious about the car’s off-road capabilities, which we didn’t fully explore for obvious reasons.
And then there’s the damping, which is surprisingly supple by the standards of an AMG-fettled machine riding on 20-inch light-alloy wheels. The adaptive AMG Ride Control suspension maintains the kind of tautness you’d expect from something that belongs in the same catalogue as the A45 S, but with an added springiness you’ll likely not find in any other AMG. We suspect it’s calibrated this way to cope with a full load of passengers; that is easily the key motivating factor to purchase a GLB35 over, say, a sleeker A35 Sedan after all. And if that sort of adaptability doesn't seal the deal, the sportier ride hides another wild card up its sleeve: practicality.
Sitting about 50mm closer to the ground than the standard GLB, the GLB35’s 163-mm ground clearance is closer to that of a hatchback or a sedan than a crossover. Oddly enough, this might work in favour for those who want an SUV minus the chore of having to ‘climb’ into the cabin. We expect the same demographic to swoon over the roominess of the five-seat interior, which gives the S-Class a run for its money, visually at least, thanks to a high ceiling that makes occupants feel like they’re in a high-end duplex. To top it off, the lack of a third row gives you an additional 70 litres of boot volume, bringing the total haulage up to a whopping 570 litres – 20 litres more than a GLC.
Comfort, performance, versatility and style are words that rarely feel like they all belong in the same room at once. But the GLB35's Swiss army knife-like range of talents ensure that each one of them gets a personal invite to the party, with plenty of room to spare. Carmakers burden themselves with the never-ending pursuit of the right balance between these qualities, and the GLB35 certainly feels like AMG's most ingenious attempt to date in finding the hallowed sweet spot between a fun-to-drive sports car and something that's perfectly suited to the daily grind with the family in tow. This comes from a writer who's had the fortune of driving some of Affalterbach's finest V8-powered cargo carriers such as the GLC63 S and the GT63 S 4-Door Coupe. The GLB35 hardly feels like a lesser car in such esteemed company, such is the power of its real-world charms.
Mercedes-AMG GLB35 4Matic
Price: RM363,137 on-the-road w/o insurance (incl. SST exemption)
Engine: 2.0L 4cyl turbo, 306bhp, 400Nm
Transmission: 8spd auto, AWD
Performance: 0-100 in 5.2 secs, 250kph
Economy: 7.6L per 100km
One of the most practical all-rounders to carry the Mercedes-AMG name, with proper real-world versatility that does not sacrifice any elements of performance and character expected of the brand.
If anything, the GLB35's fresh interpretation of what a fast and functional family car should be makes it one of the most original and likeable Mercs we've tested in a while despite its quirks.