Versatile and spacious GLB gets the AMG treatment, putting it largely unopposed in the compact seven-seat SUV segment

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These days, no self-respecting SUV line-up is complete without a high-performance halo model - and the Mercedes GLB is no exception. While the diesels and small petrols will be the big sellers, the Mercedes-AMG GLB 35 joins the growing ranks of go-faster off-roaders, from the VW T-Roc R right through to the upcoming Audi RS Q8

Thanks to its Mercedes A-Class underpinnings, adding some spice to the GLB was a fairly straightforward process. For starters, the engine is the same 302bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit that’s found in Mercedes-AMG the A35 hatchback, while it’s mated to the same eight-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox and a derivation of the familiar 4Matic four-wheel drive system, which in this instance can run a torque split from 100% front-wheel drive to 50/50.

As in the A35, the 2.0-litre turbo engine is effective rather than exciting, its rich seam of torque meaning there’s no thrilling rush to the redline but rather a sense of relentless acceleration

Compared with the standard GLB, the suspension changes are fairly significant. At the front are bespoke steering knuckles and control arms, plus a different, stiffer subframe assembly. The multi-link rear axle is largely unchanged apart from tougher hubs that are designed to take higher cornering loads. The springs and dampers are stiffer, while adaptive dampers are an option (fitted to our test car). There’s also new speed-sensitive, electrically assisted steering and larger AMG brakes (350mm discs at the front and 330mm at the rear).

Externally there are the usual AMG calling cards, including multi-spoke 19in alloy wheels (20 and 21in options are available) and a bodykit that runs to a deeper front splitter, twin-exit exhausts set into a new rear bumper and a prominent tailgate spoiler. The GLB is also the first 35-series model to get the toothsome-looking ‘Panamericana’ AMG grille influenced by the firm’s 1950s racers.

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There’s been a similar AMG makeover inside, where you get the latest three-spoke multi-function wheel, more supportive front seats and metal-finished pedals. Also included are the frankly bewildering AMG Dynamic Select driver modes, which deliver numerous combinations of separate throttle, gearbox, driveline, steering and stability control settings. It’s all too easy to disappear down the rabbit hole as you delve deeper and deeper into various sub-menus.

Elsewhere, the cabin is pretty much standard GLB, which means the same versatile, if a little cramped, seven-seat layout. Also familiar is the high standard of fit and finish, with only the scratchy plastics used lower down distracting from the car’s premium appeal.

In simple terms, the Mercedes-AMG GLB 35 feels exactly like what it is: a heavier, higher and longer version of the A35. It’s fairly rapid in a straight line and (caveat alert) for an SUV it’s reasonably grippy and composed. It’s not a characterful or engaging machine as such, but the combination of raised driving position, muscular engine, four-wheel drive traction and (relatively) compact dimensions means you can make quick progress over give-and-take roads.

As in the A35, the 2.0-litre turbo engine is effective rather than exciting, its rich seam of torque meaning there’s no thrilling rush to the redline but rather a sense of relentless acceleration. And while its extra mass means it’s slower than the hatch, a 0-62mph time of 5.2sec is hardly shabby. It’s a smooth enough engine, too, while its muted growl and occasional burble from the exhausts on the overrun deliver just enough sporting intent. And the dual-clutch ’box fires home ratios quickly and slickly, responding to the steering wheel-mounted paddles with admirable crispness.

As you’d expect, traction is impressive, and on dry roads there isn’t even the merest chirrup of wheelspin. Slowing the GLB is equally confidence-inspiring, the brakes biting progressively and powerfully - although on hilly routes or a track there’s every chance the car’s mass would begin to tell.

Guide the GLB 35 through a series of corners and you sense there’s greater heft to the steering than in the standard GLB, even in Comfort mode, while body movements are more tightly controlled, both vertically and in roll. Grip is strong, while torque vectoring helps to keep the nose locked on your chosen trajectory and encourages the car to very subtly rotate into the corner. As a result, the GLB feels remarkably agile, even if it responds a tad more lazily, particularly through rapid changes of direction, than the A35. 

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This is an eight-tenths sort of car - one that’s happier being driven briskly but within its limits. Like its lesser siblings, the GLB 35 isn’t a car you’d drive just for the hell of it; it’s ultimately too high, large and heavy for that, plus there’s little in the way of communication and adjustability. Yet it can cover ground with surprising alacrity, that aforementioned mix of visibility, power and traction allowing you to pick apart sinuous secondaries with clinical efficiency.

A corollary of the improved suspension and damping control is a marginally firmer ride, the larger-wheeled GLB 35 thudding over sharper imperfections and introducing more roar on coarse surfaces. Still, the rest of the car is fairly refined, with low levels of wind and mechanical noise, while over longer and smoother undulations the car rides with greater suppleness.

You’d struggle to call the GLB 35 cheap, but in seven-seat form at least it has very few, if any, direct rivals. The cheaper, diesel-powered Skoda Kodiaq vRS is much slower, while models such as the Mini Countryman JCW don’t have the GLB's space and versatility - not to mention its handling poise and relative comfort. So, if you need a compact SUV with seven seats (albeit with the proviso that the third row are for kids only) and at least 300bhp, the GLB is worth a look.

That said, if you can live with five seats but still want a family car that can carry a similar amount of luggage, goes even harder and handles with real verve and engagement, it’s hard to look beyond the far more affordable and equally four-wheel-drive VW Golf R estate.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Mercedes-Benz GLB

James Disdale

James Disdale
Title: Special correspondent

James is a special correspondent for Autocar, which means he turns his hand to pretty much anything, including delivering first drive verdicts, gathering together group tests, formulating features and keeping Autocar.co.uk topped-up with the latest news and reviews. He also co-hosts the odd podcast and occasional video with Autocar’s esteemed Editor-at-large, Matt Prior.

For more than a decade and a half James has been writing about cars, in which time he has driven pretty much everything from humble hatchbacks to the highest of high performance machines. Having started his automotive career on, ahem, another weekly automotive magazine, he rose through the ranks and spent many years running that title’s road test desk. This was followed by a stint doing the same job for monthly title, evo, before starting a freelance career in 2019. The less said about his wilderness, post-university years selling mobile phones and insurance, the better.

Mercedes-AMG GLB 35 First drives