Mercedes has decided that America won't accept the same A-Class small hatchback that anchors their lineup around the world. However, they do think you'd like the GLA-Class, a small hatchback with slightly more ground clearance. But what you really want is the GLA45, a nutjob rally-hatch monster that makes no sense and tons of sense all at once.
(Full Disclosure: Mercedes let me borrow the GLA45 around Christmas time. I drove it a lot and used it to get a Christmas tree. A delightful Christmas tree. Yes, this is a delayed review. Sorry, been busy!)
Mercedes has been expanding their lineup in recent years in order to fill every single possible niche. And like BMW and Audi, Mercedes is now focusing a lot of its efforts on making lower priced models that will get people hooked on premium German luxury for life.
Each one of the three automakers has gone for a strategy that has a smaller sedan or coupe paired with a tiny crossover or SUV. Audi has the A3 and Q3, BMW has the 228i and the X1, and Mercedes has the CLA250 and GLA250. Audi, BMW, and Mercedes all make high performance variants of their sedans or coupes for sale in America, but only Merc decided to go bonkers and sell an equally wild version of the GLA in America (Audi has an RS Q3 outside the US that also looks bonkers).
The GLA45 has the same 2.0 liter turbo four as the CLA45, which is a monster that has 355 horsepower and 332 pound feet of torque. It makes all sorts of pops and bangs while you drive it, but the overwhelming impression is that it's a fire breathing madman that can back up all the loud noises with actual preformance. It takes 4.8 seconds to get to 60. That's damn quick.
It's the same basic formula for any AMG car from the last few generations. Just add horsepower and craziness, and the people will come. But along with more power, AMG has put more of an emphasis on everyday drivability instead of tire smoking antics. This makes particular sense in this case since it's an AMG that is based on a front-wheel-drive car, which are the wrong tires to smoke.
That means we have a turbocharged all-wheel drive powerhouse, which is an idea the Germans invented and then ceded to the Japanese.
In fact, one of the comparisons that has been bandied about around the CLA45 and GLA45 is that they are the Mitsubishi Evo for grownups. On the surface, sure. They have all-wheel drive and 2.0 liter engines with 300+ horsepower. But saying that they're like an Evo is pretty much a lie.
The only ways that the GLA45 is a grown up Mitsubishi Evo is in badge recognition, price of entry, and quality of certain materials. The problem is that outside of the gangbusters engine, the rest of the mechanicals aren't really as advanced as those in the Evo. The Evo has a magical all-wheel drive system crafted from decades of rally experience and the GLA45 just kind of has all-wheel drive.
This is not a rally car wearing a tie and jacket. It is a deliriously fast pocket rocket Mercedes wearing a leather jacket and chewing tobacco in the back of class.
The GLA250 is a boring amorphous blob of car that I just don't understand, like Mercedes went down to R&S Strauss (that store still exists, right?) and had the techs do an aftermarket lift on an A-Class.
The GLA45 rectifies those bland milquetoast looks, and I'm not even really sure how. There's just something about how it looks in AMG spec where it all comes together. The black wheels, the rear diffuser, the four exhausts, and the more aggressive front fascia all make the GLA45 go from "baby's first Mercedes" to "serious road dominating badass."
There are certain angles that make it look bloated, and I do wish that this car had more of the AMG flourishes that are available like the big rear wing. If you're getting a car like this, you might as well go all in and get the Edition:1.
The interior of the GLA45 is basically the same as the CLA45, which is to say, it's not horrible, but it has some shortcomings that you don't quite expect. Here's what we said about the CLA45:
The CLA's style extends into the inside of the car. From a design perspective, everything inside looks great, especially the toggle switch gear shifter, the suede-wrapped steering wheel, the aluminum pedals, and the cross-shaped air vents. The problem is the materials. It looks cool, but it's all hard, cheap plastic. There's nary a premium-feeling material to be found inside the car. The gauge cluster and tacked-on infotainment system screen are disappointing too.
Overall, there are worse interiors out there, but the GLA45 has a base price of $48,300. But you aren't really paying for a great interior. You're paying for that Death Star of an engine.
Along with its stablemate, this is the first four cylinder car from AMG (the 190E was a Cosworth project). And it's an engine that puts out numbers that makes you think that AMG felt like they really had something that they needed to prove.
It's 2.0 liters and has 355 horsepower and 332 pound feet of torque. That's 177 horsepower per liter, meaning it has the highest output per liter of any engine this side of the 3.8 liter V8 in the McLaren P1.
Is there turbo lag? Yes, but it isn't like the days of yore where turbos on a little engine would make you wait hours for it to start accelerating. The punches are rather immediate here, with each gear flying by faster and faster. It gets to 60 in less than five seconds, and in gear acceleration is immediate and brutal.
Of course, I didn't really drive in Eco or Comfort, because those are modes that are just there to satisfy the man. Leave it in Manual to really make it as fast as it can be.
Yep, good brakes. They have a solid pedal with a good initial bite, and are also easy to modulate. I feel like they would put up with a lot of road abuse, but I'm not sure they'd have what it takes for a track day. There's only one way to find out though.
This is not a comfortable car. Quite the contrary. The GLA45 is a punishing, hard ride for a luxury car.
I like a hard ride. It's firm and communicative. You don't buy an AMG car to be coddled unless you're some sort of perverse sadist or you daily drive an Ariel Atom. You buy an AMG car because you want to show that you love performance. That you're a connoisseur of horsepower and you have the money to make your local chiropractor rich. That's why.
I did think that the ride was actually tuned a bit more harshly than was needed. It crosses a point where it's stiff and communicative and just becomes hard and kind of annoying. Dial it back from 11, and you'd be in a pretty great sweet spot.
People who tell you that the GLA is a Lancer Evolution are people who have either never driven a Lancer Evolution or haven't driven a Lancer Evolution hard around a corner.
On it's own, the GLA is a competent handler. But it exhibits predominantly front-wheel drive handling traits, and that's because the GLA is front-wheel drive most of the time. The all-wheel drive system, which has brake actuated torque, just doesn't feel sophisticated enough to cure bad driving habits or a lack of talent, even when it transfers power to try and make it rotate.
The steering itself is quick and feels good, if a tad light. On center feel is also lacking, which does make for constant adjustments to make sure you have it in the middle.
But I just keep coming back to how it doesn't have the chops of an Evo or an STI, two cars where the buyers might want to eventually move up to a similar car with a more prestigious nameplate. If you bought a GLA45 after having an Evo, you'd just walk away disappointed after flogging it on a backroad.
The AMG Speed Shift has evolved quite a bit through the years. When it started, it was a lethargic brute that didn't want to listen to anything you told it to do. Now it's a satisfyingly quick gearbox that cracks off rapid fire shifts in manual mode without issue.
Where I do have an issue is in automatic, where its been tuned to shift up as early as possible in order to return the best fuel economy numbers. It just neuters the manic crazy machine and makes it a loud, boring, econobox with a rough suspension. Just leave it in manual, you'll be better off for it.
It has the basic toys you'd come to expect like all sorts of camera and radars along with a party piece: a glass roof.
Now, I'm normally against sunroofs or glass roofs of any kind since they compromise rigidity and handling. But it's actually rather impressive to have the entire roof of your little crossover be a window to the world. Plus, nobody driving a GLA45 is talking about cornering Gs or how uncompromised it is.
I don't think.
The stereo? Not great, not awful.
The engine? I have mixed feelings. It's great that Mercedes has taken it upon themselves to inject some noise into an little turbo four that would almost definitely sound like a vacuum cleaner any other time.
However, I think the pops and bangs and crackles and snaps are all a bit much after a little while. I get it, this is a performance car, but I don't necessarily need gunshot sounds every time I shift a gear. Seriously. It sounds like gunfire. It's part of what I call the F-Type syndrome. Exhausts now have to be so tuned and so loud that the cars sound like weapons or like they're broken.
It was fun for a weekend, not so much for a lifetime.
The GLA45 starts at $48,300, but our test car bumped right up with options to around $60,000. That's a good hunk of coin for a car that is, for all intents and purposes, an extremely hot hatchback.
There's something so wrong about it that it almost becomes right. The shouty engine, the weird pseudo-rally looks, the manic acceleration, it has almost everything and ticks nearly every box in my little weird book of desires.
But it doesn't feel all-wheel drive. And, most of all, if I'm buying something for $60,000 with a three pointed star on the outside, I expect a certain level of refinement on the inside. A level of refinement that this car just doesn't quite have.
The GLA45 is a very particular kind of car for a very particular kind of person. They aren't going to sell a bazillion of these like they will the GLA250. This is a car that you really have to want and people can't convince you to just get a Subaru or a Mitsubishi instead.
And not only do I respect that, I understand it. It's the sort of car that I don't really get why it exists, but I'm also really glad that it does. And I bet you are too.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged, direct injection inline four
Power: 355 HP at 6000 RPM/ 332 LB-FT at 2,250 RPM
Transmission: Seven-Speed Dual Clutch Automated Manual
0-62 MPH: 4.8 seconds (manufacturer estimate)
Top Speed: 155 mph
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,384 LBS
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 23 City/29 Highway