Tossing the loud and boastful Mercedes GLA45 AMG around rustic Vermont towns left me constantly thinking the same thing: I can't believe Mercedes builds this car. Mercedes is a company at war with itself, at once both Germany's most staid luxury brand and also the maker of that country's most bashit cars. Tension is sometimes good and, in the case of this car, the tension is great.
(Full Disclosure: Mercedes wanted me to drive the GLA and GLA45 so badly they let me drive to Vermont and put me up in a hotel near the chilly waters of Lake Champlain. They also filled me up with cheese, beer and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. I apologize to anyone who shared a car with me.)
The Fall of Constantinople precipitated the Renaissance that gave us Michelangelo and Da Vinci. The time of the Spanish Civil War was also the time of Picasso and Orwell. But war also produces propaganda. The films of Leni Riefenstahl and D.W. Griffith were also results of conflicts and, technical brilliance aside, they're selling a message and not a very good one.
While in Vermont I drove both the new GLA250 and the GLA45 which, like their platform mates CLA250 and CLA45, are ostensibly two sides of the same entry-level coin. The GLA250 is propaganda, but the GLA45 is art.
Mercedes is fighting two battles at once. On the Eastern front it's in a global war with Audi and BMW to sell the most luxury cars in the world, a battle that's largely focused on the United States and China. On the Western front there's the fact that Mercedes doesn't have a budget brand in the way that BMW has Mini and Audi has Volkswagen. There's Smart but... Smart is barely a car company yet.
The CLA and GLA are solutions to both problems. With starting prices that promise a Mercedes near $30,000 – realistically average transaction prices for both should be solidly in the mid-to-upper $30k range – it's both a volume play and a way to get people into the brand so they commit to Mercedes for life. Neither are likely to be hugely profitable in the way an S-Class or a GL is, but that's not the point.
I had a pleasant discussion with a pleasant German product planner for Germany who seemed genuinely displeased and even a little shocked when I dared to call the GLA a "crossover." It's not a crossover, it's an "SUV" she insisted. This, of course, sounds like nonsense. Yes, they've done a little work on the suspension and added hill descent and a chrome skid plate and raised the CLA a little bit to accomodate soft roading. Some of this breaks down into semantics as SUV is, itself, a nonsense descriptor. But some of it is just the truth. No reasonable person would look at a GLA and see anything but a crossover, so why even add hill descent control? Why does Mercedes need to convince itself it's an SUV? Why does it need to convince other people so badly they go out of their way not to use the "C-word" in mixed company?
All good propaganda requires conviction and Mercedes has, at the very least, convinced themselves.
The AMG version, on the surface, seems even more like propaganda. We found the CLA45 AMG to be fast and fun and reasonably competent on the track, but nothing particularly mindblowing. Making it slightly bigger, adding a hatch and calling it an SUV shouldn't make it better.
But it does. Oh man, it does.
The fact that Mercedes is selling a hatchback in America is, in and of itself, noteworthy. The last time they did this it was with the a chopped up C-class coupe that tried to sell consumers on sportiness but mostly underwhelmed with mediocre execution. What Mercedes is selling now with the basic GLA is essentially a nicer Subaru Impreza with a better interior and a few more luxury touches and a better badge. That's it. Have the extra money? Get a GLA. Don't have the extra money. Get an XV Crosstrek. Done.
So is the GLA45 a WRX STI? Nope. For one, you can actually get the GLA45 with a hatchback (ZING!) and while the WRX STI is sharper, and more track-focused like a katana the GLA45 AMG is a strange mixture of muscle and utility, like an alcantara-handled chainsaw with a laser pointer glued on top. It's just freaking weird.
Let's start with the aesthetics. You can go subtle and get a brown one with none of the wings or aero that make it so obvious there's power lurking underneath. No one would suspect you're going to run a sub-5.0 jaunt to 60 mph until the dude in the Camaro hears the rompy burble of your exhaust as you pull away towards the farmer's market, or the antique shop, or wherever the hell people who would buy this would go.
Or you could just go full on manic and get the Edition 1, which adds a massive wing on the back and those tiny winglets on the sides of the bumper that will surely be the first thing sheared off.
Inside, the car is festooned with enough microsuede to cover six fake cows, but it's otherwise similar to the CLA45 in its carbon fiber touches and general comfort. I don't love it, but it's not a terrible place to be. The seats are supportive and the view over the hood is enticing thanks to the distinct power bulges. I won't hide my disdain for the trend of stick-on floating screens like the ones also found in Mazdas. It looks cheap. I don't like.
None of that's really important because what you care about is the engine. It's only two liters, but if a little turbocharging goes a long way, then 26 PSI of boost will essentially take you across the entire distance of Vermont (north-to-south) faster than you can say "Seriously if I eat any more cheese or maple I'm going to fart a hole through the floor of this car." Just like with the CLA45, there's 355 horsepower with the 332 lb-ft of torque peaking all the way from 2,250 to 5,000 RPM.
Shift into sport mode, put your foot all the way down, listen to the butterfly in the exhaust open, and it's glorious. The car sounds faster than it is and it ain't exactly slow.
The seven-speed dual clutch transmission is quick, although it won't let you make up your mind for yourself all the time as it keeps pulling you up or down a gear. I don't love it.
If you're in sport mode you'll also know the car is locked into a 50/50 split of power front-to-back. This isn't some dynamically changing AWD system designed to gently glide you around turns no matter how much of an idiot you are, this car will bite back. You're essentially daring the front and rear tires to just give up to physics at any moment.
This was most obvious as my driving partner and I came barreling up a mountain pass and, drunk on power and dairy products, the car snapped back-end-first around a turn and nearly into a guardrail before the proper application of brakes, throttle and ass-clinching pointed us back in the right direction. This was right before a Jalopnik reader in a partially disassembled Saab 9000 Aero chased is into an overlook and agreed to guide us down the other side.
The GLA45 AMG certainly could keep up with the Saab and, likely, could keep up with much else. But that's not why you buy this car.
It just makes you do stupid. It just makes you see a dirt road and think "I should pilot this $60,000 car that isn't mine up it" and then you do it. And then you find another dirt road and come flying over the crest of a hill and see that a dog, a little one probably named fluffy, is staring back at you. And then you think "Oh no, I'm going to kill that dog." And then you hit the brakes, and the car composes itself and the dog just stares at you like "fucking New Yorkers" and crosses the path back to its house. And then you laugh, because now you don't have to explain to AMG why they need to pull shitzu out of their grille.
I don't know who should buy this car. Mercedes will tell you that it combines sportiness and utility, that it's something fast that's also comfortable. They'll tell you it's a cheap way to get the prestige of AMG. I'd tell you that you'd have to want something that actively encourages it to destroy your credit and yourself. You'd have to want a rally car from a company that has almost no rally history and no obvious desire to be in a rally. You'd have to be a litte off and, frankly, I'm both disappointed and relieved that I don't have the money or the space to own one.
Because I'd buy this car, not because I like it in spite of its faults, but that I like its faults. It's just so dumb if you think about it, and I'm dumb for thinking about it, and I just want us to be dumb together.
Photos: Mercedes-Benz, Matt Hardigree