So you want a premium, compact crossover that really puts the sports in sports utility vehicle.
Mercedes-Benz has offered the GLA SUV with AMG power since 2014 in Australia, but the AMG GLA35 on test here is a relatively fresh addition to the range aimed at buyers who want to go fast without the price and rabid edge of the GLA45 S.
Audi doesn’t have quite the same pedigree. It’s had the five-cylinder RSQ3 for two generations now, but it’s been light on for more affordable SUV options.
The Audi SQ2 is a bit late to the party, then, but it hasn’t arrived empty handed.
It’s a bit smaller than the Mercedes-AMG, and it’s older despite only just arriving on Australian shores, but it offers similar performance at a much lower price.
For all their differences, this pair has a lot in common. They’re both powered by 2.0-litre turbocharged engines, they’re both all-wheel drive, and they both pack leather-lined cabins majoring on luxury.
Which puts a more convincing spin on the formula?
The Audi is the cheaper car here, and by some margin.
It’s priced from $64,400 before on-road costs, and the only options are a panoramic sunroof and privacy glass.
Neither was fitted to our tester, making this a rare German car where the price as-tested perfectly matches the list price.
The bigger Mercedes-AMG packs a bigger price tag, and has a slightly shorter list of standard equipment.
It kicks off at $82,935 before on-road costs, but our tester had the Vision Package ($1190) and Driving Assistance Package ($1990), and optional 20-inch alloy wheels ($790) for an as-tested price of $86,905 before on-roads.
That makes the Mercedes-AMG a whopping $22,505 more than the Audi.
The Audi SQ2 comes loaded with standard equipment. There are two options (panoramic sunroof, privacy glass) and neither is essential, so what you see is what you get.
Inside, you get an 8.3-inch infotainment screen with factory satellite navigation, along with wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, wireless phone charging, and DAB+ digital radio. There’s also a 14-speaker Bang and Olufsen sound system.
Keyless entry and start, a powered tailgate, and power-folding mirrors all feature.
Audi offers its nicest Nappa leather trim standard, along with front seat heating, dual-zone climate, colour-adjustable ambient lighting in the dashboard trim, and a leather steering wheel.
Outside, you get matrix LED headlights with scrolling indicators and auto high-beam, 19-inch alloy wheels, red brake calipers, quad exhaust pipes, a black pack, and a smattering of S badges.
Some equipment from the Mercedes-AMG is missing. You don’t get powered front seats, for example, and the GLA can be had with modern touches such as a head-up display.
Specifying the Mercedes-AMG isn’t as simple as the Audi, because it comes with more options.
Mercedes-Benz charges extra for adaptive cruise, metallic paint, a 12-speaker stereo (the Audi has 14 standard), and matrix LED headlights.
The flashy dual-10.25-inch infotainment system with satellite navigation, wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and DAB+ digital radio is standard, along with the concept-like ambient lighting system.
An array of USB-C ports is backed by wireless phone charging, and there’s powered and heated front seats, keyless entry and start, LED headlights with adaptive high beam, rain-sensing wipers, and a powered tailgate.
A panoramic sunroof is standard, as is the case in the less expensive GLA250 4Matic – something you have to pay extra for in the Audi.
Opting for the GLA35 gets you a unique steering wheel with drive mode selectors, an adaptive suspension, unique brakes and power steering, a sports exhaust, the blacked-out AMG Night Package, and Comfort Sport seats trimmed in leather.
The car rides on 20-inch alloy wheels, although the ones fitted to our tester aren’t standard – which brings us to the options list.
You can pay between $790 and $1990 for wheels, $2990 for the racier-looking AMG Aerodynamics Package, and $3290 for bucket-style AMG High Performance Seats if you’re all about aesthetics.
Some kit that really should be standard is also tied up in options packages.
Adaptive cruise control is part of the $1990 Driving Assistance Package, for example, and our tester’s surround-view camera requires you tick the box for the $1190 Vision Package.
The Audi SQ2 doesn’t have a rating from ANCAP, though the related Q2 has a five-star rating based on testing conducted in 2016.
The new-generation Mercedes-Benz GLA is untested by ANCAP or Euro NCAP, but the GLA’s platform mates – the A-Class, B-Class, CLA and GLB – all achieved five stars with strong results across the board.
Standard safety equipment in both includes:
- Autonomous emergency braking (AEB)
- AEB pedestrian/cycle detection
- Active lane-keeping assist
- Blind-spot monitoring
- Rear cross-traffic alert
The Audi gets adaptive cruise control as standard, whereas it’s only an option in the Mercedes-Benz.
The Mercedes-AMG counters by offering Pre-Safe, which pre-emptively tightens the seatbelts and primes the cabin if it detects an impending crash. It also has a surround-view camera, where the SQ2 has only a reversing camera.
The SQ2 might be a new car to Australia, but it isn’t a new car.
It’s actually the last Audi to be offered with what was considered a standard-setting small car interior design when it debuted on the previous-generation A3.
It looks a bit quaint compared to the GLA with its panoramic displays, but it counters by being a more interesting, tactile place to sit.
The high-set, round air vents still look like they’ve been stolen from the TT sports car, and the buttons and rotary controllers make a quality click-clack.
It might be a small thing, but the fact the climate control dials are knurled, metal units that click like a watch bezel is always satisfying to me. You can keep your touchscreens.
Expect maybe you can’t, because the 8.0-inch infotainment system is controlled by rotary dial would benefit from a touchscreen. It’s now a generation old and, although it’s fully featured and quick to use, doesn’t feel like it was really designed with Apple CarPlay in mind.
The graphics look a bit fuzzy compared to those on the ultra-high-resolution MBUX screens, particularly when you open the factory navigation, and Audi doesn’t have a native voice recognition system that can match MBUX.
I love the shortcut button that allows you to turn the screen off, though, even if it doesn’t fold into the dashboard like it used to in the A3.
The Virtual Cockpit digital instruments are a similar story. They pack in as much information as the screens in the Mercedes-Benz, but the graphics are fuzzier and the responses slightly slower.
Although it’s compact, the driving position in the SQ2 is good for lanky drivers. The leather-trimmed (round-bottomed) steering wheel extends out nicely, and the red-and-black leather seats drop low and far enough back to accomodate most body styles.
You still sit on rather than in the car, but it feels quite sporty by SUV standards.
Storage space is limited to two cupholders and a small slot below the dashboard, and a shallow bin complete with a wireless phone charger beneath the central armrest.
There’s also door bins that’ll swallow a large water bottle up front.
Rear accomodation is tight. Legroom is limited behind taller drivers, and there are no air vents and no fold-down central armrest back there.
There are, however, two USB ports which don’t feature elsewhere in the Q2 range.
Boot space is 355L with the dual-tier boot floor at its lowest setting, although it can be raised to make loading heavy items easier. There is no spare wheel.
Hello, and welcome to the future. Like everything based on the compact Mercedes MFA platform, the GLA35 has an interior that majors on wow factor.
Not only does it have twin high-resolution displays on the dash, there’s plenty of interesting-looking trim pieces and concept-like ambient lighting to surprise and delight.
It’s a seriously pretty cabin, and it’s easy to imagine plenty of people being sold on the GLA the first time they crack open the door.
It isn’t as tactile as the cabin in the Audi in some ways, though. The turbine vents feel a bit plasticky, and the row of toggle switches don’t feel as well engineered as the clicky climate controls on the SQ2.
The Mercedes-AMG blows the Audi away on the technology front.
Its infotainment looks light years newer than MMI, and its blend of touchscreen, voice controls, and touchpad inputs feels more at home in an era where Google Assistant and smartphones rule the world.
Real effort has been put into making all the graphics and transitions smooth, and the navigation in particular is much prettier than the system in the SQ2.
It misses a trick by windowing CarPlay, but having a touchscreen means it’s still easier to use than in the Audi. You need a USB-C adaptor or USB-C cable to plug in, which is worth bearing in mind.
The driver display is prettier than the Audi Virtual Cockpit, and the performance gauges (boost, tyre pressure) are nice to have, but the screen isn’t necessarily any more useful to the driver.
There’s no question the Mercedes-AMG steering wheel, lifted from proper AMG models like the C63 S, is a winner. The metal paddles in particular are just nice – although they should be, given the price.
The GLA’s modernity pays dividends in other ways. There’s more storage up front than in the SQ2, with a massive underarm storage bin and more useful wireless charger.
It feels a size larger than the Audi from behind the wheel, with more under-thigh support from the red-and-black seats, more space between the front pews, and an abundance of headroom.
Rear space isn’t exactly standout, but there’s more legroom, toe room, and headroom than in the Audi, and occupants get air vents and USB chargers.
Boot space in the GLA is 435 litres with the rear seats in place, and the boot floor is broader than in the SQ2.
It’ll swallow a set of golf clubs with the driver removed, and the 40:20:40 folding seats give you more options than the 60:40 bench offered in its rival. You can also use the middle seat as an armrest, something you can’t do in the Audi.
|Audi SQ2||Mercedes-AMG GLA35|
The 2021 Audi SQ2 is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 221kW of power and 400Nm of torque.
It’s mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and all-wheel drive.
The 0-100km/h sprint takes 4.9 seconds, and claimed fuel economy is 7.7L/100km on the combined cycle.
It average 8.0L/100km on our run from Melbourne to the Healesville hills, and drinks premium unleaded.
The 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA35 is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 225kW of power and 400Nm of torque. Sounds familiar, huh?
It’s mated to an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and all-wheel drive.
The 0-100km/h sprint takes a claimed 5.2 seconds, and claimed fuel economy is 8.0L/100km on the combined cycle.
It averaged 8.8L/100km on our run from Melbourne to the Healesville hills, and drinks premium unleaded.
The SQ2 is new to Australia, but it’s not a new car, and it’s built using a tried-and-true Volkswagen Group formula.
With that in mind, a lot of the way it drives is familiar.
The 2.0-litre engine is a variation of the EA888 engine in the Golf R, the Audi S3, and plenty of other mainstream Volkswagen Group products. It fires with a bassy growl and settles quickly into a smooth idle that’s not too overt, but signals you’re driving something special.
Bury the accelerator and it just squats and goes, Quattro all-wheel drive system shuffling torque around to make sure there’s no slip, just chest-squeezing thrust. Wet? Doesn’t matter, the SQ2 makes its performance accessible essentially all the time.
Peak torque kicks in at 2000rpm and hangs around until 5200rpm, so it’s rare to find yourself outside of the sweet spot, and the engine pulls sweetly to its power peak at 6500rpm.
Once you’re there the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission snags another gear and you’re instantly dropped right back into the meat of the torque band. Don’t be fooled by the cute exterior, this is a fast car.
The tractable engine is mated to a chassis that’s nimble, but not particularly adjustable.
The SQ2 sits 20mm lower than stock, has a bigger footprint thanks to its sportier wheels, and gets a stiffer fixed-rate suspension in keeping with its sporty billing. It feels more purposeful from behind the wheel, with a firmer ride and weightier steering than the regular car hinting at its intent at low speeds.
On wet and bumpy back roads its natural stance is gentle understeer, but once you’re into a corner there’s grip, grip, and more grip. You can get on the power once it’s settled and the SQ2 just traces a line, with hardly any histrionics.
There’s a hint of body roll as you flick into a corner – this is an SUV, after all – but it’s light enough on its feet, and doesn’t lose composure through quick direction changes.
It sounds like a strange thing to say about another performance SUV with Haldex all-wheel drive and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, but the SQ2 has a bit of character about it.
Audi has managed to make it feel effervescent, with more puppy-like enthusiasm than the engineers in Ingolstadt typically allow. Maybe it’s the small dimensions, maybe it’s the round air vents, but there’s a hint of S1 (the littlest, rarest Audi hot hatch in Australia) about it.
“The SQ2 barely feels like a crossover at all, it’s lithe and fun and playful,” James Wong said of the car.
“In fact, I’d go as far to say that it’s like the reincarnation of the Audi S1 but with a usable boot and rear seats.”
In typical Audi fashion it never shouts about its potential when you aren’t in a hurry. The fixed-rate suspension does a better job smoothing over niggling lumps and bumps than the adaptive setup in the GLA, with a feel that fits nicely with its SUV body and (slightly) raised ride.
Harder-edged bumps and potholes can upset it slightly, but it’s perfectly liveable for the most part, with a surprisingly pliant ride.
The Mercedes-AMG is a serious sports car – just ask it.
From the flat-bottomed wheel to the raspy bark in Sport mode, it’s clear a lot of effort has gone into making the GLA35 feel grown up, with a tangible link to the more rabid GLA45 S.
That manifests in a ride that, even in Comfort mode, can be quite firm. Although the GLA’s big, broad body is kept in check, the suspension crashes over expansion joints and potholes.
Surprising? Not really, given this is a small car on massive wheels. Disappointing? Absolutely, given the passively-sprung SQ2 deals better with sharp hits.
Although they can’t completely cure its ride woes, the clever drive mode clickers in the GLA35 do allow for an impressive amount of personalisation.
The right-hand dial jumps from Comfort to Sport and Sport Plus, while the toggles on the left of the wheel allow you to change things like the suspension stiffness, traction control, and start/stop operation.
Jumping into Sport immediately tightens up the ride, makes the steering heavier, and gives the exhaust a more prominent bark, while Sport Plus cranks it up to 11.
It’s impressively configurable, and lets you pick the best bits of each drive mode in a way you can’t in the Audi, which means you can enjoy the full-on Sport Plus steering, throttle, and transmission tune without a bone-jarring ride.
Even flicked into its most aggressive mode the GLA35 doesn’t feel quite as light on its feet as the smaller Audi.
“Once the going got twisty, the AMG felt nervous, cumbersome and a little out of its depth,” James Wong said. “The diffs and all-wheel drive system felt a step behind the Audis, reacting a touch later than when you needed it.”
In some ways the two cars feel quite similar, with a hint of understeer on turn-in when the road is damp, but the all-wheel drive system in the Mercedes-Benz is a bit smarter when you get on the power, more proactively shuffling torque to the rear.
It still doesn’t feel particularly adjustable though, and the more serious interior, engine note, and price aren’t necessarily backed by a drive with the same intent.
For all its sharpness at city speeds, the adaptive suspension can’t stop the GLA35 feeling a bit tall and heavy after the Audi, and the soft limiter in second gear that kicks in at 80km/h can leave you stuck between gears on some roads.
The engine is properly potent. Peak torque takes a bit longer to make its presence felt than in the Audi, kicking in at 3000rpm, but the mid-range shove in the back is impressive, and it rips determinedly through the top end of the rev range.
It sounds angry in Sport Plus, with a gravelly bark that makes the GLA35 feel more like a full-on GLA45, and the dual-clutch transmission shifts confidently through the gears at full noise.
You can still cover the ground at an impressive rate, but the AMG just has a bit less character than the Audi. It doesn’t have the same effervescent feeling, nor does it feel significantly faster.
Despite its more premium interior and bigger body, the GLA also isn’t all that much more refined than the Audi day-to-day.
Road noise is more prominent than it has any right to be on rural roads, and the combination of wet, cold weather, oversized wheels, and all-wheel drive had the GLA35 crabbing close to the lock stops at parking speeds.
Both of these cars are perfectly liveable, but the Mercedes-AMG carries some compromises that would be more acceptable if it cost less, or drove with a bit more intent.
All Audi models are covered by a three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, putting it behind Mercedes-Benz, Genesis, Volvo, and Lexus in the warranty race.
It’s disappointing Audi and BMW continue to hold out against the industry’s move to a five-year warranty.
A five-year service plan is available for the SQ2, priced at $2540.
Mercedes-Benz was the first volume-selling luxury brand to move to a five-year warranty in Australia, something Audi still hasn’t followed.
Service intervals for the GLA35 are 12 months or 25,000kms.
A three-year service plan is available for $2150, four years costs $2950, and five years will set you back $4000.
You might be wondering why we’ve put these two cars head-to-head, given the Mercedes-AMG is bigger, more expensive, and more practical.
The reason is simple: they both promise to blend a luxurious daily drive with a healthy dose of sporting intent, like high-riding luxury hot hatches.
If practicality is a concern, the GLA35 is the only way to go. It feels like the newer, more adult option here, and still feels a bit special compared to a regular GLA.
There are two sticking points, first of which is the price. Not only is the AMG 35 more than $20,000 pricier than the Audi, it’s almost $20,000 more expensive than the non-AMG GLA250.
That extra money gets you an aggressive-looking SUV with a healthy serving of tasty AMG touches, but it also gets you a drive that’s warm instead of hot, and a somewhat harsh ride.
The Audi is more certain of itself. It’s smaller than the Mercedes and feels its age at times, but the ride on passive dampers is better, the handling is livelier, and its 2.0-litre turbocharged engine absolutely rips.
Fast, fun for an SUV, and relatively affordable, Audi has managed to inject the SQ2 into a neat niche Down Under.
Which of these SUVs is your pick? Or would you stick with an all-wheel drive hot hatch like a Volkswagen Golf R?