The Mercedes-Benz GLA250 we tested recently is an affordable package for buyers wanting a three-pointed star badge on a small SUV, but choosing a GLA just got a whole lot harder.
The Mercedes-AMG GLA35 slots neatly between the GLA250 and the riotous GLA45, boasting more kit, upgraded handling, and a significant bump in performance and sticker price.
AMG is a proper Mercedes-Benz sub-brand these days, given one in five of all Benz cars sold here wears an AMG badge of some variety. That’s a staggering ratio given the premium they command.
Back in my younger days, AMGs were special models with big performance and big price tags to match, many of which are considered collectables these days. I’m thinking of the C36 a mate drove back in the day which cost him more than $150,000, and the first V8-powered E55 which set another mate back $225,000 in the late ’90s. Huge money.
Thankfully, the premiums aren’t nearly as high in 2020.
The AMG extras amount to a lot more than just the specific body work and bigger turbo on the GLA, both of which point to its performance bent. This is a lot more than a cosmetic makeover, the 35 AMG has proper go-fast kit that delivers a bigger grin when you feel the urge to get stuck in.
Most of the mechanicals and electronics have received the AMG treatment, including the eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, variable all-wheel drive, and adaptive suspension including unique steering geometry and lightweight components.
There’s a bigger wheel and tyre package for a larger contact patch, as well as upgraded brakes. Inside, it’s a visual extravaganza that makes me smile every time I get behind the whee. It’s 100 per cent premium – but then again so was the GLA250 we tested.
The GLA35 is priced from $82,935 before on-road costs, excluding options from the (relatively limited) spec sheet.
Our tester included one of the six metallic paint finishes for the exterior (Mountain Metallic Grey, $1490), 20-inch black alloy wheels ($790), and the Driving Assistance Package ($1990) that adds adaptive cruise and rear cross-traffic alert, active lane-change assist, and route-based speed adaptation which takes into account traffic hazards such as roundabouts whenever adaptive cruise control is activated.
We also had the Vision Package ($1190), which adds adaptive high-beam assist plus, multi-beam LED headlights, a panoramic sunroof, and the parking package including a 360-degree camera.
Audiophiles should opt for the Communications Package that upgrades the sound system to a Burmester 12-speaker unit with a nine-channel subwoofer and 590W of power, along with a head-up display.
As far as rivals go, the GLA35 is within striking distance of the rapid Audi RSQ3 ($89,990) and punchy BMW X2 M35i ($69,900).
Your GLA35 gets a lot more than just performance upgrades, starting with the AMG Night Package which includes a blacked-out belt line, exhaust tips, front splitter, side sill inserts, rear apron, and side mirrors.
The optional matte black 20-inch wheels on our tester look sharp, though it’s worth noting you still get 20-inch wheels with twin spokes as standard. The GLA35 also packs electric/memory/heated front seats, a panoramic glass sunroof, keyless entry and go, configurable ambient lighting, wireless charging, wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a powered tailgate, and AMG interior add-ons like mats and pedals.
There’s also the latest MBUX infotainment system featuring two 10.25-inch high-resolution screens for the instrument display and infotainment. You also get one of the most visually spectacular AMG flat-bottom steering wheels in Nappa leather in the business thanks to the brushed alloy metalwork and backlit drive mode dial.
Shout-out to the standard red/black Lugano leather upholstery, too, for its comfort, styling, and suppleness. It matches the Mountain Grey paintwork perfectly.
It’s an extensive inventory of equipment, but not such a big step from the GLA200 and GLA250 given the equipment levels in those variants.
The new-generation Mercedes-Benz GLA is yet to be tested by ANCAP or Euro NCAP, but it’s worth noting its platform mates – the A-Class, B-Class, CLA, and GLB – have all achieved five stars.
For example, the all-new GLB scored 92 per cent in adult occupant protection, 88 per cent for child occupant protection, 78 per cent for vulnerable road user and 76 per cent for safety assist.
All models come standard with autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot assist, exit warning assistant, active lane-keeping assist, nine airbags, an active bonnet, cross-wind assist, Pre-Safe, and traffic sign assist.
Most readers know AMG isn’t known for its subtlety. Instead, it’s known for its boisterous exhaust notes and overtly-styled designs.
The same goes for the cabin in the GLA35, but it’s more overstated than the exterior, with more bling than a Gucci store.
The Lugano leather upholstery in red and black could be misconstrued as being a bit garish, but the seats are wonderfully comfortable and offer a fine contrast with the grey paintwork of this tester.
There’s more than enough brightwork with a combination of brushed and polished alloy inserts throughout the cockpit. By far my favourite pieces are the trademark turbine-inspired air vents that feature so heavily (five up front, two out back).
There are very few hard plastics but what there is looks and feels premium to the touch. The AMG flat-bottomed steering wheel wrapped in Nappa leather is something to behold, but it’s also home to cutting-edge technology including touch and swipe drive mode buttons and a handy drive mode dial.
The dual touchscreens offer clarity and colour with fast processing to boot, but you’d need a few hours of fiddling just to explore the all the information available including AMG-specific graphics and pages. All of it is configurable.
If you’re not living with a Benz on a daily basis it’s easy to get caught by the electric seat controls located on the door cards, and the gear shifter where the right-hand stalk on the steering column would usually sit.
At night you get a private light show as the ambient light strips are intense, and are seemingly everywhere including the air vents.
Despite its small-ish profile, the GLA feels every bit like a real high-riding SUV inside. There’s good space throughout the cabin, especially up front. Rear legroom is more than decent for those sitting behind my 172cm frame and close-to-the-wheel driving position.
The one oversight is the lack of a centre armrest for rear passengers. You can lower the middle seat, but it’s really for carting skis instead of elbows given it’s not padded.
With a 435-litre boot capacity behind the rear seats the GLA35 is reasonably spacious but holds less than rivals like the Volvo XC40 (460L). The rear seats fold almost flat and the boot lip is low for easy loading of gear.
Don’t forget the powered tailgate, which takes the hassle out of things.
Storage nooks around the cabin are plenty and there’s four USB-C charge ports throughout.
The big-ticket item that turns the GLA into an AMG SUV with the right amount of go for the chassis.
The AMG has the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, but instead of the 165kW/350Nm in the GLA250 this one is tuned to deliver 225kW of power from 5800rpm and 400Nm of torque between 3000 and 4000rpm.
It’s sent to all four wheels through an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission.
The hardware includes a bigger twin-scroll turbocharger for quicker throttle response in Sport and Sport Plus, a water charge-air cooler, and a different air intake. But, it also gets AMG calibration and dynamics and launch control.
As a result, the benchmark 0-100km/h sprint time falls from 6.7 seconds to a far speedier 5.2 seconds. It’s not as rapid as the smaller but torquier BMW X2 which needs just 4.9 seconds.
If you want more and are prepared to pay for it, there’s the more serious GLA45 S developing a whopping 310kW and 500Nm for its claimed 4.3 seconds to 100km/h, but that’s going to set you back $107,035 before on-roads.
It’s funny, but in the default Comfort mode there’s very little to differentiate between the GLA250 and GLA35.
There’s the same relaxed if not doughy throttle feel until you bury it a bit deeper, at which point the AMG influence becomes clearer. I found myself scrolling between Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ incessantly before leaving it the latter almost exclusively thanks entirely to the immediate response it offers but without the low-speed jitters.
The AMG-enhanced eight-speed transmission is still tuned to deliver the best possible fuel consumption by quick shifting to the higher gears unless you really decide to sink the boot in. Do that and the GLA races away like its hot hatch double, the A35.
It’s quick, no question, but it’s not explosive. In fact, I’d say it’s nicely matched with the beefed-up chassis. There’s not much point in using the metal paddle-shifters in Sport+ thanks its rapid-fire shifting that mirrors your driving style almost instantaneously, but it’s fine to do so in the less aggressive modes.
The front brakes might only get four-piston calipers and 350mm front rotors but don’t sweat it, there’s oodles of stopping power and a solid pedal feel and progression.
Impressive, too, is the handling when you start cracking the whip. There’s slight lean on turn-in but the GLA settles well enough to carry good speed through a corner if conditions are good.
Like the GLA250 the GLA35 gets adaptive damping, but it’s tuned by AMG for slightly stiffer settings. The previous GLA was notoriously hard riding (even in Comfort), but Benz has sorted this out – even in Sport+ the ride is comfortable.
Don’t get me wrong, the drive modes offer different levels of damping, but there’s not really a whole lot in it. The steering is especially satisfying – at least the weighting is, although I’m not sure there’s much feel through the tiller as to what the front wheels are doing. But that’s hardly exclusive to Benz.
I’m not so smitten on the exhaust note. The decibels build as you pile on the revs, but it’s all a bit gruff without the growly engine we might expect from an AMG exhaust system, even if it is only a four-pot.
The specs claim 8.0L/100km but I can assure you we didn’t come close to matching that.
Mercedes-Benz was the first luxury brand to adopt a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty with Audi and BMW still stuck on three years.
Volvo and Genesis offer five, while Jaguar Land Rover has an ongoing promotion for five years at the moment even though the factory warranty is technically three years.
Service intervals for the GLA35 are 12 months or 25,000kms with a three-year service plan available for $2150, four years for $2950, and five years for $4000.
There’s no question you’re going to enjoy the GLA35 over the less expensive GLA250. But is it worth an extra $16,000?
To be honest I’m still not sure. If I had the coin I’d likely splurge. But you’d also be content with the cheaper GLA250, which is surely the sweet spot in the GLA line-up.