Mercedes-AMG has pushed its smallest SUV up a weight division.
With a price under $100,000 and a compact body, the first GLA45 was aimed squarely at the Audi RSQ3.
This time around Affalterbach has aimed higher for its jacked-up hyper hatchback, with a six-figure price that slots it into Porsche Macan territory.
This compact cruise missile has what it takes to justify the price on paper, from its steroidal four-cylinder engine to its more upmarket interior.
That’s before you start digging into the details. From the exposed radiator to those oversized brake discs, there’s plenty of little touches pointing to the serious performance potential hiding beneath the skin.
Of course, the proof is always in the driving. That’s where the GLA45 S really delivers.
Pricing for the Mercedes-Benz GLA kicks off at $55,100 before on-road costs, for the GLA200 and its 1.3-litre turbo engine.
The least expensive GLA with that all-important AMG badge on its snout is the GLA35 4Matic, which is priced from $82,935 before on-roads.
Sitting atop the tree is the GLA45 S 4Matic+ we have on test here, which starts at (deep breath) $107,035 before on-road costs (phew).
Serious money for a car that shares its bones with an entry A-Class hatchback, then, and that’s before you start ticking options boxes.
Our tester also featured metallic paint ($1490), the Aerodynamics Package ($2990), the High Performance Seat Package ($3290), and the Innovation Package ($1490).
The grand total of $116,295 before on-road costs makes the GLA45 S almost $7000 more expensive than an Audi RSQ3 with every single options box ticked, and $4000 more expensive than a Porsche Macan GTS.
Let’s start with the sexy AMG bits, because that’s what you’re all here for.
Compared to the GLA35, the 45 S gets its speed limiter lifted to 265km/h and a microfibre-trimmed steering wheel with a contrast-stitched 12 o’clock marker.
There’s also a Burmester sound system, the AMG Track Pace application, and the Driving Assistance Package with adaptive cruise control, front cross-traffic assist, lane-change assist, and active speed adaptation for the cruise control using traffic sign recognition.
A surround-view camera and LED Multibeam headlights are standard, along with the usual smattering of AMG exterior add-ons. The brakes are 360mm front and 330mm rear units with six-piston front calipers, and there’s a quad exhaust down back.
Standard across the range is keyless entry and start, a powered tailgate, dual-zone climate control, twin 10.25-inch infotainment displays, satellite navigation, wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, rain-sensing wipers, DAB+ radio, and 64-colour ambient lighting inside.
Options fitted to our test car included the Aerodynamics Package ($2990, rear wing and front aero flics), the High Performance Seat Package ($3290), and the Innovation Package ($1490, head-up display and advanced navigation).
The latest Mercedes-Benz GLA has not been tested by ANCAP or Euro NCAP.
All the other cars built on the same underpinnings, including the A-Class hatchback (above) and GLB SUV, have scored five stars in testing.
All GLA variants come as standard with the following active safety features atop their nine airbags:
- Autonomous emergency braking
- Blind-spot assist
- Exit warning assist
- Active lane-keeping assist
- Cross-wind assist
- Pre-Safe accident anticipatory systems
- Traffic sign assist
If you’ve sat in an A-Class of any variety you’ll feel right at home in the GLA45 S.
The dashboard is dominated by the twin MBUX displays, and the same array of coloured lights and expensive looking trim pieces is on hand to create some serious wow factor. When it comes to showroom appeal it’s hard to top the GLA.
All the glossy headline-grabbers are backed by solid fundamentals. The heated AMG Performance Seats optioned in our car are exceptional, with a blend of solid bolstering (adjustable, naturally) and long-haul comfort that makes the standard units look dismal.
Having experienced the base seats in the A35, there’s no doubt the Performance Seat option is one worth ticking. In fact it really should be standard given the six-figure starting price of the GLA45 S, not to mention the way it can throw you around in the corners.
The driving position is superb, and the Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel feels chunky and solid in your hands. The wheel for drive mode and buttons for tweaking the powertrain are a brilliant idea, and the metal paddles have a pleasingly solid action.
Yes, the driving position is a bit taller than wannabe racers would like, but that comes with the territory in these crossovers.
With such a huge focus placed on technology, the infotainment software in the GLA45 S would want to be good. Thankfully, it mostly is.
There’s no shortage of ways to control it – along with ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice inputs there’s touchscreen inputs, two scroll wheels on the steering wheel, and a mouse-style touchpad on the transmission tunnel – but once you’re familiar with what’s required to hop from menu-to-menu it’s among the most intuitive systems on the market.
The array of options for the dials is huge, from old-fashioned analogue needles to a crystal clear ‘SuperSport’ setup that’s perfect for when you’re really cracking on, and the quality of the animations and graphics on both displays is utterly superb.
Quality is pretty good, without being utterly standout. The touch points all feel good and the interior looks expensive, but the row of piano keys for climate controls feels a bit cheap and the binnacle to which it’s mounted isn’t what you’d call rock solid.
The AMG flashes are nice, but there’s also no escaping the fact the GLA feels like a very close relative of the $46,000 A180 hatch in a lot of places. That’s testament to the fact Mercedes-Benz is giving base buyers the good stuff, but it’s also a little disappointing in a six-figure super SUV.
Storage space is excellent, from the cupholders and wireless charger under the dashboard to the deep central bin.
Also excellent is rear seat space, which isn’t something you could say about the first-generation GLA.
Legroom is decent behind a (very) tall driver, and the high-mounted front seats mean there’s tons of toe room beneath them. Headroom is also surprisingly good, even though there’s a panoramic sunroof, and the rear air vents make the GLA a more kid-friendly space.
We took four adults on a two-hour trip and no-one complained, despite being loaded to the roof with bags, which is a strong tick for its practicality. It’s a shame a fold-down central armrest is optional, though.
Boot space has made a massive leap for 2021. Mercedes-AMG says you’ll get 435L of stuff back there with the rear seats in place and 1430L with the 40/20/40 rear bench folded flat.
We pushed that to the extreme, with the central rear seat folded flat and the boot loaded to its absolute brim with bags, food, drinks, and kit for a weekend away.
Yes, a GLC would have taken it with less Tetris, but the GLA more than proved its practical chops.
Mercedes-AMG really doesn’t do things by halves. Rather than leaning a little bit harder on the turbocharged four-cylinder engine in the GLA35, the engineers in Affalterbach started from scratch for the engine used in the A45 S and GLA45 S.
In the process, they created the world’s most powerful four-cylinder series production engine. Worship at the altar of fastidious engineering? Here’s an engine worth bowing down to.
No components are shared with the old M133 engine it replaces, despite their identical displacement and raison d’etre.
Although it hasn’t been confirmed, we’d be staggered if the M139 doesn’t show up in more than just the smallest Mercedes-AMG models given the amount of time, money, and manpower that’s been poured into its development.
The engine has a roller bearing twin-scroll turbocharger, with an electronic waste-gate rather than a conventional pneumatic system. It’s meant to more precisely mete out boost, which is critical given the turbo can pump out a whopping 2.1bar of boost.
Mercedes-AMG has rotated the engine 180 degrees compared to the old engine so the turbocharger sits at the back of the engine, cutting the amount of piping required to slash lag and save weight.
That grunt is put to the road through an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and 4Matic+ all-wheel drive system capable of shuffling torque between the front and rear axle, and between the individual rear wheels when required.
Peak power is an eye-popping 310kW (at 6750rpm) and peak torque is 500Nm (at 5000rpm), and unusually for a compact and turbo’d performance engine that peak torque figure is there for a good time, not a long time.
The 100km/h sprint takes a claimed 4.3 seconds, making it 0.4 seconds slower than the related A45 S hatchback.
Claimed fuel economy is 9.6L/100km on the combined cycle, we saw less than the claim on a weekend with a strong skew to highway driving.
There’s more than one GLA45 S. There’s the car in Comfort Mode, where the anger and performance lurking beneath the surface are contained, and there’s the car in Sport+ where they aren’t.
The M139 engine is an absolute firecracker, with way more character than you’d expect of a turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
In Comfort Mode it’s relatively low key, with a muted growl and slightly doughy throttle that’s exacerbated by the transmission’s tendency to shift up early. It’s docile, although if you lean a bit harder on the accelerator there’s endless mid-range thrust on tap.
The dual-clutch transmission is relatively smooth off the mark, slightly over-revving to help cut down on the jerkiness you sometimes get from this type of gearbox. It’s not 100 per cent natural, but you’ll get used to it.
Around town the GLA45 is far friendlier than you’d expect. The steering is light enough to make parking a breeze, and the performance on tap makes slotting into gaps in traffic effortless.
Even the ride is acceptable. It’s always taut and purposeful, but it never crashes over bumps. Given this is a performance car, it’s pretty much perfect.
So the hot GLA is a friendly commuter, a docile city car for real estate agents who want to look sharp? Nope. Not even close.
Flick the little mode switch into Sport and the throttle response becomes more urgent, flick it into Sport+ and it gets sharper again. Sport+ is where the fun really happens. The suspension gets taut, the steering gets heavier, and the exhaust goes from grumbly to properly gravelly, and starts popping and cracking on the overrun.
The engine loves to rev in a way very few turbo’d motors can match. Rather than an overstuffed torque curve in the mid-range, peak torque doesn’t arrive until 5000rpm so you need to actually run the car out towards redline for the full experience.
Really get into it and the GLA45 S is rabid, lunging towards redline through the closely-stacked lower ratios. It feels every bit as fast as the 4.3-second sprint to 100km/h would suggest, even loaded up with four people and all their junk.
The dual-clutch transmission is a lightning quick mover on the run, downshifting decisively and quickly under brakes and cracking through the ratios when you’re having a proper dip. The metal paddles are a tactile delight as well though, and reward your flicking into manual mode with a positive click on every shift.
It’s not a proper manual transmission, but there’s some joy to be had in taking manual control nonetheless.
The nuclear powertrain is paired with a staggeringly capable all-wheel drive system and a planted, grippy chassis. Despite the tall driving position and bulbous body, the GLA45 S is capable of absolutely dominating a road.
Flicked into Sport+ it feels alert and up on its toes, with a quick front end and oodles of grip from the sticky Continental tyres allowing you to really fling it corners. The ride is firm but you could reasonably use Sport+ on smoother roads without needing to visit a physio.
That’s not necessarily the most rewarding way to drive it, though. If you’re a bit more circumspect on the way into a corner you can use the clever all-wheel drive system to your advantage, matting the throttle and letting its 4Matic+ brain shuffle torque to the rear axle, and then to the outside rear wheel, to slingshot you onto the next straight.
You’re always aware a silicon brain is working hard underneath you, nattering away with countless sensors in German to make sure the GLA is making the fastest, most efficient progress possible, but that doesn’t mean it feels disconnected, or like a video game.
There’s real fun to be had in trying to extract the most from it, muscling the high-riding hyper hatch along in a flurry of paddle shifts, exhaust pops, and neat little movements from the steering wheel. There’s no escaping how damn fast it is, either, because the 2.0-litre engine is a force of nature.
It’s geared short, which makes for manic off-the-mark acceleration but also means you’ll bash into the second-gear rev limiter at about 80km/h. On some Australian roads that means you’re stuck slightly between second and third gear, forced to choose between chasing peak power at the redline or dropping into the meat of third and riding the torque.
Then again, it’s not a bad choice to be making. The fact the GLA45 will do both is testament to the flexibility of the AMG power plant.
The way you can pick-and-mix your drive mode is deeply impressive, too. The array of controls on the wheel and transmission tunnel mean you can tailor the car to exactly what you want – and you won’t be overridden, no matter how silly your combination.
Manual mode really is manual mode, for example, and any combination is on the table.
Sport+ for the powertrain and electronic aids, Sport for the suspension, manual for the transmission was my go-to for hard driving, while Comfort with a loud exhaust was the perfect day-to-day.
If there’s a chink in the GLA45’s armour it’s the road noise at highway speeds. It wasn’t as pronounced in the GLA as in the A45, but at 100km/h on Australian back roads there’s just too much roar in the cabin for what’s meant to be a premium crossover.
Blame the sticky Continental rubber, blame a lack of sound insulation, but it puts a downer on what’s otherwise a seriously impressive all-rounder.
Maintenance in the GLA45 S is required every 12 months or 20,000km.
A three-year service package costs $3000, a four-year pack costs $3700, and a five-year package will set you back $4300.
Mercedes-Benz was the first premium brand that sells a meaningful volume to move to a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty in Australia, although Volvo has since followed suit.
The GLA45 S is a properly rabid little beast of an SUV, just like its A45 S little brother, but it’s also a far more refined daily driver than its hard-riding, cramped predecessor.
Kudos to Mercedes-AMG, which has taken what was a fun but flawed formula and smoothed out the edges to create a seriously well-rounded performance SUV.
The fact it’ll demolish a road like a high-riding rally car, but can also demolish the school run without breaking a sweat is deeply, deeply impressive.
The trade-off for the car’s newfound competence is the price, which is a bit too steep when you consider some of the things it’s missing as standard.
All the options on our tester really should be standard, particularly the seats and head-up display.
The GLA45 looks like a flagship performance crossover, and there’s no doubt it drives like one… it just isn’t quite specced like one.
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