The Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class is not a proper compact SUV, and it is all the better for it.
As the fourth installment in a new breed of Mercedes-Benz compact cars, the GLA-Class is a slightly larger, more practical, light-offroad-capable version of the A-Class hatchback on which it’s based. Sportier than the even more practical B-Class but cheaper and less compromised than the CLA-Class sedan, the GLA-Class forms a surprising sweet spot in the $45-80,000 Mercedes-Benz lineup.
The Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class is less like its Audi Q3 and BMW X1 direct competitors, each of which have little in common with their respective A3 and 1 Series hatchback siblings. Yet the GLA-Class offers a bit more than, say, a Volvo V40 Cross Country, which doesn’t add any extra space or practicality over the V40 hatchback on which it’s based.
Despite sharing interior and exterior styling cues with the A-, B- and CLA-Class, the GLA-Class is 125mm longer, 61mm taller and 24mm wider than an A-Class, and offers more rear headroom and an extra 80-litres of boot space, now 421L.
The driver, however, sits only 40mm higher, so there’s less of that high driving position that SUV buyers apparently love. The GLA-Class doesn’t offer a whole lot of ground clearance, either, so in terms of those core SUV traits it misses the mark. (Offroad suspension is available overseas that raises ride height by 30mm, but it won’t be available in Oz.)
Unfortunately the front-wheel-drive $47,900 GLA200 CDI variant was unavailable to test at the GLA-Class international launch in Spain, but both the all-wheel-drive $57,900 GLA250 4MATIC and $79,900 GLA45 AMG were. (Read Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class price and specifications.)
The interior is pure A-Class and that’s no bad thing. From the trio of centre air vents with aviation-style bezels and smooth-to-rotate ventilation adjustment, to the soft-touch door plastics, stitched-leather armrests, vertical speedometer and tachometer needles and flock-lined glovebox, the GLA exudes class.
It’s expected that basic audio systems will be standard locally, with a Becker satellite navigation possibly being included – it’s optional on A-Class, but standard on CLA-Class. Either way, the Becker unit is demonstrably inferior to the Mercedes-Benz Comand Online system fitted to test cars that offers internet phone tethering for apps and Google StreetView downloads, among others. It’s a worthy option, but may be a pricey one.
Further back, there’s no extra rear legroom, though the A-Class is already the roomiest car in its category for rear-seat passengers, and GLA-Class riders will enjoy more headroom back there. Unlike most non-premium compact SUV models, the Mercedes-Benz includes rear-seat air vents.
While the boot isn’t as cavernous as B-Class or other small wagons, it is the largest among hatchbacks and competitive with the Q3 and X1 SUVs.
Starting with the GLA250 and the sweet nature of the 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder petrol engine is immediately obvious. At low revs it is supremely quiet, and segues into a crisp and raunchy, yet still distantly refined, note.
At freeway speed the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is in its tallest gear and revving at an almost inaudible 1800rpm. While in the default ‘E’ mode the transmission will pick up tall gears quickly, the engine produces its peak 350Nm of torque between 1200rpm and 4000rpm, so the combination is as effortless as it is energetic.
Switch to the transmission’s ‘S’ mode or utilise the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters and the gearbox will better tap into the 155kW power peak that arrives at 5500rpm.
The GLA250 claims a 7.2 second 0-100km/h and 6.2L/100km combined consumption. At 1505kg, it is 60kg lighter than the Q3 2.0 TFSI that claims an identical power figure, yet curiously the Audi is faster (6.9 second claim) but thirstier (7.7L/100km claimed).
Whether riding over patchwork urban arterials or cornering with enthusiasm, the GLA-Class suspension is superbly judged. In Australia, the A250 and CLA250 get sports suspension standard that firms up the ride, where the GLA250 will get ‘comfort’ suspension that is much more impressive.
Even on 235mm-wide, 45-aspect Goodyear EfficientGrip tyres, the urban ride stays firm and disciplined but never turns jiggly and harsh. There’s plenty of roll and body movement mid-corner, but the chassis is wonderfully balanced and the all-wheel-drive system can actually be felt delivering power to the rear wheels, allowing for early throttle and a sligshot exit.
The steering isn’t as tactile as Mercedes-Benz rear-wheel-drive cars, with a noticeable vague patch in the first movements off centre, but it is consistently light and very direct. The GLA-Class also offers a tight turning circle for an all-wheel-drive car, and the full trio of parking aids will be standard on all models locally – front and rear sensors, reverse-view camera, and auto parking tech that will detect a parking spot and automatically steer the car into it.
The dynamic traits of the GLA250 almost exactly transfer to the GLA45 AMG. There’s increased agility at the front end, much tighter body control, and a noticeably firmer ride, but the same sense of balance and impressive power-down pervades, only on a faster scale.
Indeed, the GLA45 AMG feels less edgy and pointy than an A45 AMG, aligning itself with the more progressive CLA45 AMG that actually rolls onto its rear tyres in corners rather than wanting to flick its tail-out like the A45 AMG does. The upshot to a bit of extra roll compared with both A45 and CLA45 AMG is vastly more settled ride quality.
With 265kW of power and 450Nm of torque, the 2.0-litre turbo in the 1585kg GLA45 AMG feels barely slower or thirstier, with 4.8 second 0-100km/h and 7.5L/100km combined consumption claims.
In the context of an expensive hot-hatch, the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic isn’t quite aggressive enough in ‘S’ mode and occasionally refuses a downshift in manual mode, but the GLA45 AMG doesn’t suffer as much from this probably because it can’t be driven quite as hard.
The GLA45 AMG engine sounds less sweet than the same-sized unit in the GLA250, introducing a gritty, grainy soundtrack into the cabin absent from its cheaper sibling, but the GLA-Class seems quieter than its hatchback sibling overall, particularly in terms of road noise. Perhaps thank the extra ride height.
Thankfully the good noise made from the optional-overseas sports exhaust will be standard in Australia, resulting in big cracks on full throttle upshifts and burble when the throttle is lifted and revs are left to hang.
The just-arrived $81,900, 228kW/420Nm Audi RSQ3 will have a big fight on its hands with the GLA45 AMG, which packs the same pace as its racier siblings but without a singular focus. The little-sweetie GLA250, meanwhile, offers more traction than an A250, more interior room and boot volume, a much better ride and still-excellent handling for $7000 more.
As a halfway house between hatchback and compact SUV, a trick has been successfully pulled with the Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class.