Just another compact sports SUV or a road-going rally car is disguise? James samples the 2016 AMG GLA45 to find out.
Let’s get straight to the point. The 2016 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 is a sports crossover SUV, but I’m sure you already know that.
You also know that it isn’t very big and won't suit carting adults around in the back. You know it won't tow much and isn’t capable of venturing too far off the paved stuff.
You are also no doubt aware that the boot isn’t massive (421 litres) and despite having a starting price of $84,315 (before options and on-road costs) it shares buttons, trim and cabin elements with the entry-level GLA180 which costs almost exactly half the price.
If you've been reading the site regularly, you'll know it has been updated for 2016 and now includes support for Apple CarPlay, a revised driver-selection dial with five modes (Comfort, Sport, Sport +, Race and Individual), some mild visual tweaks and a new colour – Elbaite Green.
So if we both know this is an update of a small, pricey, high-riding hot hatch – then why bother going further?
Because of three letters that are becoming rarer and rarer to find in cars these days. No, not AMG… F. U. N.
The GLA45 is 280kW of sheer irresponsible laugh-a-minute entertainment. The perfect urban pocket rocket that pops and cracks its way over the speed limit and into your heart.
Like a rally car with number plates, the 2.0-litre turbocharged AMG even makes a run to the shops feel like a tarmac stage of the Monte Carlo. From the first hint of a green light, you want to call your own notes; one-hundred flat into square right opens into two-hundred over crest, caution Woolworths…
The world’s most powerful four-cylinder production engine delivers a whopping 475Nm between 2250 and 5000rpm. Power hard off the line and you feel the car surge forward, farting its way through the seven ratios of the re-tuned AMG Speedshift DCT as you bang on the alloy shift paddles. You can keep the ’45 in the power band with ease, the snarling exhaust note more akin to a WRC anti-lag system than a modern hatchback.
Output is up 15kW and 15Nm on the 2015 GLA45, and you can now option in a limited-slip front differential as part of the AMG Dynamic Plus package ($1990 option) to help transmit those numbers to the road.
It will now do a 0-100kmh sprint in 4.4 seconds. For a shopping trolley, that is ridiculous.
There’s a long list of Mercedes safety technology too, from DISTRONIC adaptive cruise control to lane keeping assist. Plus, the lower mounting points of the AMG sports seats mean that tall drivers can fit better in the GLA45 than in any other GLA variant.
Quite hilariously, Mercedes note that the combined fuel consumption of the GLA45 has dropped with the update, down from 7.6L/100km to 7.5. In the words of Marco from Tropoja, 'good luck' getting even close to that.
Sure you could leave the car in Comfort (the most basic of the five drive modes) and sure you could just potter about town, but why on earth would you buy this car and go and do something silly like that.
We saw 14.5L/100km over a distance of 420km and laughed all the way. Put simply, the GLA45 is not a car that you feel like driving slowly.
And sure, the cup holders are a bit cheap and the dial to control the COMAND infotainment system feels old and a bit low rent. But these are feelings soon dispatched when you mash the accelerator and crackle away, stupid grin and red seatbelts ablaze!
Mercedes-AMG offers this engine and drivetrain in the A45 hatch and CLA45 ‘sedancoupe’ and shooting brake, but for some reason the GLA is just a little bit more fun. Why?
The crossover stance, some 40mm higher than an A45 AMG (but still 16mm lower than a ‘normal’ GLA) affords the GLA45’s suspension an important amount of compliance that can deal with day-to-day bumps and imperfections without rattling your teeth.
More relevant perhaps, it means you don’t need to slow down.
In this way, the GLA seems to have nailed that sweet spot between fun and fear. The grey area where adrenalin keeps you tight, but not tightened (so to speak), allowing you to drive the car to your limit while feeling like you are approaching its own.
You’re not, by the way. The little GLA has so much more ability than we mortals can dream to extract from it. But it’s nice to think you’ve tried.
Take a break from town and the GLA45 will monster through your favourite driving roads like some kind of 1980s hyper-rare homologated road-going rally special that allowed the monster Group B cars to compete.
Want to know something scary? The GLA45 has MORE power than the 1984 Peugeot 205 GTI T16 Group B car. Over 20kW more! You can even spend an extra $1990 on the aerodynamic package and add a rear wing, front canards and deeper splitter for that real rally car look.
I’m very much of the opinion that you’ve come this far, so you might as well go all the way and tick that box. How about adding a four-lamp light pod for the front of the car too please Mercedes?
The selectable drive modes change throttle mapping, steering and pedal sensitivity and suspension dampening rates. Moving through from Sport to Sport+ and even to Race makes the car twitchier, louder and stiffer each time.
An excellent inclusion then is the Individual setting which lets you control these elements to (in my case) offer full engine and performance output with a softer ride and lighter steering.
That slightly more compliant suspension setup makes going faster for longer over imperfect roads a much easier task than in the A45 hatchback.
Turn in is sharp and while the GLA45 will err toward understeer, the electrically assisted steering gives good feedback so you can hold tremendous speed through the bends.
Like this, you can literally push your foot flat to the floor without fearing the GLA will try to kill you. The rush of power is exciting and manageable, the ability to wash off speed with the 350mm cross-drilled front brakes (330mm rear) is exciting and manageable.
Balancing the GLA through tighter sections using throttle control and the car’s weight transfer, so as not to fight the steering wheel is, you guessed it, exciting and manageable.
It’s no perfect ‘drivers' car’ though. The steering and overall balance do feel more than a smidge out of your control, as if the car knows what to do more than it thinks you do and that it will manage the situation with a constant safety net, despite all the barking and popping.
It’s like playing Call of Duty on Recruit mode. You get to enjoy the important parts without having to be an expert to do so. A rally car for dummies, if you will.
The GLA45 has the right amount of ability and the right amount of flash to satisfy rather than awe.
You get your cool drive-mode configuration functions on the updated eight-inch COMAND screen, you get DAB radio for that 80s and 90s hits station, there are AMG floor mats and a whole bunch of other random AMG reminders around the cabin – but it is, at its core, still a faster, louder version of that GLA180.
You’ll snarl and burble up to the kerb in front of your favourite coffee shop, but to most punters you will look like every other GLA on the street.
It’s a performance Mercedes-AMG for people who don’t really want to play the full performance Mercedes-AMG game. And there is nothing wrong with that at all.
The 2016 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 is an absolute blast. A relatively impractical, expensive and subdued one, but a blast all the same. Go into it wanting a sports SUV, and you should probably have looked at a Porsche Macan or Audi SQ5 first, but go into it wanting a Peugeot 205 T16 and you’ll be laughing all day, every day.
It's a pretty ordinary SUV, but a hell of a good sports-hatch. But again, I'm sure you already knew that.
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