Approach the 2015 GLA in a crowded lot, and the five-inch wide emblem on its grille is the giveaway you’ve unlocked a Mercedes. It was designed so elderly people with cataracts, even at night thanks to an optional lighting kit, can see the Mercedes star shining from great distances. Stuck as it is here on a small hatchback, the impression isn’t so much allure and prestige as it is hmmmph. That’s — interesting.
The GLA is a front-wheel drive, four-cylinder subcompact car billed as the new entry-level SUV in Mercedes’ ballooning lineup. At $34,225, it’s priced nearly $5000 below the compact GLK, an angular, higher-riding vehicle that’s more agreeable to traditional SUV buyers. In truth, the GLA is an upmarket hatch appealing to European buyers who would have spent the same on an Audi A3, BMW 1-Series or, in all seriousness, a loaded Ford Focus. People overseas spend large change on little cars, with or without premium badges. Over here, the GLA is a challenging experiment for Mercedes marketers.
Looks are definitely on the GLA’s side. Sharp creases and curvy doors appear from every angle. Large, flowing headlamps and crisp body detailing on the sills and spoiler lips make a subtle fashion statement. In downtown Boston, a taxi cab driver and a garage attendant were fawning over this car. A neatly laid-out interior features hip-hugging seats and splashes of bright silver trim, especially highlighted by three circular air vents in the center. This is what the Dodge Caliber could have become had Chrysler kept it going past 2012. If you’ve sat inside any new Dodge and felt the quality and presentation of the materials, as well as the agreeable engines and top-notch electronics, you know that’s no insult.
But with quality levels surging at all ends of the market, the GLA interior scores just average. You’ll find hard plastics in the lower portions of the dash. The infotainment screen looks like an aftermarket unit on a cheap dash mount. It’s meant to look like a tablet, yet it’s not touch-enabled. That job goes to a knob that pushes, rotates and moves on four axes. It’s intuitive only for someone like me who has driven many Mercedes models over the years, and not because it’s particularly easy. Front-wheel drive packaging and European pedestrian-impact standards dictate the GLA’s tall hood and shoulder lines, which are at odds with the low seating position and minimized glass area. With the upright dashboard, at times it feels like you’re driving in a bathtub.
Only now have we reached the GLA’s strangest attribute of all, the AMG model which I tested. The base GLA250 comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four producing 208 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. It’s a good engine. I tested it on the CLA250, the four-door “coupe” upon which the GLA is based, and liked its quiet operation and low-end thrust. The engine in the GLA45 AMG is something out of Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen, a trigger for blurting crude, rude noises without warning. The specs are downright fierce: 355 hp, 332 lb-ft of torque, 4Matic all-wheel drive and a 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox with steering wheel shift paddles made from cold, hard metal. Engineers fed this hand-built 2.0-liter engine with 26 psi of boost, well beyond what a Porsche 911 Turbo can handle. Power to size, it’s the most explosive production engine in the entire world.
When those twin turbos spool up, the GLA45 takes off like an angry yellow jacket swarming to its next sugar high. It buzzes accordingly, ripping into each gear with blats and farts, surging and spooking drivers out of the left lane. Any doubt the GLA’s pipsqueak dimensions may have cast on its performance credentials has been detonated. The quick steering tracks dead straight without wobble, and the wheel is thick and wrapped in suede. The suspension is a secure invitation for darting and weaving safely at speed. Perfect, hard bites ensue from the brake pedal. Just earlier, I folded the rear seats down to cart a six-foot tall bookshelf to my house, with the power tailgate slightly ajar. It is a beast from two opposing worlds.
My car, optioned with driver assist systems like blind-spot monitoring, a panoramic moonroof, and carbon fiber dash trim, was a hysterical $61,235. That price riffs on the base C63 AMG, the V8-powered C-Class that defines what bad-ass Benzes are all about. The C63, with its expensive-sounding, muscle car burble, hole-shot acceleration and steroidal looks, is why AMG trims command the highest prices in the Mercedes lineup. But the GLA45, even at just under $50,000 to start, disappoints the driver who expects similar excitement and refinement in everyday use.
That same ferocious engine on fast stretches is a lump around town, with excessive turbo lag that turns the throttle pedal into a blunt on-off switch. The exhaust drone and its incessant bzzzzzz gets tiring. When a tuned Honda Civic drives past, it gets embarrassing. As for the transmission, it occasionally lurches from first gear and rolls the car in neutral during slow parking maneuvers when you’d expect it to be in gear. Three-point turns are a jerky hassle. (This dual-clutch automatic acts like a manual, only you have no control over how the clutch slips. For an identical transmission with virtually no flaws, see Porsche.) What else? The lowered, stiff suspension is set up for a race track, yet falls apart on the drive to Stop & Shop. Gas mileage, admittedly, isn’t on the AMG agenda. But for a four-cylinder machine, the small tank drains just as quickly on the highway as a Corvette. I averaged 23 mpg.
Pound for pound, Mercedes has cloned the addictive, high-strung antics that make the Subaru WRX STI such a fun ride, but without fixing that car’s coarse flaws. Yes, the GLA45 is more planted on the road and vibrates a lot less. The doors sound better when they close. But for wearing that three-pointed star, the GLA45 is not the Mercedes it should be.