What a strange time we’re living in these days. While mainstream automakers such as Kia and Hyundai are stepping up to the world of big, luxurious sedans, luxury automakers like Mercedes-Benz are downsizing to offer smaller, more affordable “gateway” cars.
Following the highly successful launch of the sub-$30,000 CLA-Class
, the 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class just went on sale with aspirations of wooing buyers in the burgeoning premium small utility vehicle segment that include the BMW X1 and Audi Q3. We recently spent two days with the GLA carving up the roads of Vermont to see what kind of excitement Mercedes can bring to this segment.
First things first, as much as Mercedes is trying to sell the GLA-Class as the newest member of its growing SUV
and crossover family, it’s amazing how small this vehicle is when you first walk up to it. At 60 inches (1.5 meters) tall, the North American-spec GLA is significantly taller than most hatchbacks (and its European counterpart), and Mercedes incorporated many styling cues to ensure this new model maintains the rugged styling that consumers expect from today’s utility vehicles. On the standard GLA250, this includes a surprising amount of ground clearance visually enhanced by added cladding around the wheel arches, and the blocky fascias and side sills add an element of toughness to the stance.
If it wasn’t for these attributes, the GLA-Class would probably just end up looking like a hatchback version of the CLA – an idea we can definitely get on board with. Using the current Mercedes design language, the GLA’s styling starts with a bold face that incorporates large, LED-trimmed headlights, an upright grille and small vertical air intake slats on each side of the fascia. The rear view of the GLA reveals more of a squished SUV look with its tall stance, high lift-over height and low roofline, but it still has a sporty Mercedes appearance with the wide, horizontal taillights and a rear fascia with rugged, metallic trim and integrated exhaust outlets.
In its standard form, the face of the GLA comes off looking more like something out of the Volvo playbook, but fortunately those looking for a more aggressive design can step up to the $2,200 Sport Package. As shown in the GLA250 we drove, this package provides an AMG
makeover with a restyled front fascia with massive air inlets, a rear fascia with vertical slats and other AMG goodies like the 19-inch five-spoke wheels and cross-drilled sport rotors. Finishing off the styling upgrades, this test model also came equipped with optional $850 Bi-Xenon headlights adding a meaner scowl compared to the standard GLA250.
Regardless of which model you choose, the 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class is designed for “pre-family” buyers
While the GLA250 easily pulls off the whole crossover styling, stepping up to the GLA45 AMG brings more of a hot hatch look. For starters, its lowered suspension all but eliminates the SUV-like wheel gap and drops the ground clearance by more than three inches, while the standard AMG look is the same as the optional features found on our GLA250 tester. Upping the ante on this particular GLA45 AMG was the optional $1,950 Aerodynamics Package and the $750 AMG Night Styling Package.
These two packages combined to deliver a blacked-out, boy racer look that included front splitter, front aero wings and the sizable rear wing. Sadly, these features are just for appearance and don’t actually add any sort of aero upgrades, but Mercedes says that with a top speed limited to 155 mph, the GLA45 AMG didn’t really need aero enhancements anyway. This tester was finished off with a Jupiter Red paint job and $850 black 20-inch, 10-spoke AMG wheels that exposed the $300 red-painted brake calipers.
It isn’t too surprising that the majority of space and luxury is dedicated to the front occupants. Mercedes is sticking with its afterthought-looking, dash-mounted infotainment screen, but the rest of the cabin is a remarkable mix of comfort, styling and materials for a crossover priced in the low-$30,000 range. The GLA250 comes standard with power bucket front seats, but you can also add in a set of sportier front seats with integrated headrests.
These latter seats come standard on the GLA45 AMG, and can be replaced with race-inspired AMG Performance seats by Recaro for $2,250 delivering far more lateral support and an extra touch of style. Two hours in the performance seats were a little too much in terms of comfort, but they provided plenty of support along the twisty roads and they sure looked good, too. Like the GLA250, the GLA45 AMG also comes with numerous options for colors and materials, but the way to go is the carbon fiber dash accent, the optional sport steering wheel with Alcantara hand grips and the black leather with red accents (including red seat belts).
The AMG model swaps out the column-mounted shifter for a signature AMG transmission one on the center console, and the interior also gets aluminum pedals, big shift paddles and an AMG-specific gauge cluster.
As is usually the case with just about any subcompact vehicle, space available to rear passengers is limited but not completely absent. Hopping into the back seat, legroom is a bit cramped for taller passengers, but the GLA does provide a decent amount of headroom. It sounds like Mercedes is expecting most owners to be young professionals with a somewhat active lifestyle as the GLA has plenty of cargo space plus its obvious soft-roading potential.
At launch, there are just two versions of the GLA-Class in the US – the GLA250 4Matic and the sporty GLA45 AMG. In standard form, the GLA250 is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engine pumping out 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft (349 Nm) of torque, and this engine mates to a seven-speed dual clutch transmission and Mercedes-Benz’s 4Matic all-wheel-drive system. Mercedes says that this combination returns a 0-60 time of around 7.1 seconds to go with EPA fuel economy estimates of 24 mpg city (9.8 l/100 km), 32 mpg highway (7.3 l/100km) and 27 mpg combined (8.7 l/100km).
For a healthy injection of driving excitement, the GLA45 AMG drops in one of AMG’s hand-built 2.0-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engines that pumps out a whopping 355 hp and 322 lb-ft (437 Nm) of torque sent to all four wheels (when required) through a sport-tuned AMG Speedshift seven-speed DCT
. Acceleration from 0-60 in this bad boy drops to just 4.8 seconds, and fuel economy sacrifices are minimal with estimates of 23 mpg city (10.2 l/100km), 29 mpg highway (8.1 l/100km) and 25 mpg combined (9.4 l/100km).
Although the 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class rides on the same platform as the A-Class, B-Class and CLA-Class, this crossover has a unique ride quality feeling like a firm yet comfortable soft-roader.
Perhaps more importantly, Mercedes even managed to tune the GLA250 and GLA45 AMG to feel completely different on the road with the entry model focusing on comfort and the AMG delivering nimble handling and improved performance. As expected, the AMG-tuned GLA has quicker steering and bigger, beefier brakes, but the GLA250 still provides the same level of sportiness and refinement that consumers demand from a Mercedes-Benz.
Looking at other style-driven crossovers like the Range Rover Evoque and BMW X4
, the 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA250 4Matic is easy to work with as a daily driver thanks to its taller roofline that gives a commanding view of the road as well as great visibility from any angle for the driver. On the road, it’s easy to see that Mercedes did an excellent job of isolating the cabin from outside noises. Despite its taller center of gravity, this base model still held its own on the challenging roads with a steering feel that was refreshingly responsive.
While we weren’t able to do any sort of off-road driving beyond cutting through a gravel parking lot, the GLA250 4Matic does post some good numbers on paper for this class of vehicle with about 20 degrees of approach angle (despite the relatively long front overhang) and around 31 degrees of departure angle not to mention an impressive eight inches (20 cm) of ground clearance. When needed, the 4Matic can send up to 50 percent of engine power to the rear wheels to help power through loose terrain. Unlike some performance models, the GLA45 AMG doesn’t add too much weight over the GLA250 4Matic as its 3,428 pound (1,555 kg) weight is just 44 pounds (20 kg) heavier than the all-wheel-drive base model.
The stiffened, sport-tuned suspension and added engine power allow the GLA45 AMG to feel fun and playful along any roads put in front of it. On these twisty Vermont roads, the reworked steering was perfectly balanced for normal and sport driving, and it provided amazingly fast turn-in to the sharp turns. The bigger AMG brakes were a bit too grabby in normal city driving, but their added stopping power came in handy when pushing the GLA45 AMG to its limits. The AMG-tuned Electronic Stability Program
also maximizes the GLA45 AMG’s cornering ability with the same 50/50 torque split as the standard 4Matic but with an additional element of torque vectoring that is performed by brake application at the rear inside wheel.
In normal driving, the cabin of the GLA45 AMG is just as quiet as its GLA250 counterpart, but tap the little button to put this GLA into Sport mode and the extra money spent is almost immediately recognizable… before the drive route even begins! Instantly, the electronically controlled baffles in the exhaust transform the note from a reserved rumble to a raucous racket that brings this diminutive AMG mill to life with all the right pops and burbles on downshifts and even more glorious note under hard-accelerating upshifts.
Not surprisingly, our spirited driving along the twisty Vermont roads didn’t exactly do any favors for trying to find a true real-world average for fuel economy
Even so, after about 100 miles in the GLA250 4Matic and double the miles in the GLA45 AMG, observed numbers were still noteworthy at a combined 26.2 mpg (8.9 l/100km) and 23.7 mpg (9.9 l/100km), respectively. Early next year, a front-wheel drive GLA250 will also be added to the lineup, which will deliver all of the luxury and styling advantages of the GLA250 4Matic with a lower price point and improved fuel economy. In terms of pricing, the initial base price of the 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class is $33,300 for the GLA250 4Matic (until the front-wheel-drive option becomes available next year), and opting for the performance-minded GLA45 AMG will cost you at least $48,300. Of course, the transaction prices are running a bit higher for this all-new model with the average GLA250 4Matic selling for $35,000 and the average GLA45 AMG going for around $56,000 to $58,000 range.
In terms of the vehicles we had the chance to drive, the Mountain Grey GLA250 4Matic had an as-tested price of $45,175, while the Jupiter Red GLA45 AMG came in at $64,725. That might seem like a lot of money for such a small vehicle, but that sum brings plenty of luxury, cabin tech and refinement to customers who would normally either have to choose for a loaded mainstream crossover or an upsized luxury sedan or SUV.
Targeting a younger demographic of buyers, the CLA and GLA give Mercedes a powerful 1-2 punch in this small vehicle segment where luxury and fuel economy meet. After spending two days with the GLA250 and GLA45, it is pretty amazing how different Mercedes managed to tune these two models. On one end, the GLA250 feels like your typical crossover (albeit with plenty of luxury) with a price that starts on the high end for most fully loaded compact CUVs, while the GLA45 dabbles in the hot hatch arena combining impressive performance with a styling to match.
With as popular as the premium small utility vehicle segment has gotten in recent years and the runaway success of the CLA-Class, the 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class should be another instance of demand outpacing supply, but that seems to be a problem that Mercedes is more than happy to have to deal with.