When you look at the Mercedes-Benz GLA, do you see a sporty compact crossover or a smallish four-door hatch? Mercedes appears to be hoping that, in SUV-loving America, the GLA will be perceived as a baby G, the most youthful and affordable member of the brand’s SUV family, sitting alongside the GLK, the GL, the G-wagen—and the, er, obviously misnamed M-class. But it also could be seen as a truncated version of the four-door CLA sedan (coupe?), with a practical rear hatch that increases functionality but decreases fabulousness.
Sibling to the CLA
Mechanically, the GLA is unabashedly a sibling to the CLA. The two models share Mercedes’ new FWD/AWD compact-car platform (along with the A-class and B-class four-door hatchbacks sold in Europe). Their transverse-mounted powertrains are identical, which for our market means a 208-hp 2.0-liter turbo four in the GLA250 and a 355-hp version of the same engine is the GLA45AMG. Both use a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The GLA250 will come with a choice of front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (although the former will trail the latter by several months), while the AMG version is all-wheel drive only.
Turbo fours in two strengths
We started our drive in the GLA250 4Matic. With 258 pound-feet of torque on tap, the small turbo four does an admirable job motivating the GLA, scooting to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds, according to Mercedes-Benz. Fuel economy should be close but not quite equal to the CLA’s, which in front-wheel-drive trim posts city/highway/combined ratings of 26/38/30 mpg (there are no EPA ratings yet for the CLA250 4Matic, which is not yet in dealerships). We saw an indicated 30 mpg on our two-hour drive, which combined mountain roads, a bit of freeway, and some low-speed puttering through coastal villages. The latter exposed a weakness we previously experienced with the CLA: sometimes light or changing throttle inputs, particularly at low speeds or when moving off from a stop, bring an imprecise, uncertain reaction. It could be a function of the dual-clutch transmission, the turbocharged engine, or some combination thereof, but it makes for less precise response than we’d like.
The AMG’s heaping helping of additional output—355 hp and 332 pound-feet—masked the problem, and the GLA45 just felt quick. It’s not quite as quick as its sedan counterpart, but it still rips from 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds (versus 4.4 seconds for the CLA45 AMG). The AMG also snarls at start-up with its own specific exhaust. An even louder sport exhaust is optional.
Mercedes engineers tell us that the GLA’s chassis tuning is designed to closely mimic the CLA’s. The GLA250 we drove steered and handled very much like its sedan counterpart, which is a good thing. The steering is light yet precise, and the vehicle handles more like a sporty compact than a small crossover. That’s even truer of the GLA45 AMG, which adds a sport setting to its stability control system and whose standard all-wheel-drive system includes torque vectoring. The AMG version has a pleasant heft to its helm and carves corners with confidence. Yes, it will understeer if really pushed, but over a long series of mountain switchbacks, we found it easy to develop a rhythm with this baby AMG, which is far more balanced than you’d expect given its drivetrain layout.
There are two caveats here, however. The smooth, sun-kissed roads of southern Spain provided no real test of ride quality, and given the similarity in suspension tuning, we suspect the latest baby Benz will suffer the same ride harshness that afflicts the CLA. The GLA45 AMG, which already is tuned more firmly than the standard car, offers an even-stiffer optional performance suspension that is probably best reserved for those whose commute is pothole-free. Compared with the Euro-spec cars we drove, the U.S. version of the GLA250 will have a 1.2-inch higher ride height—so it can be classified as a light truck by the EPA—which could dull its handling sharpness a bit. (The AMG version does not get the taller ride height for the USA.)
Hitting the dusty trail
With Daimler-Benz board member Thomas Weber at the wheel, we rode in a GLA 4Matic with the raised, U.S.-spec suspension on an off-road course. Weber enthusiastically demonstrated the GLA’s surprising trail-readiness as we climbed and descended grades as steep as 30 percent and traversed ridges that sometimes had the GLA lifting a wheel off the ground. Hill descent control will be standard on our GLA250 4Matic, and there’s also an off-road screen on the Comand system that gives readouts of the percent grade. We still don’t see the GLA as the hardcore off-roader’s choice, but the 4Matic is better off-pavement than you might suspect—and probably better than it needs to be.
More so than its off-road capability, the GLA will likely be defined in the U.S. market by its shape and its price. The GLA rides on the same 106.3-inch wheelbase as the CLA but has had some eight inches snipped from its overall length. The GLA is taller, however, by nearly three and a half inches. Without the sedan’s sloping roofline, the GLA is less cramped inside—its A-pillar doesn’t crowd the driver and rear-seat headroom is adequate for adults. The seating position and interior design, though, are lifted directly from the CLA. The latter conveys the sporty-Mercedes message with the brand’s deep-set twin gauges, chunky three-spoke steering wheel, prominent air vents, and (optional) Comand rotary controller.
With the GLA not arriving in showrooms until this fall, Mercedes-Benz is not ready to release pricing, but we expect the car to come in slightly higher than the equivalent CLA. (In European markets, however, the CLA is more expensive.) Bargain hunters will have to wait for the less-expensive version, the front-wheel-drive GLA250, which won’t arrive until next spring. They also might be distressed to learn that basics like leather, a backup camera, and satellite radio are all extra-cost items.
That situation doesn’t seem to be dimming enthusiasm for the CLA, though. It’s selling quickly—and to buyers that Mercedes says are new to the brand and ten years younger than the average Mercedes owner. We expect the same crowd will be drawn to the GLA. Rather than an SUV or a compact hatch, shoppers are likely to see the GLA the same way they see the CLA: as a relatively affordable Mercedes-Benz, only one with a bit more room inside for people and their stuff. And this perception means this close kin to the CLA looks poised to repeat that model’s success.
2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA
- On sale: Fall 2014
- Price: $35,000/$49,000 (GLA250 4Matic/GLA45AMG, est.)
- Engines: 2.0-liter I-4 turbo, 208 hp, 258 lb-ft; 355 hp, 332 lb-ft
- Transmission: 7-speed automatic
- Drive: Front- or 4-wheel
- Weight: 3318/3329 lb (GLA250 4Matic/GLA45AMG)
- Cargo capacity: 14.9/43.6 cu ft (rear seats up/folded)
- Fuel economy: N/A