2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 First Drive Review: AMG All the Things?
Proof AMG doesn’t always get it right.
AMG all the things! Mercedes-Benz product planners have been in the grip of AMG mania for the best part of a decade now. Once, the storied AMG badge was only applied to a handful of suitably enhanced Mercedes vehicles. Now it seems almost anything with the three-pointed star is a candidate for an AMG makeover: more horsepower, more noise, stiffer suspension, bigger wheels and tires, all served with a soupçon of menace and carbon fiber. It's proven a highly successful formula, with premium-priced AMG models now accounting for 12 percent of all U.S. Mercedes sales. But the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 proves that buying the badge doesn't necessarily mean you're buying a better Benz.
The GLA 35 is, of course, being pitched as the hot version of the redesigned 2021 GLA 250 and 250 4Matic crossover that's just gone on sale in the U.S. Although it's 0.3 inch shorter, the second-generation GLA is a noticeably bigger vehicle than its predecessor in every other dimension. It's 1.2 inches wider overall, the wheelbase has been extended 1.1 inches, the front track is 1.4 inches wider, and the rear track 1.8 inches wider. But the key change is height: The 2021 GLA is 3.6 inches taller. The first-generation GLA looked like a rally racer, with high ground clearance and a low roofline. This new one lumbers into view like any regular SUV.
The GLA 250 shares its platform with the coupelike CLA 250, so the transformation from regular Benz to rip-snorting AMG follows the same formula and uses much of the same hardware as the CLA 35 launched in the U.S. earlier this year.
It starts under the hood. Instead of the regular GLA's 221-hp, 258-lb-ft 2.0-liter turbo four-banger, the GLA 35 gets the AMG-massaged 302-hp, 295-lb-ft version that drives through an AMG Speedshift eight-speed dual-clutch transmission and the AMG Performance 4Matic variable all-wheel-drive system. AMG claims the GLA 35 will nip to 60 mph from a standstill in 5.0 seconds, 1.6 seconds quicker than the regular GLA 4Matic, and is 25 mph faster overall, capable of an electronically limited 155 mph.
Chassis upgrades include AMG springs and shocks. Aluminum lower control arms are used on the strut suspension up front to reduce unsprung mass, and the geometry has been revised to reduce torque steer. The four-link rear axle is rigidly connected to the body via a rear axle carrier. The optional AMG adaptive damping system enables the driver to choose between three suspension control modes.
AMG-specific front steering knuckles feature radially bolted brake calipers—the bolts holding the calipers are perpendicular to the axle rather than parallel, reducing the shearing force on the bolts and thus torsional flex, improving brake feel. The front brakes comprise 13.8-inch rotors and four-piston calipers; at the rear are 13.0-inch rotors and single-piston calipers. The discs are internally ventilated to better dissipate heat and prevent fade, and the silver-painted calipers feature black AMG lettering.
The electric power steering has a variable-ratio rack and offers the choice of Comfort or Sport steering settings. Assistance is reduced at high speeds to improve stability, and it continuously increases at lower speeds to reduce effort, regardless of mode.
It all looks good on paper. On the road, however, it's a different story.
First things first: That little engine is terrific, a punchy, pocket-sized dynamo of a thing that pulls smoothly from near idle and really gets its game on from about 2,400 rpm as an oceanic swell of turbo boost washes over the power and torque curves. Before you know it, the shift graphic in the HUD is flicking from yellow to red, and, if you're in manual mode, you're tugging at the right-hand paddle to select the next gear. But that's about as good as the GLA 35 gets.
The ratios in the eight-speed AMG Speedshift dual-clutch transmission feel too widely spaced. It's not so much of a problem on manual upshifts, where a gearchange generally drops engine speeds back into the meat of the torque curve—all of that 295 lb-ft is available from 3,000 to 4,000 rpm—but the transmission often won't let you manually go back down through the gears as quickly as you'd like on corner entry. It makes the GLA 35 feel two steps behind the tango on a twisty road.
There's plenty of stopping power in the brakes—and you need it, because the GLA 35 arrives at corners in a hurry if you're pressing on. The AMG steering, both in Comfort and Sport mode, is as numb and lifeless as a video game, though. Oh, it's accurate, but you really have no idea what's going on where the rubber meets the road, and that makes it difficult to accurately assess how soon you can go to the throttle in the corner. Get on the gas a fraction of a second too early, and the torquey punch from the engine, combined with the traction from the rear axle, results in jaw-clenching understeer.
Adding to the general sense of discombobulation is a ride that's a relentless carnival of jittery movement on anything but the billiard table-smooth roads you find only in Germany. The AMG suspension is simply too stiff, and the tires—our tester was fitted with the optional 21-inch wheels shod with 235/35 Continental Sport Contact 6s—feel like they're made of solid rubber. Every tiny imperfection in the road surface is instantly transmitted into motion—vertical, side to side, diagonal—all amplified by the fact that you're sitting higher in the GLA than you would be in a regular car. And that's with the suspension set in Comfort mode, not the even stiffer Sport and Sport+.
On real-world roads the GLA chassis feels disappointingly inert despite the AMG fairy dust sprinkled over it. There's an aluminum plate bolted under the engine and two additional diagonal braces at the front of the underbody that are designed to increase the torsional stiffness at the front of the car and improve the precision of turn-in response, but it doesn't help much when the wheels are skittering over every lump and bump in the road. That rigidly mounted rear axle probably helps deliver good lateral g numbers on a test track. But it also delivers noise and impact harshness on ordinary suburban streets, particularly at low speeds.
Visually, the GLA 35 ticks all the AMG boxes. It gets the toothy vertical bar grille inspired by the 1952 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racer as part of a new, angrily grimacing front fascia. There's a small spoiler over the rear window and the obligatory bazooka-caliber exhausts on either side of a faux rear diffuser. Standard wheels are 19-inch dual-five-spoke alloys. If you simply must have a GLA 35, stick with the stock wheel/tire combination rather than opting for the 21s. Your kidneys and spleen will thank you.
The GLA 35's interior is dominated by the wide-screen MBUX display that includes a digital dash and an infotainment interface, a glittery array of vents styled to look like jet engine intakes, the flat-bottomed AMG steering wheel, and sport front seats. The digital dash can be configured in three AMG display styles, Classic, Sport, and Supersport, the latter featuring a central round tach and additional information presented in the form of bars to the left and right. In addition to the usual Comfort, Sport, Sport+, and Individual drive modes, the GLA 35 has a Slippery mode optimized for low-grip, icy road conditions; it reduces engine power and flattens the torque curve, with the transmission delivering earlier upshifts and smoother gear changes.
The regular Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 4Matic, priced from $38,250, is a competent enough premium compact crossover. Although Mercedes-Benz USA hasn't released pricing for the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35, which is expected to arrive in dealers before the end of the year, the price difference between the CLA 250 4Matic and the CLA 35 four-door coupes suggest it will sticker at about $46,500. It's hard to see the value. Sure, the engine's fun. And you get the AMG badge and grille. But the ride is terrible—a long commute on most any U.S. urban freeway in this thing would be miserable—and the chassis and steering are nowhere near engaging enough to compensate.
|2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 4Matic SUV Specifications|
|BASE PRICE||$50,000 (MT est)|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||2.0L/302-hp/295-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed twin-clutch auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||3,700 lb (MT est)|
|L x W x H||174.6 x 72.0 x 62.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.8 sec (MT est)|
|EPA FUEL ECON||24/31/27 mpg (MT est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||140/109 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.73 lb/mile|
|ON SALE||Winter 2020|