Can a lower priced entry-level model, one that is more accessible to the masses, still hold the same aspirational value as prestigious, more expensive products?
|Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 355 HP, 332 lb-ft.
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Fuel economy: 23 MPG city, 29 MPG highway
Price: GLA 250 starts at $34,225, GLA 45 AMG begins at $49,225
That is a question Mercedes-Benz asked itself last year with the new CLA-Class sedan and this year, the manufacturer is at it again.
In the never-ending arms race between luxury automobile manufacturers, more models, especially lower priced ones, means more sales. As soon as one manufacture enters a new market segment, the rest are sure to follow.
Welcome the GLA-Class
Like Audi with the recently introduced Q3, Mercedes needs to keep up with the competition by offering a crossover to battle the BMW X1. Enter the 2015 GLA-Class. Now the fifth utility vehicle to be added the Mercedes-Benz family, $31,300 is all it will take to gain entry into the world of Mercedes utility vehicle ownership when the GLA 250 Front-Wheel Drive goes on sale next year.
In the meantime, two models will be offered, the GLA 250 4MATIC and the sportier GLA 45 AMG. By far the smallest crossover in the Mercedes-Benz line-up, the new crossover measures in around 174-inches in length, roughly the same as the Hyundai Tucson.
Unlike the blockier compact GLK crossover, the GLA features a more rounded, contemporary shape. Aerodynamics played a big role in the development of the vehicle as items like the mirror housings, underbody trays, roof lip spoiler and tail lights have all been specially molded to ensure the GLA slips through the air for optimal efficiency.
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One Engine, Two Flavors
Like the CLA sedan it’s based on, the GLA will offer a choice of 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engines in either mild or wild states of tune. Needing to test the fastest and sportiest offering in the GLA family, I got my hands on the GLA 45 AMG that comes equipped with the more potent engine. Pumping 26.1 psi of pressure through the cylinder walls, this 2.0-liter turbo makes an astonishing 355 HP and 332 lb-ft of torque.
As I found with the CLA 45 AMG I tested last year, the high-pressure turbo is a rocket of an engine. For such an incredible amount of torque made from a modest sized engine, turbo lag is kept in check and the GLA 45 builds power quickly. A throaty four-cylinder bellow emits from a two-stage exhaust system, letting the world know the GLA clearly means business. Although it’s quite possibly the worst sounding engine in the AMG family, it still has the signature “bark” when upshifting between gears near redline.
The Dreaded Seven-Speed DCT
A seven-speed dual clutch is the only transmission available and in the AMG, it’s referred to as the SPEEDSHIFT seven-speed DCT. Like I’ve found in other applications, the seven-speed dual clutch is not a great transmission. There is noticeable lag from a dead stop no matter which driving mode is engaged and low speed driving can produce some lethargic responses and jerkiness. Once the 45 AMG is moving, the DCT produces rapid-fire upshifts and downshifts.
Power in GLA can be sent to all four wheels through a new Performance 4MATIC system that features front to rear torque distribution. The GLA, even in AMG guise, remains a front-wheel drive vehicle until slip is detected. Even when some slippage occurs, only up to 50 percent of the torque can be sent to the back wheels. Although it may sound like a performance-robbing layout, I never once felt the front wheels slip or the system hesitate transferring power to the rear while driving with aggression through the mountains of Vermont. On a racetrack result may differ, but will you really track the GLA?
With this drivetrain, Mercedes claims the GLA 45 AMG will fly from 0 to 60 MPH in just 4.8 seconds. And despite the power and performance available in this 3,400 lbs. vehicle, the GLA 45 AMG is still rated to get 23 MPG in the city and 29 MPG on the highway.
Not a Crossover?
Calling this a crossover is a bit of a stretch. Unlike the GLA 250 which is classified as a passenger truck, the AMG version is actually classified as a car in the USA. This is due to the lowered sport suspension and aerodynamic add-ons that puts the 45 AMG’s bumpers too low to be classified as a truck. So, from the factory the GLA 250 will feature side and rear privacy glass while the 45 AMG cannot.
To separate the GLA from non-premium sub-compact crossovers or cars or whatchamacallits, Mercedes has taken strides to make the vehicle quiet inside, thanks to stronger door seals and thicker glass. Aside from the aggressively loud engine, I’m surprised by how much noise makes it into the cabin, but that may have more to do with the poor-condition roads surrounding the Burlington, Vt. area.
Unlike regular GLAs, the 45 AMG has a three-stage stability control system that includes a Sport handling mode between on and off. This allows a bit of slip and rotation for the GLA, without letting the driver get into too much trouble. During some quick cornering through the foothills of Vermont the ESP system never intruded once to ruin my fun.
With quick steering, well controlled body motions and grippy tires, the GLA AMG is wholly capable of dispatching corners with impressive speed. But, like the CLA 45 AMG it’s based on, there is something missing from the driving experience. The GLA handles it business in a cold, unconnected way that robs the driver of some joy that should be found in a vehicle of this caliber.
Well Equipped and Liveable
As should be expected even in this pseudo baby-crossover, the GLA comes with the usual Mercedes luxuries like optional leather seats, matte wood trim, galvanized metallic or carbon fibre accents. As well, all the latest safety and entertainment technologies are available in the GLA.
The 45 AMG comes fitted with Recaro front seats that are very supportive and highly adjustable, but may not fit all body types. With 34 inches of rear legroom, even six-foot tall adults can fit in the back seas unless you opt for the optional panoramic sunroof, which drastically decreases headroom. For the GLA’s size, the cargo hatch is surprisingly usable for how little space there actually is back there.
With the GLA being a stepping-stone into the Mercedes-Benz crossover family, the company hopes it will create a lot of lifelong customers. Likewise, the AMG model is by far the cheapest way into a Mercedes performance division utility vehicle at just over $49,000 after destination charges.
Although it doesn’t feel as special as other AMG models, the GLA is still fast and has the style and badge prescience some people are looking for. Safe to say that like the CLA, Mercedes will sell a ton of these small quasi crossovers and further increase the company’s stake in the never-ending luxury automaker arms race.