2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 Review: First Drive

2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 Review: First Drive

It now looks and feels like an SUV.

The 2021 Mercedes GLA looks different. You can’t put your finger on it at first, but a quick glance at the spec-sheet is evidence enough that your intuition was indeed correct. It has grown but not in the way you would expect. The GLA of old was little more than a hopped-up A-Class. To be fair, it was in tune with the times, when any hatch could be called an SUV, so long as it was on stilts. But this 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA, dances to a different tune and looks a lot better doing it.

It is based on the same MFA2 platform as the new GLB and the upgrade becomes more apparent the closer you look at it. The new GLA is far from a revolutionary new offering but the evolution is significant enough for anyone to notice. Plus, as the ever-expanding SUV market grows further, evolution is only natural.  

Look How You’ve Grown 

The GLA looks more like an SUV now. More importantly, it looks like it was designed to be an SUV in the first place despite it sharing its platform with the A-Class as well. It looks raised and more upright in profile and boxier than the old car. The 2021 GLA is wider by 1.2 inches, the track also increases by 1.8 inches. It is also 3.9 inches taller than the crossover it replaces. The wider track and a taller profile are the primary reasons it now looks more like an SUV. 

Ironically though, it is 0.6 inches shorter in length while the wheelbase has grown by 1.1 inches. All these changes transfer quite well to the cabin. You get almost an inch more headroom in the front. But the biggest change is the 4.5-inch increase in the rear legroom. It really adds to the overall feeling of space despite the rather compact greenhouse. 

I could go on about the design but that is a subjective matter. I will however say this, it looks far better in person than it does in photographs. And it looks a lot more mature than it used to. 

Perches And Screens

 

The maturity carries over to the cabin with an added dash of thoughtfulness. Plus, here another SUV-esque attribute comes to the fore. The driver’s seat is placed a fair bit higher than in the old car. The X156’s seating position was quite sporty. Whereas in this, even on the lowest setting you get a good view of your surroundings. I think the idea here was to give the driver a commanding driving position as you would in an SUV.

The large front windshield and unobtrusive A-pillars on either side provide a good field of vision. I only wish the wing mirrors matched that aspect. They are tiny and require constant adjustment depending on where you’re driving. The seats too, require some extra cushioning. About two hours is the maximum you can spend in them before your legs start to tire out.

The cabin is a considerable upgrade compared to the old car. It will be a deja vu for people familiar with the new Mercedes-Benz interiors and that is a good thing. There is barely any visible evidence of hard plastic around the driver’s perch. The dash is covered in soft-feel plastic and the door panels are draped in fabric and what looks like leather. It isn’t spartan like the old car and neither is it outright luxurious. It walks a fine line of balance. The center dash is clutter-free as most functions are taken care of by the MBUX system (an entire section on it next). Redundant buttons on the center console along with the new trackpad adds a touch of sophistication and convenience. The functions are also found elsewhere in the Merc lineup. 

SEE ALSO: 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB 250 Review: Scratching the Niche

I’m a firm believer of physical buttons for certain functions and a sucker for well-designed toggle switches. And the GLA has both. The controls for the climate control aid tactility and are befitting of a luxury car. Plus, the ambient lighting system really enhances the in-cabin experience when the light turns to dusk. And you can choose between 64 different shades which is rather cool. 

Unfortunately, though, most of the equipment you would want are optional extras. The must-have MBUX 10.25-inch screens are a part of the Premium Package. Although Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard in the US, in Canada, both are only available with the Premium package which costs $3,600 CAD extra but also includes blind-spot assist, ambient lighting package and voice control. In the US, the package costs $1,750 but the US spec also offers voice control and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay as standard. 

Ambient lighting, however, is a $310 option, if you want wireless charging, that’s $200 extra. The Burmester sound system which our tester had  is $850 extra. If you want active drive assists like active blind-spot assist or lane-keeping assist or adaptive cruise control, you need to pay $1,700 extra for the Driver assistance package. In Canada, you pay $1,900 CAD (Intelligent Drive package). 

MBUX 

Mercedes-Benz User Experience is certainly one of the better infotainment systems out there. It is interactive, comes with truly great display quality, and is quite intuitive, relatively. It takes time getting used to if you’re new to the system but you do get used to it fairly quickly if you persevere. The twin screens, especially the instrument cluster is heavily customizable. So much so that sometimes you can’t go back to the menu you just closed. It’s like switching to Android from iOS.

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It comes with two sets of touch controls on the steering wheel. The left set of controls operate the instrument cluster while the right ones control the infotainment system. You can also operate the infotainment via touch or track pad but the steering mounted controls work just as well. You can choose between a host of different clocks or even display the clock instead of the speedometer. Both the speedo and tacho have unique designs and can display vehicle information that is not interchangeable. For example, you can display the media on the speedo only and the map on the tacho only. You could even display the entire map on the instrument cluster as well. As I said, like an Android phone. 

The steering mounted touch controls can be a bit distracting while driving, they work quite well once you get used to them. The only issue is, it’s hard to get the scroll movements right in a moving vehicle, so you inadvertently swipe up instead of right or left and vice versa. Also, scrolling between the two meters and the middle or home interface takes time to get used to. 

On the Road and Ice 

With 221 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0-liter motor, the output is more than adequate for the compact GLA. It offers a strong mid-range with peak torque available from just 1,800 revs. The progress is swift and the GLA feels quick on its feet. Off the line, the transition from first to second is jerky on the eight speed DCT. But post that there is no retaliation from the gearbox till you hit eighth. 

Burying the throttle at higher gears tends to catch the gearbox unawares. But thanks to the 258 lb-ft of torque you seldom find the need to do it. A strong mid-range grunt also makes the GLA a competent cruiser and good on mileage. Plus, the four core driving modes, Eco, Comfort, Sport and Off-road (standard with 4 Matic) significantly change the SUV’s character.

Eco and comfort modes require the throttle to be more deliberate while in Sport, the throttle is at its sharpest. And the slightest inputs result in rapid acceleration. The gearbox seems to respond to the driving modes as well. In Off-road, the throttle becomes quite deliberate again but the biggest change is to the differential which splits the power 50/50 between the two axles. In Sport mode, it operates with a 70/30 front/rear bias. 

I did get the full taste of the off-road mode on our way to our overnight spot. As the weather worsened, we went from snow squall to snow squall. The last 10 miles were mostly on snow-covered back roads of Canada. While I saw some bigger vehicles struggle, the GLA did not. So it can certainly handle the snow, even on dual season tires. Having said that, you still need to be careful at the wheel. 

It drives like an SUV as much as it looks like one. Where the old one still somewhat held on its hatchback-ish driving dynamics, the 2021 GLA lets go of them completely. There is a fair amount of body roll in the corners, even at sedate speeds. That’s not to say it handles badly, it just means you will need to be careful during high-spirited driving stints. It just doesn’t feel as comfortable in the twisties as we had hoped. The steering though feels light at sedate speeds and weighs up quickly as speeds climb. 

Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 

Apart from the 250, we were lucky enough to have a go in the AMG GLA 35 but also unlucky enough to drive it in the aforementioned, horrid driving conditions. The same 2.0-liter turbocharged four-pot powers the AMG as well but here it makes 302 hp and 295 lb-ft of max torque, the same as the AMG A 35. Needless to say it is faster than the GLA 250, much faster. 

The sonic taps open depending on the mode you’re in. Driving modes are similar to the 250 but instead of Off-road, you get Sport+. You can cycle through them via a circular scroller on the flat-bottom AMG steering wheel. on the opposite side, you have two buttons. One toggles the traction control on or off and the other can be set to operate the AMG driving dynamics or the suspension settings. 

At full clip, the engine has a rorty base and a short overrun every time you upshift or downshift. Operating the paddles lacks feel as it’s akin to pushing buttons, it just doesn’t feel organic. But the results are impressive as the seven-speed DCT is very responsive. There is no delay from the clutch when you bury the throttle and the GLA 35 takes off immediately building speed rapidly. The acceleration, while not kick in the head fast, is enough to raise the heart rate. Try as you may, but the gearbox never hesitates and always seems in control. 

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The steering even in comfort and sedate speeds is on the heavier side. This is not a complaint, just an observation. it feels more deliberate and requires some effort to operate even at sedate speeds. The suspension feels much softer compared to its A-Class sibling and the suspension settings actually work. Even at its stiffest, the suspension is pliant enough to handle minor undulations. In comfort, it is almost as supple as the GLA 250. Unfortunately, due to weather conditions, I couldn’t discern its cornering ability.

The cabin is almost identical to that of the 250 but the AMG does get some special treatment. The flat-bottom AMG steering wheel is unique to the GLA 35 in the GLA range. So are the red stitching on the seats and Alcantara trim on the door panels. The AMG even gets added functions in the MBUX interface. There is an AMG performance function that allows the driver to see the boost level from the turbos and the power and torque used at any given time. 

Verdict: 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250

The 2021 GLA is a massive upgrade over the previous generation crossover which was little more than a propped up hatch. It now comes with a cabin that can you can call luxurious. The entry point Mercedes-Benz SUV no longer feels like the cheapest option. Which is great.

But, most noteworthy options like the MBUX system, in the case of Canada, even Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are optional extras. Most driver assist systems and even the leather upholstery are all optional which raises the price considerably. The 4MATIC we tested (without the Driver Assistance package) ran to $49,655 which is a steep ask for an entry-level model.  Yes, it gains a considerable amount of space and utility, but in the trade-off, it has lost its unique attribute, handling.

If you are willing to part with that kind of money, for about $2,500 more you can opt for the Mercedes GLB 250. If you opt for the two-wheel-drive (US only), you can shave off another  $2,000 from the price. It is identical to the GLA in almost every way except that it can seat seven. It is unique to the market as it is the only luxury sub-compact on the market.  The only argument for buying the 2021 GLA is that you really, really want one.

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