EXPERT REVIEW

2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 Review: Upright and Awkward

mercedes-amg-gla45-2021-01-angle-exterior-front-white 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 | Cars.com photo by Aaron Bragman
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Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman grew up in the Detroit area, comes from an automotive family and is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Email Aaron Bragman

The verdict: If you for some reason need a super-quick, tech-laden, very expensive small crossover that sits high and doesn’t feel terribly sporty (aside from rapid acceleration), the Mercedes-AMG GLA45 is the one for you.

Versus the competition: Few automakers make high-performance SUVs this small; most are a class larger (BMW X3 M, Audi SQ5, Alfa Romeo Stelvio QV), making the GLA45 more distinctive — but not more appealing.

Remember sports sedans? How you could buy a compact, high-powered, low-to-the-ground sedan or hatchback that didn’t have a lot of room inside, but delivered an amazing number of smiles per miles thanks to robust acceleration and quick reflexes?

“OK boomer,” as the kids would say. Shoppers today clamor for SUVs and crossovers — which are basically tall wagons based on not-terribly-enjoyable vehicles — not sports sedans. So instead of delivering sports sedans, the trend today is for automakers to deliver vehicles like the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45. And I have to say it: Each new high-performance crossover equipped with aggressive tires, crazy track-oriented electronic lap timers and other performance-oriented frippery feels more ridiculous than the last. These cars will never turn a wheel in anger on a racetrack; no driving enthusiast is clamoring to drive a tall, high-chaired wagon on a road course. But apparently there are plenty of buyers eager to spend money on a badged-up, super-quick, performance-branded crossover.

Related: 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA250: Higher Profile, Higher Price

It’s Not Very Ugly

The GLA is the crossovered version of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. It’s taller but has a similar footprint, and it maintains the familiar overall look of the latest Mercedes SUVs. There’s a central wide-mouth grille flanked by slim LED headlights out front, with a plain but inoffensive bodyside and individual taillights in back. It’s a surprisingly generic look — one that’s been copied by other automakers (notably, South Korean ones) but soldiers on.

AMG is Mercedes-Benz’s performance division — or at least, it used to be. Now they’ll put the badge on just about anything in the lineup once they’ve applied a certain performance formula to turn it into a quicker, more aggressive and ostensibly sportier — if increasingly less exclusive — version of itself.

Mercedes adds its own styling touches to anything with an AMG badge, and the GLA45 is no exception. There’s a more aggressive grille and bumper combo, fender flares to cover the wider 19-inch wheels and tires, and dual exhaust out back. It’s not a bad-looking effect, and it does give the boring GLA some additional street presence. You can even opt for a ridiculous wing on the back (which my test vehicle thankfully did not have).

Perhaps the GLA45 would benefit from not being painted white, which made the one I drove look like a rental Hyundai. An all-black scheme would positively transform this awkward hatch/wagon into a more convincing sports machine. As tested, though, it’s nothing to get your heart racing.

Quick but Problematic Around Town

The heart of the GLA45 is its revised, hand-built turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which Mercedes says is the most powerful four-cylinder engine ever put into a production car. It cranks out an eye-popping 382 horsepower and 351 pounds-feet of torque, which is more grunt than many naturally aspirated V-8 engines produce. It’s mated to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that sends power to all four wheels; all-wheel drive is standard.

Mercedes says the engine is good for a 4.3-second sprint from 0-60 mph, and based on my seat-of-the-pants testing, there’s no reason to doubt that claim. The GLA45 feels incredibly quick when you mash the throttle. The problem is that the transmission doesn’t really want to accommodate this kind of behavior, so you don’t end up with a vehicle that feels nimble, sprightly and agile. Instead, it feels tepid and lethargic — unless you’ve dialed all the sport modes to maximum, which is not conducive to around-town driving.

mercedes-amg-gla45-2021-05-exterior-trim-emblem-white 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 | Cars.com photo by Aaron Bragman

The problem, I’m convinced, remains the dual-clutch transmission’s behavior. It feels like it gets confused when you slow down for an urban street corner, then get back on the throttle if you decide you don’t need to stop; it hesitates for a half-second when you go from coast-down to power-on. It makes the accelerator pedal feel like it’s connected by rubber bands, with powertrain response coming a half-step behind your right foot’s request. It makes for a very frustrating around-town driving experience. It’s something I’ve observed in other versions of Mercedes’ compact front-drive platforms, and it’s apparently not been solved in this latest go-round. It remains disappointing.

The rest of the GLA45 experience is somewhat confusing. If you’re looking for a more powerful, more aggressively styled SUV that delivers powerful acceleration, you’re in the right spot. But the GLA45’s steering isn’t what I’d call terribly communicative; it’s highly damped, and while steering effort seems to be adjustable through various AMG modes, steering feel is never all that great.

Ride quality, on the other hand, is excellent, even with big 19-inch AMG wheels. Suspension firmness can be adjusted, and there are even track modes for the GLA45. That just strikes me as daft: Nobody is taking an SUV to a track day, making all the engineering cost and effort that went into making and tuning these systems just silly. The GLA45 might be driven aggressively on the street, but an SUV is what you drive to a track day, not for a track day. After spending a week with this one, I had no desire whatsoever to drive it on a road circuit.

Comfort and Luxury Abound

What the GLA45 really seems to be about is separating the wealthy from their money, not being an entertaining track monster for driving enthusiasts. It’s all about status symbols and badge envy — and Mercedes knows it all too well. The interior of the GLA45 proves this out: It’s loaded with luxurious appointments, beautiful switchgear, attractive seats and racy details. I maintain that Mercedes remains the benchmark for luxury car interiors, and the GLA45 is yet another example of the company’s aesthetic in action. Lots of soft-touch materials combine with real metal trim and racy leather upholstery to create an inviting, comfortable and highly attractive interior. You never really wonder why the car is so expensive when you’re in a Mercedes; looking around, touching everything, moving switches and pushing buttons all serve to reinforce the fact that you’re in something special.

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The front seats are very comfortable, even if getting into them can be a bit awkward. One hallmark of Mercedes’ subcompact front-wheel-drive platform is that the B-pillar is quite far forward, meaning you have to snake your body around it to get in or out of the front seats. Once inside, there’s plenty of space for adjustment in any direction, with tons of headroom overhead despite the panoramic moonroof. The backseat is less comfortable, as legroom is compromised by the GLA’s not-terribly-large footprint. Headroom isn’t a problem, but you’re reminded this is indeed a subcompact-class crossover; it’s not big in there. It’d be fine for a young couple or new family, but really, it’s meant to be a starter model for people getting into Mercedes’ lineup.

That said, it’s a perfectly adequate urban runabout, with a cargo area that can accommodate bulkier items and space for bigger gear with the backseat folded down. The latest version of Mercedes’ MBUX multimedia system remains an impressively sophisticated unit, featuring versatile voice controls, augmented reality icons for the navigation system, and even a feature that shows you traffic lights when you come to a stop — in case you’re too close and can’t see them out the windshield.

Shop the 2021 Mercedes-Benz AMG GLA 45 near you

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Mercedes-Benz Certified
2021 Mercedes-Benz AMG GLA 45 AMG GLA 45 SUV
7,287 mi.
$63,969
CPO Warrantied

What to Compare It With?

Finding competitors for the GLA45 is not as easy as you might think. Its starting price is $55,550 (all prices include destination fee), and adding options like specialty paint, a leather interior, the panoramic roof and a fancy multimedia package drives the price up quickly. My as-tested price for a Digital White Metallic model with a black leather interior rang up at $62,150. That’s a massive amount of money for a subcompact SUV, even if the GLA45 does make up for it with a considerable amount of technology, luxurious trimmings and, let’s be honest, badge prestige.

The BMW X2 M35i comes close in size and mission, but it can’t quite match the GLA45’s numbers. It features a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder making 301 hp — that’s a significant 81 hp less than the Mercedes, though it also features a lot of the adjustable suspension tech and adjustability that the GLA45 does. It starts at a lower price point than the GLA45 — nearly $10,000 less, reminding you there’s a 302-hp Mercedes-AMG GLA35 that matches it closely in power and price (and that it’s a better idea). Audi has no answer to the GLA45 (or even the GLA35), and the Jaguar E-Pace 300 Sport is similarly sized but, again, not as powerful. The Porsche Macan is simply a class bigger than the GLA, matching up better with the Mercedes-Benz GLC.

The GLA45 is a comfortable, luxurious and very expensive small crossover with a seriously powerful engine but flawed power delivery, and a stunning amount of technology meant to let you drive it quickly on a racetrack — but it will almost certainly never see a racetrack and doesn’t really have any competitors. All that leaves us scratching our heads as to who this vehicle is for: Is it drivers who simply want more of what lesser GLAs deliver in terms of power and speed? Someone who wants the bragging rights of owning the sportiest, most powerful tiny family hauler on the market? For these people, the GLA45 will be perfect. For the rest of us, it’s just unnecessary.

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