Car reviews - Mercedes-AMG - GLA45 - S
Ballistic engine, superb cornering prowess for an SUV, exhaust, MBUX system, exterior styling
Room for improvement
Rough ride quality, NVH issues, some cheap-looking cabin trims, turbo lag, steep asking price
Mercedes-AMG throws down small SUV gauntlet to Audi RS Q3 with new GLA45 S
28 Jan 2021
WITH the rise in popularity of small SUVs over the past decade, it has brought increased competition to the performance SUV sector, even at the more affordable end with models such as the Hyundai Kona N and Volkswagen T-Roc R due to launch soon.
However the real heavy-hitters of the performance small SUV lie at the top of the segment. While the BMW X2 M35i and Mini Countryman JCW can claim hot hatch status, the title of segment king is realistically fought between two models – the Audi RS Q3 and Mercedes-AMG GLA45 S.
Both released in new-generation guise in the last six months, the German rivals are both supremely powerful and capable, with the AMG featuring both a higher kilowatt count and pricetag.
We took the GLA45 S out on the road to find out if it has what it takes to rule the performance crossover roost.
First drive impressions
Despite being an all-new model with a fresh design, the signature visual elements of the old GLA45 have been carried over, namely the chrome-rimmed 21-inch alloy wheels, front apron aero fins and chunky rear spoiler, which combine with the red brake callipers, quad-exit exhaust, Panamericana grille and more aggressive bodykit to signify its performance intentions.
We have to admit, the juxtaposition of a boxy small SUV body with tall doors and black trim around the skirts and bumpers does make for a curious combination against the performance-oriented body parts, however it does work in a unique way.
Moving inside the cabin, the GLA45 S features more or less the same interior as its platform-sharing A45 and CLA45 cousins, starting with the dual-screen MBUX infotainment system and digital instrument cluster.
We’ve never been fans of the stuck-on-tablet look of Mercedes’ infotainment screens, however the systems themselves are easy to operate with a fairly simple layout aided by a number of shortcut buttons and a (slightly fiddly) touchpad.
The MBUX’s voice recognition system is also the best and most intuitive among its competitors.
For those who don’t prefer Mercedes’ system, wired Apple CarPlay/Android Auto is also on offer.
The cabin itself is somewhat of a mixture, with some high-quality elements such as the stylish ambient interior lighting and turbine air vents, Dinamica microfibre sports steering wheel, lovely Burmester sound system, colour head-up display, sunroof and leather seats with contrast yellow stitching.
In particular the steering wheel feels chunky and comfortable in the hands, with a wide array of buttons that can configure the infotainment and instrument cluster screens, cruise control functions, audio playback, drive mode selector and brushed metal paddle shifters.
However there is an underlying sense of cheapness on some parts of the cabin, such as the hard plastics used on the B-pillars, door bins and door handle surrounds, along with fake-looking faux carbon-fibre trim on the dashboard and doors.
We understand most of the money on the GLA45 S has gone towards its performance credentials, however for a small SUV priced at $107,035 plus on-roads (and nearly $15,000 more than the outgoing model), we would have liked to see some more premium materials adorning the cabin.
Head and legroom for front passengers is ample (however the seats are on the narrow side), while taller rear passengers may feel a little tight on legroom. Surprisingly, there is no drop-down centre armrest or cupholder for rear passengers.
With a relatively low boot floor, 435 litres of cargo space is on offer, expanding to a healthy 1430L with the 40:20:40 split-fold rear seats stowed.
One of the undeniable highlights of the new GLA45 S is the demonic engine hiding under the bonnet, which claims the title of most powerful 2.0-litre four-cylinder on the market.
Tuned to produce a manic 310kW at 6750rpm and 500Nm from 5000-5250rpm (an improvement of 30kW/25Nm), the GLA45 S drives all four wheels through an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with variable torque distribution.
As expected, the performance of the GLA45 S is raw and visceral, with the engine best suited to high-intensity acceleration and open-road touring.
When set in sport mode and with the revs sitting around 3000rpm, the GLA45 S is akin to a rabid dog trying to break from its leash, happily revving to redline and shunting forward with each gunshot-like gear change.
With both peak power and torque available high in the rev range, the engine likes to be spooled up, however a serious burst of power is still available lower down.
As expected of an AMG, the variable exhaust system also provides an enviable soundtrack for the four-cylinder mill, with a throaty and raspy note that claps like thunder on upshifts.
The eight-speed dual-clutch auto provides lightning-quick gear changes, and does its best work when the engine is being pushed through the twisty stuff.
Given how highly strung the engine is, it is not quite as suited to regular, everyday stop-start driving that it will likely spend the majority of its life doing.
Throttle response is not as linear as we would like it to be in Comfort mode, with some unwanted turbo lag that forces you to give the accelerator pedal a good thrust off the line before backing off as the turbocharger spools up and delivers its plentiful dollop of power.
Likewise, the dual-clutch auto is less suited to low-speed driving, suffering some of the same problems as other DCTs such as low speed elasticity and a lag in power delivery when restarting the engine following an engine auto-stop when arriving at a standstill.
Given its taller ride height and boxier shape compared to its A45 hatch sibling, the GLA45 S started with a dynamic disadvantage straight out of the gate, however we are pleased to report its SUV dimensions have not prevented it from being an engaging dynamic experience, even if it does feel a little more tippy through the corners due to that higher centre of gravity.
When the myriad dynamics systems are set to their sportiest limits, the GLA45 eats up bends with a level of steering precision usually reserved for more expensive performance cars, with the AWD system ensuring a perfect balance that eliminates over- or understeer.
We were particularly impressed by the little SUV’s ability to accelerate out of corners, with the front wheels providing enough grip for the car to hold its line when exiting corners at speed and with the accelerator at least half depressed.
Steering is precise and well weighted, creating a sense of communication between driver and car, while the extra chassis bracing on the stiffer AMG model can also be felt and contributes to its handling abilities.
While the ride and handling characteristics of the GLA45 are perfectly suited to twisty back country roads, the day-to-day ride quality does suffer somewhat, with an overly firm suspension tune that does not provide a great deal of relief from poorer surfaces.
A more relaxed damper tune when in Comfort mode would certainly be welcome, especially compared to Audi who excels at providing a stark contrast in ride comfort between the ‘comfort’ and ‘dynamic’ settings on its RS vehicles.
Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels could have also been better, with high-speed driving – especially on coarse-chip roads – providing an uncomfortable level of tyre noise coming up through the cabin, which would surely become an inconvenience on long trips.
Overall the GLA45 S is a devastating pocket rocket that brings some serious dynamic prowess to the small SUV segment.
Its engine and handling certainly justify its AMG badge, however buyers must be prepared for a car that is aggressive and visceral all the time, with the stiff suspension and highly-strung four-pot meaning the GLA45 S is not as well suited to being an everyday cruiser as some of its rivals.
But hey – you don’t walk into an AMG showroom looking for a comfortable runabout, do you?
The Road to Recovery podcast series
Model release date: 1 December 2020
All car reviews
Click to share