The new Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG is a storming four-wheel drive hatchback-turned-SUV; it blurs the lines, serving as both a performance car and small ute. Sister model to the recently introduced CLA45 AMG sedan, the GLA45 AMG is meant to appeal to a small group of enthusiast buyers seeking performance without the compromises that come with it. At least that's Mercedes' line: it suggests the five-door GLA45 AMG is a slightly softer and more practical alternative to the four-door CLA45 AMG.
We'll have to wait until October before it reaches North American showrooms, but AMG folk invited us to Southern Spain last week for an initial drive. When it does land here, it is likely to have a $47,450 sticker price, close to the CLA45, its mechanically identical sibling.
The GLA45 AMG sits atop the GLA lineup and is the fourth member of Benz's new compact-car range, following the A-class, B-class and CLA sedan. Although it shares its siblings' overall look, the GLA's steel body is unique.
Power hails from the same transversely mounted turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder direct-injection gasoline engine used in the CLA45 AMG. With 355 hp, it is the most powerful series production four-cylinder engine money can buy. Torque peaks at 332 lb-ft between 2,250 and 5,000 rpm.
Drive is channeled through an in-house seven-speed dual clutch gearbox and electro-mechanical four-wheel drive system to all four wheels.
Underneath, there is a heavily revised CLA45 chassis with more wheel travel and an inch lower ride height than a standard GLA.
What's it like to drive?
In many ways, the AMG is a more pleasant everyday driver than the CLA45 AMG. The GLA delivers the same rousing performance, but offers a more comfortable ride, better for daily commuting.
Whether this appeals to true enthusiasts remains to be seen; but it helps broaden Benz's performance-car appeal while giving Mercedes a direct competitor to the recently introduced Audi RS Q3.
Step inside the GLA45, and you find a suitably high-quality interior with a unique dashboard and CLA instruments, steering wheel, seats, infotainment and switchgear. The driving position is set a little higher than the CLA's, but the ride height is an inch lower than standard GLA models, so you never feel perched up at true SUV height.
The engine delivers loads of low- to midrange flexibility in the three driving modes, with strong pull and excellent tractability from little more than 1,500 rpm, making it suited to urban crawl and open road. However, the transverse four-cylinder is most impressive from 4,500 rpm and up, where its character hardens and delivers explosive qualities on a planted throttle. It also sounds fantastic: a raspy growl under load and the occasional exhaust crackle.
The seven-speed dual clutch shifts quicker in sport mode, but can be slow to grab ratios at lower engine speeds in eco mode around town. The four-wheel drive system is impressive, seamlessly doling out power efficiently, on wet or dry roads. Mercedes says 62 mph arrives in 4.8 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph.
So it's quick. But arguably more impressive is how AMG chassis engineers delivered a comfortable ride without adversely affecting handling: The GLA 45 uses the CLA 45's same basic MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension, but the small SUV gets a little more wheel travel thanks to its higher ride height and slightly softer springs and dampers. There is greater shock absorption over potholes, and less severe rebound, so the ride feels more settled. The GLA45 also has terrific grip and little body roll, with pleasing, direct and properly weighted steering. This is a secure car. The chassis communicates well enough for you to drive hard into corners without any great fear the tail might come unstuck should you suddenly have to lift. There's also great drive on exit as the four-wheel drive system loads up the rear axle to make the best use of traction. No, it can't quite match the CLA45 for outright handling prowess, but the GLA can go offroad.
Do I want it?
It really depends if you want a car for everyday use offering some special performance, or seek a no-comprise driver's car. If it is the former, you could do a lot worse than the GLA45 AMG. It offers a nice combo of performance, handling and ride comfort.
2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG
BASE PRICE: $47,450 (est.)
DRIVETRAIN: 2.0-liter, 355-hp, 332-lb-ft turbocharged I4; AWD, seven-speed dual-clutch
0-60 mph: 4.7 sec (est.)
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