There comes a point in life where even car enthusiasts have to concede that despite having four doors, a sporty sedan such as a Subaru WRX STI or a Mitsubishi Evo just don’t fit the bill as a family car regardless of how many doors they both have.
While Subaru used to offer a five door hatch version of the WRX, there weren’t enough sales to justify the engineering costs. With the Ford Focus no longer sold in North America, the closest an enthusiast can get to a performance five door hatchback is arguably the 2021 Mazda3 all-wheel-drive five door hatch with the optional turbocharged 2.0-litre four cylinder engine borrowed from the CX-5 and CX-9 SUVs.
Mazda stops short of calling the Mazda 3 Hatch a true performance car though, and the torquey turbocharged engine, as good as it is, lacks the character needed to fill that role anyway.
So what is one to do when looking for a blend of more luxury, a carlike seating position, a sporty hatchback driving experience, but also additional space for family activities and the associated accoutrement?
Look no further than the increasing plethora of sportier crossover SUVs from luxury manufacturers such as the subject of this review, the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45.
The previous GLA45 was a bit of an odd design with a semi-butch interior but yet small hatch dimensions. This time, the GLA is closer to what you’d expect size-wise compared to other conventional crossovers.
The move seems to be a smart one since both the Mercedes-AMG A35 and A45 five door hot hatchbacks are both offered in Canada (but not in the USA), along with the A35/45 sedan. By making it a bit bigger, the GLA differentiates itself from the hatches and is able to command more of a price premium as well.
Compared to its predecessor, the GLA now rides on Mercedes’ new MFA2 (modular front-wheel-drive architecture) and is more than 10 centimetres higher than its predecessor even though it’s 1.5 centimetres shorter. The AMG-specific Panamericana radiator grille with vertical slats identifies the newcomer as a member of the AMG Performance family.
Like the A45 and CLA45, AMG’s 2.0-litre turbocharged four cylinder engine makes an appearance here, delivering its maximum output of 415 horsepower at 6,750 rpms and 369 lb-ft of torque from 5,000 to 5,250 rpms. The engine is no mean feat as it is the most powerful production four-cylinder engine currently for sale.
It is hand built in an entirely new production line at the Affalterbach AMG engine production facility, where Mercedes-AMG has raised the “One Man, One Engine” principle.
As with the A45 and CLA45, power flows to all four wheels via an eight-speed AMG Speedshift dual-clutch automatic transmission (the lesser “35” AMGs only get a seven-speed). Although primarily front-wheel drive biased, the GLA45’s 4MATIC+ all-wheel-drive system is able to vector power at the rear from side-to-side via a pair of multi-plate clutches at the rear axle.
Official 0-100 km/hr times come in at only 4.3 seconds, only 0.4 seconds behind the lighter A45 hatch.
Like the non-AMG GLAs, the steering is variable-ratio and electrically assisted. Stopping is courtesy of significantly uprated brakes – chunky six-piston calipers and 360mm discs up front, and single-piston, 330mm rears.
My test vehicle was fitted with the handsome 21-inch two toned alloy wheels but 20-inch wheels are standard.
Does it serve as its advertised purpose as a “hot” crossover?
Over two decades later after AMG released its first high-performance luxury SUV, the ML55 AMG, many enthusiasts struggle to see the appeal of large monster-engined vehicles.
Those who are in this camp should feel more at home with the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 being smaller, more athletic, and a more focused driver’s machine versus its larger cousins. It’s essentially a crossover version of the handsome CLA four door coupe.
Compared to the first generation GLA45, this latest model looks like it has grown up a bunch with its short front and rear overhangs Yet, the GLA’s designers have stayed true to its character with its muscular proportions, contoured side profile, and visually compact greenhouse.
On the inside
The interior of the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 is almost identical to that of its GLA250 sibling with its high-quality turbine looking air vents and the high tech looking MBUX infortainment system dominating the dashboard.
The seating position for both the driver and the front passenger is higher and more upright than in the predecessor model with the driver and front passenger sitting 140 mm higher than in the A-Class. In comparison to the previous model, all-around visibility has also been improved, mainly due to an optimized cross-section for the roof pillars, which now block out less of the surrounding area.
Mercedes has done a commendable version of making the GLA45’s cabin feel premium despite its relatively lowly position on the AMG vehicle line-up. While it may not be anywhere as opulent as the GLE63s coupe, the interior still feels upscale and special. Moreover, it feels different enough from the non-AMG GLA.
The excellent multi-coloured ambient lighting system helps to bring some theatre to the otherwise plain interior. My test vehicle was fitted with the excellent AMG Performance front seats which lend to the upscale AMG vibe. Their shape wraps around you and holds you into position and are much more comfortable than the previous generation GLA45’s performance seats.
Despite being an entry-level AMG model, Mercedes hasn’t left out any of the tech goodies found on even the top-end AMG vehicles. Drivers can choose between the three AMG display styles of “Classic”, “Sport” and “Supersport” for the instrument cluster.
The “Supersport” mode is particularly striking with a central, round rev counter and additional information presented in the form of bars to the left and right of the rev counter: with a three-dimensional perspective, they reach far into the background to an artificial horizon.
In the AMG menu, the driver can call up various special displays such as gear speed indicator, Warm-up, Set-up, G-Meter, RACETIMER and Engine Data.
Onboard race engineer
Mercedes even offers the GLA45 with a system called “AMG Trace Pace”, purported to be a virtual race engineer.
Integrated into the MBUX infotainment system, the system is designed to be used when navigating a race circuit.
It continuously monitors more than 80 vehicle-specific data points (e.g. GPS position, speed, acceleration) and displays lap and sector times, as well as the respective difference from a reference time. Specific display elements are shown in green or red, and the driver is able to see at a glance whether they are faster or slower than their best time.
Well-known race tracks such as the Nürburgring or Spa Francorchamps, are already programmed within the system, and drivers can record their own circuits. The map display can even be switched from 2D to 3D and updated online.
The MBUX Augmented Reality function also allows the ideal line of a stored race track to be displayed on the multimedia display or optional head-up display, allowing the driver to improve lap times with a virtual instructor on board.
How does it drive?
For the most part, the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 feels very much like the hot hatchback upon which its based. I found the higher ride height and seating position better to navigate around the sea of SUVs and pick-up trucks in day-to-day traffic with little of the penalty from the higher centre of gravity.
AMG extensively reinforced the body shell of the GLA45 compared to the GLA250, with a lightweight aluminium plate bolted underneath the engine to increase the front end’s torsional rigidity. Front and rear underbody diagonal struts further improve rigidity by reducing twisting of the body shell during cornering, braking, and load changes.
There is very little roll and slack in the chassis, and the GLA45 feels eager and alert. The adjustable steering weight has much more feel than the first gen GLA45 and the rack is very quick.
The 4 piston front calipers and internally ventilated and perforated brakes are equally responsive where only a light touch of the pedal is needed to stop the GLA. Opting for the optional AMG Track Pack, as fitted to my vehicle, and the GLA45 is fitted with an even larger braking system featuring red 6 piston front calipers and 360 x 36 mm brake discs up front. Non-track pack cars are fitted with 4 piston front calipers and slightly smaller 350 x 34 mm rotors.
You might expect the GLA to ride rather harshly due to its re-enforcements and taut chassis but you’d be wrong. Aside from oodles more space, you enjoy the same immediacy from the A45, but with a slightly more compliant ride.
None of the suspension components have been carried over from the previous generation vehicle, and the new McPherson strut front suspension and 4-link rear suspension is much more comfortable. Adaptive dampening, aka AMG Ride Control, allows the driver the choice of three different suspension tuning modes, from Comfort to Sporty to Dynamic.
The system operates automatically, adapting the damping forces for each wheel according to the driving situation and road conditions. This happens within milliseconds and is infinitely variable, with a wide spread of damping characteristics.
Despite riding 40 mm higher than an A45, the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 is good enough to make you question how much hot hatch or how much SUV you really need in your life. It is more responsive than its main rival, the 2021 BMW X2 M35i and even has more space.
With much of the technology shared from the larger and much more expensive AMG models, the GLA45 offers enough SUV versatility combined with hot hatch-ness to make it a credible candidate for a performance daily driver.
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