By Amos Kwon
on 2.24.14
Photo by Amos Kwon

Americans are pretty clear about who we are and what we like, and though we don’t much care for being pigeonholed, we’re nothing if not consistent. That’s why it’s no big surprise that small crossovers are the most popular automotive segment in America. What is surprising is how far those vehicles have come. No longer just a lame substitute for a real SUV, crossovers have grown in terms of quality, capability and available amenities such that there seems virtually no end in sight. Mercedes-Benz has been busier than just about anyone lately when it comes to redesigning their lineup and introducing new models, and the GLA Class is the latest to come down the Teutonic pike to fill this new crossover mold. We made our way to Málaga, Spain to take two iterations out for a spin: the GLA250 4Matic and the zippier GLA45 AMG.

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The GLA is based on the new CLA Class sedan, so it’s not large by any means. Even the U.S.-spec height, increased by 1.2 inches, seems diminutive. It’s built to take a bite out of market share that’s now occupied by the likes of the Land Rover Evoque and the BMW X1. You see, we want our upscale European utes for pavement-only driving like we want to wear high-end performance gear without actually sweating in it. And Mercedes-Benz knows its target market well. The GLA is more curvaceous than the X1 and nearly as stylish as the Evoque (that’s a tall order, of course). On the shores of Málaga where tourists roam sleepily at mid-morning, all eyes were on the GLA like a new supermodel the world hadn’t seen yet. Estimated pricing for the GLA250 4Matic is $34,500, and the GLA45 AMG is $50,500, which is midpack amongst its competitors: the 250 4Matic is priced just above the X1 xDrive28i and several thousand less than the base Evoque. Apparently, the fancier your sheetmetal, the bigger the ticket.

We want our upscale European utes for pavement-only driving like we want to wear high-end performance gear without actually sweating in it.

The GLA250’s efficient M270 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is turbocharged and direct-injected, good for 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. The engine feels spritely, if not powerful. Mercedes claims the GLA250 will go from 0-60 in 7 seconds, but it feels quicker. As far as heft is concerned, the new crossover only weighs a little bit more than the CLA250 4Matic — a feat in and of itself — and also boasts a slippery 0.29 drag coefficient, making it the aero leader in its class and keeping cabin noise down when speeds pick up. 25 city and 36 highway on the mileage side is quite impressive, too.

What Mercedes has wrought in the GLA Class is both sporty and fairly off-road capable in 4Matic dress. Though it’s front-wheel-drive biased, the 4Matic can perform a 50/50 torque split between front and rear, and stability control and torque vectoring add sure-footedness when it’s pushed hard; when the going gets slick, which we experienced in damp twisties, the GLA hangs on. We even went off-road on some fairly adventurous back roads, where the GLA performed impressively over chunks of rock and big muddy divots while making use of its 7G-Tronic dual-clutch transmission and hill descent control. We could get used to this kind of multiple-personality disorder.

Farther down the performance and sporty spectrum is the GLA45 AMG, the beefed-up version of the GLA250, which takes a somewhat less balanced shot at the 250’s utilitarian duality. The GLA45 AMG eats the tarmac that much faster with 355 hp and 332 lb-ft and adds fatter wheels, tauter suspension setup, a lower stance and aero bits that indicate its performance leanings. It moves and hangs on to the road far better than other small crossovers we’ve driven, and its racier looks back everything up for needy eyes.

At the end of the day, though, we’d opt for the more well-rounded GLA250 4Matic for greater versatility and less of a thrashing on our wallet. It provides great spirited driving on the road and the chops for working off the beaten path without compromise on either end. The Mercedes-Benz lineup has added another impactful member whose arrival on our shores will be more than welcomed.

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