Mercedes took its time in launching a compact crossover in the UK, but the company is marking its territory in no uncertain terms with the powerhouse AMG-engineered GLA 45 4MATIC model. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
Mercedes-Benz lights the blue touch paper on its rocket of a crossover, the Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 4MATIC. With all-wheel drive and 381bhp from its turbo two-litre engine, it's searingly quick, but with emissions of just 172g/km and 38.2mpg fuel economy, it's not going to require a second mortgage to run.
It's not like Mercedes-Benz to miss out on an opportunity. There are few companies more committed to filling niches and sub-niches than the Stuttgarters, but if you had to nominate two that were even more opportunistic, you'd probably finger Audi and BMW. Both companies have lined their pockets in this country with their smaller SUVs, Audi with the Q3 and Q5 and BMW with its X1 and X3 models. Meanwhile, Mercedes has been left uncharacteristically bereft, with nothing comparable in its product range. Until now that is. The GLA Class is Mercedes' answer and it hasn't taken AMG long to get its hands on it and produce the vehicle we have here; the GLA 45 AMG. We've had A and CLA-class models with that suffix before and it spells all-wheel drive traction and a surfeit of power that's almost obscene. Can it work in a higher-riding 'crossover' body? Audi's RS Q3 has demonstrated that a market exists. Can Mercedes trump Audi at its own game?
There's only one engine on offer but it is quite a powerplant. A 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit might not immediately promise great fireworks, but this one comprehensively trumps the 340 or 367bhp 2.5-litre engines available in the Audi RS Q3, developing a hefty 381bhp from a relatively lightweight hand-built twin-scroll turbo unit. Mercedes claims it to be the most powerful series-production four-cylinder turbo engine in the world and although you might well remember the odd Mitsubishi Evo with a few more ponies under the bonnet, for the time being at least it's impossible to argue with Mercedes' claim. This engine develops 475Nm of torque from just 2,250rpm, again incrementally better than the Audi's 418Nm. Drive naturally goes to all four wheels, but despite the SUV tag, don't be tempted to go green laning in this one. The ground clearance is minimal and the low-profile tyres aren't going to afford much grip on wet grass or protection to the beautifully-finished 19-inch alloy wheels. You get an AMG SPEEDSHIFT DCT 7-speed sports transmission which features three distinct transmission modes, a double-declutching function dependent on the transmission mode and a RACE START function for optimum acceleration. Then there's the three-stage ESP stability control system that, aside from on and off settings, has a Sport Handling Mode. ESP Curve Dynamic Assist is also included as standard. The GLA 45 AMG also gets AMG sports suspension with specially tuned spring/damper units and bigger anti-roll bars, AMG speed-sensitive sports steering and AMG high-performance braking system with vented, cross-drilled brake discs all-round. It's quite a package. How fast? Think zero to 62mph in just 4.4 seconds on the way to an electronically limited 155mph top speed. That's one fast crossover.
Design and Build
The styling of the GLA 45 4MATIC offers a neat third way if you find the A45 AMG too gawky and the CLA 45 AMG too weird. Of the three, it's probably got the most cohesive front to rear design and it's not too overdone. There's a deep front apron and splitter with twin blade radiator grille and black flics above the air intakes. Bi-xenon headlamps come as standard. Three designs of alloy wheel are offered, with 19" rims standard and 20" items on the options list, then there are side sill panels with matte titanium grey inserts, a rear diffuser and rectangular, chrome-plated twin tailpipe trims. If that's altogether too subtle, you can choose body decals and spoilers to make the GLA 45 AMG look more like the extrovert concept car that first appeared at motor shows. The cabin gets some sporty touches, such as bolstered seats in Artico/Dinamica microfibre with red contrasting stitching and red seat belts. The GLA rides on a 2699mm wheelbase (the same as that used by all latest A-Class models), so don't expect limousine-standard legroom in the rear seats. Luggage space is 421-litres with the seats in place and 836-litres with them folded down completely. An optional 'Load Compartment package' moves the rear seat backs to a more upright position, freeing up a further 60-litres of load space.
Market and Model
Expect to pay around the £45,000 mark for the GLA 45, once you've allowed for some well chosen extras. In standard specification, the GLA 45 4MATIC runs on five-twin-spoke AMG light-alloy wheels painted titanium grey wearing 235/45 R 19 tyres. Customers can also opt for larger 10-spoke AMG light-alloy wheels with 235/40 R 20 rubber. These wheels are painted titanium grey or matte black with a high-sheen rim detail. The interior features a three-spoke nappa leather multifunction sports steering wheel, an AMG race timer function and stainless steel AMG front door sills. There are a range of options on offer, including a performance steering wheel in black nappa leather/Alcantara or performance seats with a more strongly contoured seat shape for enhanced lateral support plus integral head restraints. You can also specify the almost obligatory carbon fibre trim panels and there's a choice of upholsteries, including black, crystal grey, nut brown or black and red colour schemes.
Cost of Ownership
The emissions figure of the GLA 45 AMG seems scarcely credible given that this is a 381bhp crossover that hits 62 in less than five seconds, but Mercedes quotes 172g/km so we'll go with that. Its key rival, the Audi RS Q3, is left well adrift at 206g/km but to really put that figure into perspective, it's 6g/km better than the lightweight Toyota GT86 sports coupe; a car with no all-wheel drive, no usable rear seats, no turbocharger and which develops less than half the torque of the GLA 45 AMG. That's quite jaw-slackening. The 38.2mpg combined fuel economy figure is also better than the Toyota, which leads you to wonder quite how the Japanese are hobbling their cute coupe. Mercedes is quite upfront about how it's making those numbers. The combination of multiple fuel injection and multiple spark ignition improves fuel economy and significantly increases the thermodynamic efficiency, leading to low exhaust emissions. The injection system's outstanding flexibility also ensures a high degree of freedom in terms of application. There are up to five injections per combustion cycle in the cold-start and warm-up phase, which is so crucial for emissions. Residual values are bound to be sturdy, as the A and CLA-Class cars have already proved. The promise of a hot Mercedes crossover with low running costs and high build values isn't going to be lost on used buyers.
Mercedes has a product range bursting with talent at the moment, yet the Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 4MATIC still catches the eye. Yes, well around £45,000 is quite a lot to pay for a vehicle that doesn't really offer that much everyday practicality over a family hatch but when you factor in the incredible power and performance of this car, it doesn't at first seem an unreasonable ask. Or does it? Think a little more about the GLA 45 AMG and you come away wondering not how it measures up against an Audi RS Q3, but whether it really offers anything much more over, say, a £32,000 Audi S3 Sportback, other than being half a second quicker to 62mph. It's easy to be wowed by the numbers here - and they are quite some numbers - but let's look at the salient facts. This is a road car. It rides a little higher than most, albeit not by much, but the ride height is just something to lever this car fit into a different niche. It adds nothing to its dynamic capabilities. If you're not sold on the styling of the A45 AMG and would like something that little bit different, we can see the point of the GLA 45 AMG and Audi has proven that a market exists for testosterone-packed crossovers. Despite all that though, we can't help suspecting that maybe, just maybe, this hot GLA could be a little too niche for its own good.