Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG

AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car

Everyone’s got some sort of love story about the one that got away. Maybe it was the cute girl or boy you desired at band camp when you were 17, but never mustered the courage to ask them out. Or possibly it was a chance occurrence when the stars aligned and champagne flowed a little too freely and there was a single night of passion. Or maybe, there was just enough of a spark from a fleeting, but special moment that had you wondering “what if…” ever since.

Now imagine having a second chance to spend time with that special love, enough time to either make you reconsider everything else in your life, or to be grateful for the decisions you have made. Enough time to get to know the real personality of the object of your desire.

Mercedes calls the GLA 45 AMG a compact SUV, but I call BS on that. It’s a hot hatch like several other unicorns that those lucky drivers across the Atlantic can buy any day of the week.

My love story, if you care to hear about it, is based on a chance encounter and a few exhilarating moments together that were enough to linger in my thoughts and dominate my (automotive) fantasies for months after.

Last autumn, I had the good fortune to briefly drive Mercedes-Benz’s newest rabble rouser – the GLA 45 AMG. Dressed up with sexy 20-inch footwear, a sassy wing and enticing crimson lipstick… err, I mean trim, this car I’d previously paid no mind, suddenly captivated my desire in a meaningful way.

Mercedes calls the GLA 45 AMG a compact SUV, but I call BS on that. It’s a hot hatch like several other unicorns that those lucky drivers across the Atlantic can buy any day of the week. You know the ones, those sensational little Euro-brand compacts that can haul mom, dad and junior, plus a boot full of groceries, and really haul ass too. Only this unicorn is real and it’s here in North America and my God, I want to hug and kiss the decision maker and Mercedes-Benz Canada who decided we deserved to have it.

Four doors, a hatchback, plus all-wheel drive mean the GLA 45 is a sensible car. It’s the sort of machine I can drive around to visit clients or in-laws and have them think, “Oh, Jeff’s finally exercising some common sense and restraint with his automotive purchase.” And yet, with that giant three-pointed star on the nose (does any car maker other than Mercedes have such arrogance to put TWO brand badges on the front of their car?), there’s enough cachet to pull up to the valet and not feel like a chump.

But there’s more, much, much more. There’s the part where some German fellow, probably with a moustache and a dry sense of humour, constructs the heart of this practical compact hatchback family car to offend those with proper manners and common sense. An angry snail resides beneath the hood of the GLA 45 that does flaming Sambuca shots and yells, burps and farts loudly every time someone kicks him in the butt with the accelerator pedal. 

From only two litres of displacement – one measly family-size Coke bottle of volume – nearly 360 galloping horses are released to yank the 1,585 kg GLA around roads and tracks at a ridiculous rate. Four cylinders, one big turbo and a lifetime of childish grinning disguised in a car I could theoretically convince people is a sensible, family man’s choice. That’s both lust and love mixed together, folks, and I knew it after only a very brief drive last autumn.

If the GLA 45 AMG had Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tinder accounts, I’d have been cyber-stalking it for the past several months, daydreaming about how much better my life would be with that sassy German car instead of my own less powerful machine. Every day would be sunny, and even if it weren’t, the GLA 45’s sport-tuned 4Matic all-wheel-drive system would ensure we got wherever we needed to be, safely, and together.

So when Mercedes-Benz put a GLA 45 AMG into their media fleet, there was no question, I needed to spend time with my love once more, to reinforce that we’re meant to be together and that I should sell my current car and a kidney if need be, to make our relationship permanent.

After a week and darn-near 1,000 km together, is the infatuation as real as it was last autumn? Yes and no.

The GLA 45 I drove last autumn was equipped with the Edition 1 package that includes matte black 20-inch wheels, that ridiculous rear wing and the AMG Performance Seats, all of which might have been a skin-tight evening gown slit up the thigh and 8-inch stilletos as far as I was concerned. It was outrageous but sexy.

This GLA 45 has more comfortable 19-inch wheels that are still lovely, but not outrageous. There’s no rooftop wing either, nor the silly little chin winglets and blacked out trim. This GLA 45 has its hair up and is wearing a sweatshirt and jeans by comparison. It’s still sexy in its own right, just not jaw-dropping. Truth be told, this is a more sensible look that will prevent every modified Civic driver from instigating duels and challenges at every stoplight and prevent my neighbours from thinking I’m having a tragic mid-life crisis before I even turn 40.

Inside, this car, equipped with the Premium Package, has a broad swath of aluminum across the dash. My date last autumn wore lots of red striping and stitching throughout the dash that distracted from some of the cheap finishes and materials Mercedes has fitted in the GLA to make the base model GLA 250 affordable. On the door panels and parts of the dash, the black plastic is hard and unpleasant, and the little flip-open door over what would be the ashtray (but is really just a small coin receptacle now?) wouldn’t stay closed.

The seats, covered in Alcantara, are supportive and grippy and are good enough that the AMG Performance Seats are really overkill. Even with the amount of driving I did in the GLA 45 this week, I was always comfortable – and the seat heaters can be set to broil – just turn them down when you start to smell bacon.

Rear seat space is as expected for a compact (sigh) “SUV”, which is to say, not copious, but is perfectly adequate for my family of three.  What’s more, when I needed to fold the seats down and cart around a sizable quantity of camera and lighting gear, the GLA easily accommodated. There is good practicality here.

There is a large and vocal contingent of Internet commentators who vehemently dislike the iPad-stuck-to-the-dash look of some infotainment systems. Mercedes has embraced this design and run with it across all their new models. It generally doesn’t bother me, and here is no different. The screen is bright and sufficiently large to communicate navigation, audio or automotive information without taking the driver’s eyes too far from the road ahead. The current generation of COMAND, Mercedes-Benz’s system, is not the freshest-looking, but operates swiftly and has a fairly quick learning curve for those figuring it out for the first time.

For the committed (or for those who should be committed), the GLA 45 AMG is an endless supply of maniacal smiles, whoops and laughter. The power is simply ferocious, rocketing the little Benz from 0 to 100 km/h in 4.8 seconds. What this figure doesn’t reveal is how visceral and emotional the experience is. Some cars smoothly and quietly propel you into the horizon, but the GLA 45 puts that turbo to serious work to make its numbers. This means turbo lag followed by a blast to hyperspace.

The sounds are also pure lunacy, especially since this GLA is fitted with the AMG Performance Exhaust system (annoyingly available only as part of the Premium Package, but not the AMG Driver’s Package). Between shifts, a rapid-fire succession of tiny explosions announces the cog change, and when driven in anger, the soundtrack calls to mind what the world’s largest and angriest buzz saw must sound like. It’s great fun when you’re driving with your hair on fire, but the volume becomes a bit tedious after a while on the freeway.

The AMG Speedshift seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT) is most agreeable when you go all Christian Grey on the GLA 45 and show it who’s boss.

In manual mode, the shifts are crisp and direct, but at low speeds, especially pulling away from a stop, the DCT was often caught napping, making for some ‘wait-wait-GO!!!’ starts as the turbo and transmission both awaken only after a pause. In seventh gear, even at considerably over the speed limit, the engine turns at barely-there revs per minute, helping to achieve decent fuel efficiency. Despite my unyielding and juvenile desire to rip off redline shifts whenever I could, the GLA 45 AMG still provided an overall average of 9.2L/100 km – a figure that is astonishing for such a raucous car.

Steering is very quick and provides good feel of what the tires are doing, helping to egg drivers on to have fun with the GLA 45. Unlike Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony’s suggestion that the handling is nervous, I found the little Benz to be an agreeable dance partner on the back roads around Niagara where we went looking for some special time together. I will agree with Yarkony and Editor Jacob Black’s contention that the stiff ride can be a little harsh at times. That’s the price of quick reflexes on a performance car like this, says I.

So after a full week of really getting to know the GLA 45 AMG, am I still in love, or at least in lust? You bet your bratwurst I am, but I am more realistic now, too, and recognize the car’s limitations. I’ll still dream of GLA 45 AMG ownership, but won’t obsess about it quite as much.

My advice to you: if you’re going to test drive the GLA 45 AMG, make sure it’s a long one, so you really know what you’re getting into and don’t make a serious life decision based on blind lust.

4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance 24-hour roadside assistance

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Model Tested 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG
Base Price $50,500
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,995
Price as Tested $61,285
Optional Equipment
Premium Plus Package – $2,900, Premium Package – $4,900, Cosmos Black Paint – $890.