Goldilocks of the lineup

More and more, it seems, carmakers are further fragmenting market segments into niches in the interest of being all things to all people.

Case in point: the smallest platform employed by Mercedes-Benz, which can be had in a variety of ways with a variety of powertrains – not all of which are sold in Canada. There are, however, five body styles and about a dozen different flavours to suit all manner of taste.

Looking at the brand’s smallest SUV in particular, the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 is the Goldilocks offering between the spritely GLA 250 and the sizzling GLA 45.

Power: 8/10

Mercedes claims the GLA 45’s hand-built 382-hp engine is the most powerful four-cylinder in production, and will surely make it the most scintillating small SUV you can buy. But even the mass-produced 2.0L four-cylinder in this GLA 35 is enough to make the little crossover properly exciting, with 302 hp of its own to play with.

With launch control active, the little ’ute is claimed to hit 100 km/h from rest in just 4.9 seconds. But even the daily commute is livened up with the GLA 35’s ability to rip away from stoplights and squirt through traffic in a most entertaining fashion thanks to its nearly 300 lb-ft of torque.

As one might expect, passing power is also ample. Torque is distributed through all four wheels via an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, and snapping off gear changes manually via the steering-wheel paddles is instantaneous and surprisingly engaging. Downshifts in the heat of the moment can occasionally come with a wisp of hesitation, but the transmission is a most-agreeable driving companion otherwise, obediently keeping the GLA 35 in the meat of its powerband and going about its business smoothly and mostly undetected the rest of the time.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

Despite its sporting nature, being a rather diminutive engine in a fairly small sport utility should result in reasonable fuel efficiency, and that’s the case here. Rated at 10.4 L/100 km in the city, 8.1 on the highway, and a combined 9.4, the little Mercedes is comparable with BMW’s similarly spicy X2 M35i, and the AutoTrader.ca favourite Volvo XC40.

After a few hundred kilometres of mixed driving – and with an admittedly heavy right foot – this winter tire-wearing tester returned a respectable average consumption of 9.8 L/100 km of premium fuel.

Driving Feel: 8/10

Not that long ago, driving an SUV meant tolerating the sloppy handling required by a taller centre of gravity and the utilitarian nature of the beast. Now, several sport utilities like the GLA-Class not only offer remarkable car-like ride and handling, but truly high-performance capabilities.

Grip from the 20-inch tires is abundant and the GLA 35 distributes its power to all four corners very well. The steering is quick, too, and while the effort has been dialled up, there’s much less feedback than there should be in a performer such as this. What’s more, the GLA-Class is taller than its A 35 hatchback cousin, and the driving position is taller, too, making the SUV feel more ponderous when carving up corners. Braking power is excellent, though, with cross-drilled rotors (350 mm up front) being clamped by silver-painted AMG calipers that give good bite and a firm pedal feel.

Comfort: 7/10

If there’s a downside to the GLA 35’s handling capabilities it’s the stiff ride that comes with them. The combined double-wishbone front suspension and multilink rear works with adaptive AMG damping, though even in their softest setting, the GLA 35 will draw attention to road imperfections as it bumps and jounces around. Typical of Mercedes, the body structure feels exceptionally rigid, but when coupled with the stiff ride, it only serves to shake up the occupants.

Wind and road noise are decently quelled, and engine noise can be amplified or hushed depending on drive mode settings. It’s not exactly a sonorous soundtrack, it does sound aggressive and fitting for a sporty machine like this.

The seating both front and rear is firm but supportive and comfortable, and more aggressive AMG sport seats are available at an additional cost. Space in the rear is decent for two adults, with just enough room for a third passenger in a pinch.

Features: 7/10

The GLA 35 is a premium SUV that offers a comprehensive feature list, although much of it needs to be ordered through various option packages. A panoramic sunroof is standard, but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a foot-activated tailgate – items that are often standard on moderately priced machines – are additional cost here. There was a slick-looking glass dashboard consisting of a pair of large flat-screen displays, and a head-up display fitted to this tester. Powered heated seats with memory settings were also on board, but cooled seats weren’t – and, shockingly, the sporty AMG steering wheel can’t be had with heating elements.

User Friendliness: 7/10

Mercedes’s latest infotainment system makes a dramatic first impression. The pair of 10.25-inch screens make up two thirds of the dashboard and can be configured countless ways to provide whatever information is deemed a priority to the driver. It’s operated via a large console-mounted touchpad that falls easily to hand and works much better than similar systems found in recent Lexus and Acura models. Still, the sheer volume of functions and information available is somewhat daunting and definitely takes some time to set up to a driver’s tastes and grow accustomed to.

Mercedes has made great strides in improving voice commands that pick up on fairly conversational speech and activate controls for audio, climate, navigation, or a number of other functions. As additional redundancies, the system also features a touchscreen, and a pair of tiny thumb pads on the steering wheel allow the driver to easily cycle through all kinds of controls without their hands leaving the wheel. It does, however, take a bit of time to get used to having both turn signal and windshield wiper functions on the left stalk and gear selections handled with the right stalk.

The driving position is upright and visibility is quite good, making navigating tight, urban confines easier, although for parking, it’d be nice if Mercedes didn’t charge extra for the 360-degree camera view.

Styling: 7/10

Where the previous GLA-Class may have confused many as to whether it was meant to be an SUV or a compact hatchback, this new GLA is definitively SUV in its appearance. It’s taller and wider yet shorter overall than before, and even though this AMG version sits squatter than the GLA 250 that’s the entry point in the lineup, it still looks stubby and awkward from many angles. Its best look is from the front three-quarter view, where the angular LED headlights point toward the large grille opening replete with vertical bars harkening back to Mercedes’s 1950s race machines, and of course that dominating three-pointed star logo.

The interior is flashier and more exciting, with the impressive expanse of digital displays taking centre stage. The series of climate control vents that resemble the back end of jet turbines is a stylish and functional element, too. There’s great use of integrated LED lighting strips throughout the cabin that add a splash of colour and light, visible even during daylight, but buyers who go for the optional open-pore wood trim will need to do a lot of convincing of their passengers that it’s not a textured, molded plastic. The contrasting red stitching and Alcantara on the steering wheel and seats feel and look great.

Practicality: 7/10

Buyers have flocked to sport utilities for their perceived practicality, and that applies to the GLA 35 – to a point. While it does offer a decent 435 L of cargo space behind the seats, both the BMW X2 and Volvo XC40 offer more room for stuff. With the back seats folded, though, the Mercedes trumps those competitors.

It trades off with its rivals in front and rear passenger space, offering more front legroom than the others, but less rear legroom and overall headroom. Traditionally, an SUV is also supposed to offer better utility off-road than its car equivalent; and while the AMG-tuned GLA-Class does have slightly greater clearance than the same A-Class hatch, it’s not much to make a difference, and its aggressive sporting tires and stiff ride mean there’s no real benefit to choosing one over the other.

Safety: 9/10

The GLA 35 is a quick, nimble, and responsive machine that offers drivers the capability to react quickly to potential hazards. Still, collisions do happen occasionally, and Mercedes has built a rigid structure full of air bags. The GLA 35 also has some clever features like a driver attention monitor and a crosswind assist as standard fare.

There’s also active steering and lane-keeping assist, emergency automated braking, parking assist, and even route-based speed adaptation that will help slow the vehicle as the navigation system and camera detects curves on the highway ahead. Most of the advanced safety features are optional on the GLA 35.

Value: 7/10

With a starting price of $52,900 before fees and taxes, the Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 is priced a few thousand dollars pricier than those main competitors. A comparably equipped Range Rover Evoque starts a few grand higher still. To get even rudimentary equipment like smartphone connectivity that’s standard on most cars these days, a buyer will need to spend thousands in option package upgrades. This tester topped $60,000 and there was still more that could be added.

Shoppers looking solely for a luxurious little Mercedes could load up a GLA 250 with nearly every option and be several thousand dollars below the cost of the GLA 35 and still have a fun and nimble crossover. But there’s no mistaking the addictive nature of the AMG’s greater thrust, which obviously comes with a price tag.

The Verdict

While the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 does fill a sweet spot between the entry-point GLA 250 and the fire-breathing GLA 45, it’s still a costly endeavour. A BMW X2 M35i offers more interior space and more torque, and costs thousands less, making it a compelling alternative. For fans of the AMG brand looking for a premium compact utility vehicle, the A 35 offers all-weather capability, the same powerful engine, and hatchback functionality with better handling overall – and all at a lower cost.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.0L   Model Tested 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 4MATIC
Engine Cylinders Turbocharged I4   Base Price $52,900
Peak Horsepower 302 hp @ 5,800 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 295 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm   Destination Fee $3,295
Fuel Economy 10.4 / 8.1 / 9.4 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $64,145
Cargo Space 435 L / 1,430 L seats down  
Optional Equipment
$7,850 – Black Open-Pore Wood Trim, $250; AMG Driver’s Package, $1,700; Night Package, $1,000; Premium Package, $3,900; Navigation Package, $1,000