The 2016 Mercedes GLA 45 AMG 4MATIC is a veritable rally car in street dress. I’m not exaggerating: This tiny super-ute is motivated by the most powerful non-hybrid series production 4-cylinder engine currently available anywhere.
Exhilarating crossover performance
Behind its 3-pointed star is a hand-assembled, artisan-signed (mine by “Martin Topt”) 2.0L twin-scroll turbocharged mill with a class-leading 26 psi of boost. While this had enthusiasts plenty excited when it debuted last year, the GLA 45 has been upgraded with an additional 20 horsepower and 18 lb-ft of torque for 2016 resulting in an outrageous 375 horsepower and 350 lb-ft. The mad dash from standstill to 100 km/h is now four tenths of a second briefer at just 4.4 seconds when set to the sportiest of its five AMG Dynamic Select driving modes with Race Start launch control enabled.
Much of this go-fast goodness comes down to a specially tuned 7-speed dual-clutch AMG SpeedShift transmission, complete with rev-matched downshifts that’ll make you sound and feel like Lewis Hamilton flicking through the paddles while fast approaching Brooklands after going flat out on Silverstone’s Wellington Straight. Big brake rotors enhanced by adaptive technologies worked with my tester’s grippy 235/40ZR20 Continental tires, scrubbing off speed with shocking immediacy before ideally setting up one fast-paced curve after another. The Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG 4MATIC’s stiffer sprung, 45mm lower suspension, torque-vectoring 4MATIC all-wheel drive system with Dynamic Cornering Assist, and 3-stage stability control together provide flat, predictable, and ultimately manageable command of the road without any concern of wandering off-line, even at speeds I’d better not mention for fear of self-incrimination.
There’s no way you can do what I just did with this GLA 45 AMG 4MATIC in a current BMW X1 or any Audi Q3―the little Merc finds itself in an entirely different league than its Teutonic rivals. And yet, my tester wasn’t even upgraded with the AMG Ride Control sport suspension, or for that matter the AMG Track Package that adds a limited-slip differential and increases top speed past the regular model’s 250 km/h, while also pampering with microsuede interior accents.
Refined and luxurious no matter what
I have to say, while a bit of suede here and additional carbon fibre there might be nice, the $51,900 base Mercedes GLA 45 AMG 4MATIC needs no embellishment beyond its stock cabin. Granted, the contrast-stitched Hazelnut Brown leather upholstery and identically detailed Artico leather dash trim from my tester’s $2,100 Exclusive package made for a richer experience. Likewise, the panoramic sunroof, enhanced automatic climate control, and impressive infotainment upgrades (including an 8” display with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, navigation, MB Apps, a DVD changer, a rearview camera, and passive blindspot assist―part of the $4,500 Premium package) made for a more sophisticated urban crossover. However, the GLA’s overall sense of occasion would have remained 100% intact if none of these features or others were added.
After initially being wowed by my test model’s $2,500 matte-finish designo Magna grey paint, plus all the black glossy trim from its $750 AMG Night package, its stunning $1,000 matte black 20” upgraded rims (the base model gets 19s), not to mention the GLA 45’s standard twin-blade grille, aggressive front splitter, air deflectors, big AMG-decaled rooftop spoiler, rear diffuser, quad tailpipes, and muscled-up hot hatch shape, and then allowed access via the $700 optional proximity-sensing Keyless Go system, my eyes immediately latched onto the fabulous circular metal vents lined up across the instrument panel and interrupting the wonderfully large chunk of brushed metallic inlay ahead of the front passenger.
Despite their artistically X-shaped directional controllers and substantive, weighty feel, I just couldn’t stop at the vents. The flat-bottomed sport steering wheel is an aggressive bit of leather-wrapped, metal-edged, paddle-enhanced, switchgear-littered kit that begs for attention all on its own, followed up by a classic twin-dial primary gauge cluster infused with 4.5”of crisp, clear, high-contrast, colourful multi-info graphics. The large, tablet-style infotainment display atop the centre stack, the myriad of buttons across the mid-portion of the latter, the nice and tidy array of knobs, buttons, and digital screens making up the dual-zone automatic HVAC interface, and the cool bit of leather and metal sculpture that substitutes for a traditional shifter all deserved respectful contemplation, too. Once again, there’s nothing quite like this GLA.
A big aluminum ignition button starts up the snorty engine, and a dial on the lower console lets you choose between Comfort, Ice, Sport, and Sport+ modes. The last one is the go-to mode for performance zealots, if only for an extra dose of the wonderfully obnoxious exhaust blat at every shift. The Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG 4MATIC emulates the rally car experience to the nth degree.
Easy to drive and fairly practical, too
Spirited is an understatement, with scenery-blurring speed ramping up so quickly that it forces absolute, undivided concentration, albeit nowhere near the skills needed to slam through 90-degree corners in a real WRC machine. Instead, the GLA 45 AMG 4MATIC almost drives itself through each bend and every undulating curve. Of course, it’s a more visceral experience than that, but you will probably never feel out of your element unless you’ve completely defied the natural laws of gravity, inertia, momentum, friction, centrifugal force, etc. Keep a cool, mature head, and this little rocket will deliver thrills aplenty, even if pavement turns to gravel and its off-road transmission mode with downhill speed regulation is required. To be clear, these last two technologies aren’t for rally speeds, but rather intended for low-speed cottage trail crawling and drifting your way out of a ski hill parking lot.
Yes, these are the types of duties all GLAs were made for. Despite its outrageously fun performance and low-slung sport hatch profile, the juiced-up GLA 45 AMG 4MATIC is plenty practical. The comfortable rear bench allowed about 4” of nothingness ahead of my knees when the driver’s seat was set for a taller person than my 5’8” medium-build frame, plus ample foot, hip, and shoulder room, not to mention at least 3” of clearance above my head. Meanwhile, the fully functional rear cargo area is capable of swallowing up 421 litres of gear behind the 60/40-split rear seatbacks, or 1,235 litres when they’re folded flat. Alternatively, you can stuff longer items like skis into a centre pass-through.
Speaking of practical, the Mercedes GLA 45 AMG 4MATIC may seem rally-bred, but it won’t guzzle premium gas as if it were sponsored by Petronas. Its 5-cycle fuel consumption rating is a completely reasonable 9.8L/100km when you combine city and highway, partly thanks to an all-wheel drive system that lets the front wheels do most of the walking unless the rears are required. Of course, the AMG-tuned unit proves a tad thirstier than the more comfort-oriented, 208-horsepower GLA 250 4MATIC (8.9L/100km combined), but it’s still fairly efficient given its formidable output.
How pedestrian of me to summarize with fuel economy, but I suppose that’s the brilliance of the 2016 Mercedes GLA 45 AMG 4MATIC. This small luxury crossover is ideally livable, yet supremely capable, and without a doubt the most impressive contender in its class.
If ultimate performance isn’t your priority, then the GLA 250 4MATIC will likely do, but if your daily commutes require adrenaline-induced reminders of why you work so hard, look no further than the GLA 45 AMG 4MATIC.