In 2017, do vehicle segment labels even have any meaning anymore? Back in the dark ages of the 1970s we knew what a sport utility vehicle was. It was essentially a shortened body-on-frame pickup truck with an enclosed, but often removable rear body. But then in 1984, Jeep introduced the XJ Cherokee and it all began to change. Now a utility vehicle can be whatever an automaker’s marketing department deems it to be including a high-performance compact, hot hatch like the Mercedes-AMG GLA45.
Make no mistake, if you went back in time to 1984 and showed the GLA45 or its lesser siblings to the Cherokee engineers and designers and proclaimed it an SUV, you’d be laughed out of the room or perhaps even committed. This is not an off-road vehicle, it can really tow anything and certainly can’t ford a river. Yet in many respects, this is indeed quite a utilitarian vehicle. Like most other utility vehicles, the GLA45 features a two-box, five-door form factor with a large rear hatch and can swallow quite a bit of your stuff. It can also distribute its propulsive force to all four wheels as needed for added grip on the road.
But in truth, this car (indeed, this is no truck) is more of a premium finished competitor to the Ford Focus RS, Honda Civic Type R and Volkswagen Golf R. The GLA45’s truest competitors are the Europe-only Audi RS3 and BMW M140i hatchbacks. The only aspect that might push the GLA toward consideration as a hot utility is the fact that the roofline of the base GLA250 sits a couple more inches above the ground plane, but the AMG rides down at the same 58-inch height as the Focus RS and a barely noticeable difference when parked next to our Honda Civic hatchback.
The 2018 GLA45 I drove came finished on the outside in hue described as designo Mountain Grey Magno. In English, that’s a matte grey that looks really fantastic and really shows off the car’s sculpted flanks. The basic shape was further augmented by the AMG Performance Studio package that includes a front splitter, dive planes, sill extensions a rear wing all finished in a gloss black. That same package brings interior amenities like heavily bolstered Recaro sports seats for the driver and front passenger. My only real complaint about the styling is the tall belt-line that generates that laying in a bathtub feeling.
Under the hood, all GLAs for the U.S. market are powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. While the GLA250 version generates 208-horsepower, AMG turns up the wick a fair bit to produce 375-hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. This motive force is sent out through a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. The stability control electronics can manipulate the brakes on the fly during aggressive driving to vector the torque as needed so that the car moves where the driver intends.
Speaking of driving, those Recaros will keep you firmly planted in front of the wheel and fortunately for me they seemed tailor fitted. A significantly slimmer or broader driver and passenger might not feel quite as comfortable and downside of such bolsters is more awkward egress. Such is the price to pay for performance. I’m sure the bright red seat-belts that stand in such stark contrast to the black leather and microfiber (branded by Mercedes as Dinamica although it’s essentially the same faux-suede you’ll find as Alcantara in many other vehicles) must shave at least a tenth of a second off 0-60 times.
On the acceleration front, the GLA45 always defaults to comfort mode after a start. My tester featured the AMG Dynamic Plus package that for $2,800 adds two stage dampers, a front limited slip differential, a higher top speed and Race mode. I recommend that if you get one of these, you get in the habit of selecting at least sport or sport+ with the knob behind the stubby shift lever, each time you start the car. In comfort, the DCT seems decidedly reluctant to engage the clutches from a standing start. The result is that you have to push the accelerator a bit harder than you might have expected to get moving. This is less of a problem when moving forward, but when reversing it can feel a bit awkward when trying to manage your speed while moving out of a parking space.
Tight parking spaces are also a problem for the GLA45. The combination of the 20-inch wheels and the geometry of the GLA’s suspension means a limited steering angle. Despite this being a compact car, maneuverability is very compromised with a turning radius of over 39 feet. When I went out to dinner with my wife, it took a couple of back and forth maneuvers to be able to steer the GLA45 into perfectly reasonable size spot in a downtown Ann Arbor parking garage.
Aside from those two quibbles, I don’t really have much else to complain about with regard to the GLA’s dynamic behavior. Once moving, the gearbox shifts rapidly but smoothly. In sport+ or race mode under hard acceleration, the engine produces a wonderful growl with a pleasingly sharp note on the overrun as the transmission moves up to the next gear. Even at its most dynamic settings, the ride quality is firm but not punishing.
Notably, on a trip to Detroit over the same stretch of I-94 that produces such unpleasant vertical motions in the Focus RS, the GLA remained utterly composed. You could feel the expansion joints as the tires traversed them, but the body stayed level as the suspension did its job. Of course that means that whatever pretense the GLA45 has to being able to go anything more challenging than a gravel road is dispensed with. The GLA250 offers 8.0-inches of ground clearance. In the AMG version, that is reduced to just 4.88-inches. If you live where it snows regularly, you’ll definitely want an extra set of wheels with proper winter tires but you’ll still want to avoid roads where deep snow has yet to be plowed.
Spec-wise the GLA45 has a bit more power than its more mainstream competitors and marginally quicker acceleration even if it doesn’t always feel like it. However, the three-pointed star, microsuede, matte finish and red seat-belts don’t come cheap. AMG engines are hand-built and that surely contributes to the $50,600 starting price of this hatchback.
But in typical German premium brand fashion, injudicious use of the options list can add up very rapidly. As equipped, the final tab on this example came to over $70,000. Even without calling it an SUV, back in the days of those XJ Cherokees, the idea of Mercedes-Benz compact hatchback breathed on by the wizards at AMG would have been equally laughable. And yet today it totally exists. The current-generation Focus RS is nearly gone and a new one is still several years away. Honda dealers are tacking on price adjustments to front-drive Civic Type-Rs that bring them into AMG territory. As good as the Golf R is, it is after all a Volkswagen, not a Mercedes-Benz and certainly not an AMG. Given all that, maybe that price isn’t so crazy. Just don’t take the GLA45 to Moab.