The GLA250 4MATIC is Mercedes-Benz's second attempt at crossing over quickly into uncharted territory for this luxury brand, courting younger, moneyed buyers with inexpensive, entry-level luxury cars. With a base price a hair or two over $30,000, the GLA provides the German automaker a beachhead from which to shape a segment in formation.
After two days and nearly 11 hours behind the wheel, we came away impressed by the littlest Mercedes-Benz with a hatch.
What is it?
Depends who you ask. Mercedes-Benz calls it a sport-utility vehicle, but its shape screams "hatchback," and that's no bad thing. We think it looks refined and elegant, particularly from the rear quarter, and better styled than the GLA's sedan equivalent, the CLA, which was introduced just over a year ago. While the CLA is available in either front- or all-wheel drive, the GLA model is AWD-only, either as the -250 or as the lowered, piquant, GLA45 AMG.
How does it drive?
Smoothly, in nearly every manner. Under the hood is a 208-hp turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that's entirely capable of propelling the small GLA. The GLA does without the effortlessness in acceleration we've come to expect from overengineered Mercedes-Benz models, but that's OK. For an aural delight in the form of an exhaust note pfffft, keep your foot on the accelerator as you shift gears manually.
And the turbocharged engine makes perfect sense in a vehicle of this size. Not once during an extended road trip from San Diego to Los Angeles and back-covering approximately 400 miles of famously congested freeways-did the GLA want for power. The eco-friendly stop-start system is well conceived, if not a little clunky in its automatic application.
The GLA's 7-speed dual-clutch transmission is one of the better executions of the technology, and almost entirely devoid of clunkiness in shifting. Engage Sport mode, and the transmission-tuned for economy, not heated Autobahn drag stints-responds with more gusto. After some time on the highway, it's easy to believe that the GLA is meant for higher speed than our interstates.
Dynamically, the GLA does not fall back on virtues traditionally assigned to larger Mercedes-Benzes. Ride quality errs on the side of sporty, not comfortably floaty, while the suspension soaked up Los Angeles' most prodigious potholes-even on optional 19-inch wheels. We like the sharp, direct, and heavy steering, although it could turn off buyers used to light effort. The GLA probably isn't meant for off-roading, serious or amateur, but it appears tall and durable enough to handle urban tasks.
What's it like inside?
Functional. While flowing lines on the dashboard aim for a sporty, luxurious feel, the overall GLA interior leans toward simplicity. Graphics are easy to read, ergonomics are sound-save for a clumsy, stalk-mounted gear selector-and it's clearly a Mercedes-Benz design. The optional navigation/infotainment system is dated and more complex to use than to understand.
From an end-user perspective, the interior is perhaps the most noticeable area where costs were cut to hit the $30k threshhold. Simply put: This isn't a C-class. Interestingly, while the instrument panel shares nearly every design cue and shape with the CLA, the GLA's interior fit and finish feels two steps above that model's.
What's its specialty?
Bringing new customers into the brand. The GLA is less important to the Mercedes-Benz sport-utility lineup as a vehicle as it is a brand position.
How's the competition?
Following Mercedes-Benz's lead. The GLA is leading the charge for small luxury "SUVs," including the upcoming Infiniti Q30 and QX30, and the Audi Q3.
Casting a giant shadow with a relatively small footprint.
Refined ride, comfortable seats, punchy engine and transmission, surprisingly fun to drive.
Obfuscatory navigation interface, prevalent road noise at highway speed, some inelegant interior parts, can get pricey very quickly.
The ideal setup:
Whether or not you opt for the Sport package ($2200) for a beefier exterior, the bi-xenon headlights and LED taillights ($850) significantly improve the GLA's look. Skip the panoramic sunroof ($1480) and the leather interior, but you'll want the Premium, Multimedia, and Driver Assistance packages ($7280 together). It all looks particularly fetching in South Seas blue ($720), but all in as equipped, the options alone comprise nearly 10 grand.
By the numbers: 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA250 4MATIC
MSRP: $34,225 (includes $925 destination charge)
Power / drive wheels: 2.0-liter, 208-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine / all-wheel drive
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch transmission
EPA fuel economy: 24 city / 32 highway
In showrooms: Now