Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2018 Mercedes-AMG GLA 45

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Three years ago, we gathered three spectacular automotive beasts that were just about perfect for having fun on four wheels in all of Canada’s four seasons. However, it was so freakin’ cold that when we were taking photos, we would run outside, take a few pictures, then huddle back inside the warmth of a cabin, then dodge outside again, then duck back in, again, and again, and again.

Reaches 100 km/h in 4.4 seconds and arrest me speeds shortly after.

As fun as the snow is, there are limits to what you can learn about a car in the dead of winter, on wide, empty, snowy parking lots, and I have returned to the scene, or vehicle of the crime to finally confirm that the 2018 Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 is as stupendously awesome (and endearingly flawed) in beautiful, warm, sunny weather as it is in the freezing cold and snow.

The Engine

AMG may have begun its ballistic tuning career by stuffing a huge V8 in a big-ass luxury car, and the GLA 45 AMG is just about the most extreme opposite from that formula for speed as you can imagine. I’m not exactly a purist, but I still mourn the death of the big, naturally aspirated V8s and the glorious sounds they make. But this AMG works on so many levels, especially the huge boost running through the tiny little 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine in the cramped confines of this subcompact crossover.

But before we get into the nitty gritty of the headroom and practical matters, let us praise the engine. As mentioned, it’s 2.0 litres in displacement, with a twin-scroll turbocharger feeding up to 26.1 psi of boost into the cylinders, which, combined with direct injection and variable valve timing, helps it achieve 375 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. That’s up 20 hp for the 2018 model year thanks to a new exhaust camshaft and revised mapping. It’s ridiculous, and along with 350 lb-ft (up from 332) of torque coming online at 5,000 rpm, it earns the GLA 45 the twin honours of highest-output four-cylinder engine and highest specific output for a production engine at 188.3 hp/litre.

When you strap that much power into a little crossover that weighs just 1,570 kg, it’s no surprise that it reaches 100 km/h in 4.4 seconds and arrest me speeds shortly after. But honestly, it seems like half that time is spent with the turbo building up boost and the throttle mapping delaying power delivery so the gearbox and differentials don’t explode with every launch. Because when it finally hooks up, the gut punch of acceleration g-forces feels more like cars that are well under four seconds rather than halfway to five. The hesitation is a nuisance, but that burst of speed is worth the wait and gave me the giggles every time. Official acceleration time is clocked at 4.4 seconds to 100 km/h.

The AMG GLA’s speed limiter is bumped up to 250 km/h over the GLA 250 and an available AMG Track Package removes the speed limiter completely (and adds other track goodies like limited-slip front differential and performance steering wheel) if you have a track where you might be able to reach its 270 km/h top speed.

Getting Power Down

So how do you take 375 horsepower, get it down to four rubber rings and turn it into fits of maniacal laughter? For starters, the engine is hooked up to a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual that Mercedes calls 7G-Speedshift. While it may be a combination of factors (including turbo lag and throttle mapping) that cause the hesitation, the transmission’s initial engagement was slow and a bit jerky in parking and tight manoeuvres like three-point turns, and seemed to cause part of the initial delay in acceleration.

At speed, past first gear, the transmission came into its own: smooth and thrifty when the driving mode is set to Comfort and throttle used moderately, but always ready to drop a gear at the flick of a paddle shifter. With Sport or Sport+ mode selected, the transmission holds gears longer and lets revs and power build for a more frantic driving experience, and it can be locked into manual mode with paddle shifting if you want to take complete control yourself. While it is fun on occasion, the transmission was on point in almost any driving situation except heavy traffic, so it rarely felt necessary to get the most out of the car. Then again, 375 hp has a way of making everything seem adequate.

From the transmission, power is routed to all four wheels via AMG-tuned 4Matic all-wheel drive, which can shift power anywhere from 50/50 to completely front drive. In our warm weather this system was completely invisible, and offered some added confidence in the rain, but it really shines when there’s a thick blanket of snow and set of winter tires on as it showed years ago. In the dry, the AWD balances the power delivery coming out of corners so you can get on the power earlier.

On the Road and In the Corners

One area where the car’s size is a liability is the ride. Mercedes has packed in the most sophisticated suspension they could squeeze into such a small body, with spring struts and wishbones in front and wishbones with control arms in the back, plus the optional Ride Control adaptive damping system, but it only goes so far.

Because of its compact dimensions and sport tuning, the suspension only has so far to go, so it rides hard, feeling every bump and divot, with larger undulations inevitably bucking the car because of its short wheelbase. The optional AMG Ride Control Sports Suspension took a bit of the edge off when dialled into comfort mode, but it’s little more cushioning than a thin yoga mat on a hardwood floor.

In other words, it’s perfect.

AMG made next to no compromises for the sake of comfort and this one is all sport, pretty much all the time – it does still have that Comfort mode – the steering quick and neither too heavy for basic driving chores nor too light when you get to the good stuff. Turn-in is sharp and although it lacks old-fashioned feedback, the feel is naturally responsive and linear; and combined with the transparent chassis, the car comes alive when you decide to play. There is plenty of grip to work with on the road thanks to 235/40ZR20 Continental ContiSportContacts, so it is absolutely a car that is well worth exploring on a track. The brakes felt strong, although we hardly challenged them in the way you would on a track day.

When you’re really pushing it, you have Sport+ mode for the street and Track for track days, but for most driving duties, simple Sport will do, keeping the transmission on high alert and the throttle sharp for zipping in and out of traffic. Sport+ is just too high-strung and made me feel massively over-caffeinated.

In the Real World

As you might imagine, it’s a bit loud on the highway, but it feels planted and secure, so it’s not tiring even on longer drives. However, because of the transmission’s difficulties with low speeds, with occasionally delayed gear changes when slowing then accelerating repeatedly, I came to prefer manual mode in traffic. At the end of your trip, it’s got Active Parking Assist (with little proximity lights on the roofline above the front and rear windshields so you can look where you’re parking and still see them getting brighter in your peripheral vision – a great design touch) to make sure you don’t mangle the delicate front splitter or rear diffuser, and with the optional overhead-view 360-degree parking cameras, it’s probably the easiest Mercedes to park.

Getting in and out, however, can be a challenge for taller drivers. The double sunroof features power shades, which eat up overhead real estate ahead of the driver, and a couple times I bumped my head into the sun visor getting in, something I’ve never had happen in any car, ever. Once ensconced, the sport seats hug you tight and the Alcantara inserts lock you in place no matter how you toss it around.

The rest of the cabin is tight, but perhaps not as cramped as you might expect, although you will be rubbing elbows with your passengers, and it might be considered criminal to try to squeeze someone into the middle rear seat – but there is actually a surprising amount of headroom in the back, and reasonable legroom for four if no one is too tall.

Cargo capacity is limited by its small dimensions, of course, but it still offers 421 litres of cargo space, and Mercedes tried to maximize the flexibility with 60/40 split folding seats and a pass-through window in the middle for skis or hockey sticks. Drop the second row entirely and it opens up 1,235 L of space.

The Price Factor

The GLA 45 is at the top of the GLA food chain, so it comes well equipped, but it’s a double-edged sword because it’s a model that starts at the affordable end as the $38,500 GLA 250.

If you strictly want it for its performance potential, you can keep it right around $60K with just the AMG Driver’s and Track Packages and it’s ready for track days and everyday hooning. Specifying all the luxury and technology packages to get adaptive suspension, leather, and top-tier audio takes the $52,300 GLA 45 to over 70 grand with just a couple clicks, and thousands more that you can spend in personalization, but it still can’t entirely escape that base model’s economical switchgear and plasticky centre console with a preponderance of old-fashioned buttons. A number pad still? Really?

Despite showing the platform’s age and basic roots, the interior has a youthful vibe and most of the tech we want, so it was a good fit even for a young family of four like mine, and a few cheap plastics are worth the trade-off for the phenomenal acceleration and the grin its handling will leave you with. It’s a year-round pocket rocket, but so much more than just a car for commuting and backroad blasts, and has another level of performance that begs to be explored on the safety of a racetrack.

Engine Displacement 2.0L
Engine Cylinders I4
Peak Horsepower 375 hp
Peak Torque 350 lb-ft
Fuel Economy 10.7/8.3/9.6 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 421 / 1,235 L seats down
Model Tested 2018 Mercedes-AMG GLA 45
Base Price $52,300
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,075
Price as Tested $64,675
Optional Equipment
$10,200 – Premium Package $4,300; Premium Plus Package $2,900; AMG Driver’s Package $3,000