Expert Reviews

2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 First Drive Review

The pressure is on when a company sets out to replace a successful product, which is exactly what’s happening with the 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250.

By giving fans of the marque’s smallest crossover more of what they’ve come to expect (technology, features, and capable performance) and less of what they don’t need (unnecessary bulk), it appears the new GLA-Class improves upon a winning formula that has helped sell more than a million units of the first-generation version worldwide.

More Space

Despite a small (15 mm) reduction in overall length, the new GLA is roomier inside thanks to a notable increase in width, wheelbase, and height. It now stands more than 100 mm taller than the outgoing model, with a minor bump in front headroom, and a significant stretch of rear legroom by 116 mm. Rear headroom shrinks by a minuscule six mm, due to the standard panoramic sunroof, but there is ample space for two grown humans, and seatbelts for three across for cozy encounters.

The front-seat area is open and spacious enough to make the GLA feel like a larger vehicle than it is, and its taller greenhouse makes for a bright, airy cockpit. It also places the front seats higher than in other A-Class models, giving the GLA the more commanding driving position that fans of crossovers seem to covet. There’s also a mode for those front seats that shifts the inclination of the seat back and base in small increments, periodically, in an attempt to keep occupants from being in a single, sedentary position for too long.

The cargo hold has also expanded 14 L as a result of the increased width and height to 435 L with the 40/20/40 rear split-folding seat upright.

More Tech

The interior design will be familiar to anyone who has been in a contemporary Mercedes, especially other A-Class models. The dashboard in particular is dominated by a pair of 10.25-inch screens, taking up most of the width of the cockpit with digitized glass. The system is impressive, with rich, bright graphics, and significant personalization afforded by the latest rendition of Mercedes-Benz’s infotainment software. As slick a system as it is, with the sheer number of functions it performs, it’s a very complex one to learn. Mercedes enables interaction via a console-mounted touchpad, steering-wheel controls that use tiny thumb pads, and through the touchscreen itself.

For the most part, with some patience to set up many of the key functions, it works just fine, but as a chronic radio channel surfer, it’s frustrating to not have a tuning knob, or, as far as I can tell, any way to change stations without a multi-step process, if the primary screen is on another function, like the navigation system. Mercedes promotes the ease and functionality of voice-activated commands, and with practice, this might be the best means of operating much of what the car offers.

One other downside to having such a broad swath of digitized glass is that there is no way for Mercedes to design it so that at least some part of the central screen’s options or information won’t be obscured by the steering wheel and driver’s hands. For me, I’d need to crane my neck to see what the ambient temperature was set at in the cabin.

More Safety

For decades, Mercedes has put considerable effort into improving safety through technology and features, which start out on top-tier machines like the S-Class, eventually filtering down to the A-Class family at a surprising rate. For the GLA, Mercedes has fine-tuned the blind-spot monitor, for instance, to function even when the car is stopped, to prevent opening the door into the path of a cyclist.

Similarly impressive, there are forward sensors that can read the zebra stripe paint of a crosswalk, and notify the driver of pedestrians in that space that may move in front of the vehicle.

Mercedes also offers extensive active safety features as part of an optional drive package that include adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go traffic operation and eco-mode gliding. There’s active evasive steering assist, active lane-keeping assist, and active blind-spot assist, as well as an active brake assist that will even help with turning the car out of harm’s way.

More Power

Like its predecessor, the 2021 model is powered by a 2.0L four-cylinder that receives a modest bump in power to 221 hp (up from 208 hp last year). Torque remains the same at 258 lb-ft, and despite a minimal increase in mass, it’s still enough power to launch the GLA 250 from zero to 100 km/h in a claimed 6.9 seconds.

During my drive from Toronto north to the Blue Mountain resort area, there was plenty of opportunity to exercise the turbo and squirt the little CUV through small gaps in traffic on the congested 400-series highways. Once out of the city, there was also enough power for the GLA 250 to be properly fun to drive, zipping around some of the lightly travelled backroads.

Drivers looking for more gusto can spring for the Mercedes-AMG GLA 35, or the even-spicier GLA 45. The former puts out 302 hp, while the latter ups the ante to 382 hp and is said to rip to 100 km/h in just over four seconds flat. Both of these AMG engines are 2.0L turbo four-cylinder engines, too, though the latter’s is hand-built.

While the high-performance variants direct their power through an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT), the GLA 250 uses a seven-speed DCT. In its sport drive mode setting, the seven-speed’s shifts are quick, but not as blazing as they are in the sportier models, even when the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters are employed.

All Canadian GLAs will arrive here from Germany with standard all-wheel drive. While generally front-wheel-biased, the system will distribute 80 per cent of the power toward the front wheels in both comfort and eco drive modes, with a 70/30 split in sport mode. It’s a smart system that’s also got sensors monitoring driver input, of course, but also each wheel’s traction, plus uphill and downhill gradients, cornering forces, and speed to ensure power is being directed where it can be best utilized.

There is an off-road package that features a mode to simulate a locking differential, balancing the power distribution at 50/50 front and rear.

While our drive route did not include any off-roading, we did encounter an early season snow squall that created some slippery roads and icy patches. Even when goaded with gratuitous throttle input, the GLA 250 remained completely adhered to the road; a tribute also to the Pirelli winter tires fitted and the extensive polishing the engineers did to the all-wheel-drive system.

More Fun

Despite being the smallest and most affordable crossover in the lineup, the GLA 250 is still a Mercedes-Benz and needs to live up to buyers’ premium expectations. While the ride quality, even in comfort mode, is more stiff than supple, the trade-off is a surprisingly lively handler. I’ve praised the GLA’s A 250 hatchback sibling in the past for its competent handling, and the extra weight and taller body of this stilted version haven’t negatively affected that at all. Steering feel is lacking, and it’s not sports-car quick, but body roll and brake dive are both carefully managed, and the GLA feels well connected to the road, even when driven quite aggressively. The brakes, too, are strong, consistent and predictable.

Final Thoughts

Mercedes claims the GLA is meant to be sportier and more lifestyle-oriented than its slightly larger GLB-Class stablemate despite sharing many mechanical elements, including the powertrain. While its taller height and shorter length have created a stubbier appearance for the new GLA, it has enough styling traits shared with the larger ’Benz SUVs that it’ll provide buyers with the brand’s coveted cachet. Beyond that, the new GLA provides a more sensible and usable interior, but also a more engaging driving experience than before. The redesigned 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 successfully improves upon a great execution and makes it better in all the areas that count.

2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class Pricing

GLA 250 4MATIC: $42,400
AMG GLA 35 4MATIC: $52,900
AMG GLA 45 4MATIC: $60,500 (late arrival)