A half-hour northwest of bustling Budapest, Hungary on narrow, winding roads just outside the Hungaroring racetrack, I'm giving the Mercedes-AMG GLA45 another shot.
Since it arrived in 2015, I've been lukewarm on Benz's high-performance small crossover and its less powerful GLA250 sibling because of their jerky drivetrains and disappointing interiors. The lineup felt half-baked, lacking the sort of refinement expected of cars wearing the Three-Pointed Star. For 2018, updates to the GLA-Class are warranting my reevaluation, but even as I climb aboard, I wonder if they will make a difference.
After just a few miles in the GLA45, things do feel better. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four, with 375 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, is as lively as ever, pulling madly to redline without suffering severe boost-lag symptoms. The manufacturer says this crossover will hit 60 mph in just 4.3 seconds, and charge to an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph. If that's not fast enough for you, an optional AMG Dynamic Plus Package pushes max velocity to 167.
The biggest improvements lie with the GLA45's seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, which receives gear ratio revisions making runs through the cogs feel brisker, as well as a newly optimized shift logic for more fluid performance. It doesn't matter if you're selecting gears manually with the steering wheel paddles or letting the box do all the work in both low- and high-speed situations, operation is smoother. This is a good sign, because things were disappointingly clunky before.
For those curious about fuel consumption, official 2018 GLA45 EPA estimates aren't yet available, but ratings will likely be similar to last year's 22 miles per gallon city and 28 mpg highway. Fuel economy isn't anywhere near levels Greenpeace would applaud, but for the most powerful four-cylinder production engine available today, it's not bad.
Ride quality also seems more compliant with the AMG Ride Control Sport Suspension in its Comfort setting, which is even more surprising because my test car is rolling on optional 20-inch wheels (19s are standard) and high-performance Continental ContiSportContact tires. On bumpier roads, impacts are felt, but they're not jarring. I don't believe the GLA45 will fare as well on the really broken Midwest roads back home.
Thankfully, the GLA45's ability to hustle hard doesn't change. With AMG Dynamic Select in Sport Plus for more aggressive engine mapping, gearbox shifts and a firmer suspension calibration, corner carving is a hoot. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive system efficiently puts power down, and there's no shortage of grip on the twisting roads between small Hungarian towns.
In addition to thanking the 4Matic system, suspension and tires for all the stick around bends, the front limited-slip differential included in the AMG Dynamic Plus Package certainly plays a part. Turn-in is immediate and body motions are always kept in check as the car did everything I asked it to.
Completing the GLA45's rather riveting drive experience is sensational steering response and feel, confidence-inspiring braking, and a pleasing, crackling exhaust note during downshifts.
Like with most all-wheel-drive cars, pushing the small AMG crossover really hard will get the front tires to wash out, but for normal driving and spirited but controlled runs on public roads, this thing packs all the performance capability you'll need.
What else is new for 2018? Some visual updates, if you look closely enough. Up front, LED headlights become standard, while the bumper is reworked for a more aggressive look and provides better airflow to the radiators. Wheel designs are also different, as is the rear spoiler lip and rear bumper.
There are small interior design changes, too, with a leatherette-covered dashboard sporting red contrast stitching, and a new instrument cluster. More substantial alterations in tech happen with an 8-inch high-resolution center screen and rearview camera becoming standard. An available 360-degree camera and Hands-Free Access trunk join carryover options like a rockin' Harman Kardon Logic7 sound system, Distronic radar cruise control and active lane-keeping assist.
Handling all the infotainment features is Benz's responsive and intuitive Comand interface, which uses a combination of a central dial and center stack hard buttons to control audio, Bluetooth and navigation. The system cycles between menus quickly, while imagery on the new screen looks clear and crisp. For fans of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, both are optional.
Even without wholesale changes, these light interior upgrades do improve major touch points to go along with the cabin's attractive piano black trim and supportive front seats sourced from Recaro. Some cheap-looking plastics remain on the center console, though.
Now, for the $50,600 question: Is the 2018 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 worth the price of admission? If you're set on a small luxury crossover with gonzo performance, it probably is, if only because it's the only game in town. At least for the moment, BMW doesn't offer an M-tuned X1 and Audi isn't selling a ballistic version of its Q3 in the US.
The debate heats up when you look at the far less costly, 208-horsepower GLA250, which, like the AMG, receives small visual and cabin tech enhancements. Base 2018 front-wheel-drive GLA250 models will begin at $33,400, while the 4Matic will wear a $35,400 MSRP when it goes on sale this summer. That puts them right back in direct competition with the aforementioned X1 and Q3, and both of those vehicles make very good cases for themselves.
As far as the GLA45 is concerned, its transmission upgrades are what stick out to me the most, as the changes go a long way towards making the experience behind the wheel rewarding. So much so, in fact, that parking this Benz in the Hungaroring paddock and turning in the keys after my day's drive actually makes me a little sad.
That wouldn't have been the case a year ago.