2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 review: Small footprint, big character
The 2021 GLA-Class is a revelation by itself, and adding a 382-horsepower engine only sweetens the deal.
The first-gen Mercedes GLA45 AMG sucked. It was an expensive heap that was perpetually uncomfortable and looked about as good as it drove. Thankfully, Mercedes-AMG learned some lessons over the years. Now, the new-for-2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 is a fully realized compact luxury crossover with a bonkers little powertrain tucked under the hood for good measure, making for one hell of a second act.
The original GLA-Class looked like a surprised hatchback wearing tall shoes. The gist is the same this time around -- the second-gen GLA-Class is still basically a hatchback with a lift kit -- but I think the look is more cohesive. The wide-eyed countenance has been swapped out in favor of something a little more streamlined, but I think the GLA45 looks best from behind, where a short overhang and those ever-present quadruple AMG tailpipes make for some aggressive aesthetics.
The GLA's interior no longer feels woefully cheap. There is no tiny little screen floating atop a menagerie of dated buttons; instead, everything is mounted nice and low, and borrowing many different design staples from larger, more expensive Mercedes models means the interior feels far more precious than before, even though the dashboard is still mottled vinyl and there's still a fair few instances of hard plastic scattered around. Being an AMG, I'm not surprised to see carbon fiber making an appearance on the dash and door panels, but thankfully, there isn't so much of it that I feel like I'm headed to Hot Import Nights. Pair it with some more premium touches like proper metal on the optional Nappa-leather-wrapped steering wheel ($400), and you've got quite the nice place to spend some time.
Small cars need to prioritize function, since there isn't a whole lot of excess space floating around. The 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 has some solid interior packaging in this case, with a sufficiently deep cubby under the armrest, large door pockets and a big storage tray ahead of the cup holders. The crossover's roof is pretty flat, which means back-row occupants have plenty of space, and it feels much airier when the $1,500 panoramic glass roof is thrown into the mix. Rear-seat storage options are limited, as the middle seat doesn't convert to a folding armrest (unless you pay $360 for the privilege) and the door pockets are a little small, but folks in the back do get cargo nets on the front seat backs along with two USB-C ports and a 115-volt two-prong outlet, which is nice. However, despite being a hatchback, cargo space is on the paltry side; the GLA45's 15.4-cubic-foot trunk pales in comparison to that of the Volvo XC40 (20.7), Audi Q3 (23.7) and BMW X1 (27.1).
Under the GLA45's hood lies one of my personal favorite automotive engineering marvels: the M139 engine. Capable of making in excess of 400 horsepower in some current European-only applications, this high-strung turbocharged 2.0-liter I4 is built in its own high-tech corner of Mercedes-AMG's Affalterbach engine facility, and it deserves that royal treatment. While the noise wavers somewhere between "angry beehive" and "angry farm equipment," the 382 hp and 354 pound-feet of torque this engine delivers in the GLA45 is pitch-perfect.
It's a strange engine, too; sure, it'll sit down low in the revs and spit out torque as needed, but there's a little bit of old-school Honda VTEC action happening here, because the M139 loves to rev. It will sit between 4,000 and 7,000 rpm all day, generating more motive force than any Michigan backroad can tolerate. The GLA45's eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is hit or miss, though; while it delivers nearly instant shifts (and a little extra tailpipe theater) under heavy load, it's not very smooth at lower speeds. If you feed it just a little more throttle than necessary, especially when the stop-start system is activated, it'll lurch forward clunkily. Some sharp stabs of the throttle are met with a "hurry up and wait" attitude, too, as the transmission hunts for the gear it wants and then takes its sweet time bringing it up.
The rest of the GLA45's driving experience is largely mode-dependent. The car is surprisingly chill in its default Comfort setting. The standard adaptive suspension is still sports-car stiff in this mode, but it's smooth enough on nice roads to where I could envision long trips being more than manageable. Flip the switch to Sport and the GLA45 is ready to party; body roll disappears underfoot, the steering weight increases to nearly comical proportions and the transmission finally knows what gear it wants to be in ahead of time. It's far too aggressive for any road that wasn't paved yesterday, especially in post-snow Michigan where thaw cycles put smaller potholes inside of last year's still-not-fixed large potholes, but it's still a dang hoot.
Even the fuel economy isn't the absolute pits. The EPA rates the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 at 20 miles per gallon city, 27 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined. For a nearly 400-hp performance car, that's not bad at all, and in real-world driving I'm able to get surprisingly close to 30 mpg on the highway. A light foot will get you far.
Whereas the first-gen GLA-Class felt like more of a technological punishment, the opposite is the case with the 2021 GLA45. MBUX, the automaker's latest and greatest infotainment system, is standard, residing on a 10.3-inch touchscreen with redundant physical controls on the steering wheel and center console. It's a fabulous system, with a menu layout that doesn't take long to master, responsiveness even shortly after a cold start and all the usual embedded frippery like a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The "Hey, Mercedes" natural-language voice recognition works brilliantly, as well. Charging comes by way of four USB ports total -- a USB-C by the cup holders, a USB-A in the center armrest and a pair of USB-C ports in the back. Make sure your cords are up to date, though, because the USB-A port up front doesn't support smartphone mirroring. Embedded navigation is a $1,295 option, and while it includes the neat augmented-reality turn-by-turn display, it may not be worth the scratch if you're a smartphone fanatic.
While safety tech might not be at the front of your mind in a performance car, Mercedes-Benz makes sure it's there -- provided you feel like paying for it. Standard driver assists are limited to blind-spot monitoring, forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking. Plunk down $1,090 to add a surround-view camera and parking sensors, or drop $1,700 for full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, active blind-spot monitoring and route-based speed adaptation.
Despite all the fresh stuff plucked from higher branches on the Mercedes-Benz tree, the 2021 AMG GLA45 isn't all that expensive. It'll cost $55,550 including destination to get your foot in the door, and most of the available options are contained in inexpensive upgrade packages. My tester piles it on, including uprated leather, metallic paint, larger 20-inch alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof and the navigation package, leaving the factory with a $62,150 window sticker. Not too shabby.
The 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA45 doesn't really have much true competition. Its diminutive footprint puts it a class below other higher-powered luxury utes like the BMW X3 M40i and the Audi SQ5 , and there are no analogous variants of the BMW X1/X2 or Audi Q3 -- the BMW X2 M35i could be close, I guess, but it's closer to the slightly less peppy GLA35. That's probably for the best, though, because any automaker would have a hard time topping the GLA45's equal doses of entry-level luxury and flat-out powertrain insanity.