Sleeping giant
THE GOOD
  • Thrilling performance
  • Spacious inside
  • Red and black interior
THE BAD
  • Expensive with options
  • Shrunken smartphone displays
  • Redundant trackpad

Maybe it’s because I’m another year older and a few pounds heavier, but I’m sad to report that the idea of driving something low and lean every day is beginning to lose its lustre.

Oh, sure, I still love the sports car experience as much as the next gearhead, but not day in and day out. That includes spectacular sport compact hatchbacks – cars that pack some practicality to go with their performance but can be difficult to climb in and out of. They also aren’t especially comfortable for commuting, with taut suspension, stiff handling, and generally amped-up attitudes. Which is precisely where the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 shines.

Practicality: 9/10

This is a subcompact crossover based on the A-Class hatchback that I otherwise adore, though it’s a little too stiffly sprung and tough to slip in and out of – at least in AMG guise. This GLA 45, on the other hand, has just enough extra ride height to go with a more supple suspension tune in its comfort setting to be far friendlier in daily driving.

There’s also the same kind of wizardry here as the boxier and slightly bigger Mercedes GLB-Class, with a stunning amount of space inside considering this crossover’s small footprint. Second-row room in particular is impressive, with ample head- and legroom. In fact, my 6-foot-3 frame fits with ease – even with the driver’s seat in my normal seating position.

Cargo room is yet another way the GLA-Class impresses, with a wide opening and 435 L behind the back seats. Those seats also feature a 40/20/40 split that’s oh-so European and practical, allowing long items to occupy the centre section while retaining both outboard seats. Unfortunately, stashing those sides can only be done through each rear door, though it results in 1,430 L – enough to fit my 29er mountain bike in the back with nothing more than the front wheel removed.

User Friendliness: 8/10

Getting settled inside is a low-effort affair, with more conventional front seats than the ones found in the A 35 hatch (sport seats with aggressive bolstering can be added for $2,300). They also feature a trio of memory settings and all manner of adjustability, while outward visibility is superb.

It’s something of a minimalist space inside, though that doesn’t mean it’s as straightforward and sensible as it could be. For instance, the row of climate controls is as simple as it gets, and the infotainment interface is fairly logical. But the trackpad on the centre console is made redundant by the 10.25-inch touchscreen mounted high atop the dash, while the steering wheel features a finicky controller that provides a third way to operate the head unit.

There’s not one but two tiny touch-sensitive thumb pads on the steering wheel, with each presiding over the functionality of the twin screens spanning the dash: one for infotainment duty, the other in place of a conventional gauge cluster. It takes some finesse to get the hang of flicking and clicking around, particularly on the go, while both are sensitive to accidental inputs – as is the console-mounted trackpad.

The rest of the steering wheel controls are easy enough to understand, including the optional ones that place a drive mode dial and a pair of programmable buttons that allow the experience of the GLA 45 to be fine-tuned on the fly. Want quick access to the three-stage variable dampers? Simply set a button to manage them. How about an easy way to open and close the exhaust baffles? Program the other button to handle that. (There are permanent buttons for these features on the console, but they’re obscured by the useless hand rest behind the touchpad.)

Features: 8/10

With or without those additional controls on the wheel, the drive mode can be changed – or customized – via the head unit, which also includes Bluetooth connectivity and voice control. However, given this little crossover’s starting price of $60,500 before freight fees and taxes, it’s rather shocking that built-in navigation is optional, let alone Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Worse still, when either system is in use nearly a third of the infotainment display is occupied by nothing but dead space.

Power: 10/10

Of course, what that base price affords access to is a proper AMG engine and the most power per litre of displacement in the industry, according to Mercedes-Benz. While it used to be that every motor propelling an AMG-badged product was built by hand as part of a so-called “one man, one engine” philosophy, the brand’s proliferation in recent years saw its most popular four- and six-cylinder models, including the GLA 35, use mass-produced motors instead.

Stepping up to the GLA 45 is rewarded with a hand-built 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder that cranks out 382 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque, which is simply otherworldly. To put that in perspective, that’s more than half of what the hellacious Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Redeye needs a combined 8.9 L of displacement to produce.

Peak torque arrives at 3,000 rpm, and there’s some turbo lag down low beforehand; but once it gets there this GLA-Class absolutely howls its way to 100 km/h. Officially, it manages the sprint in some 4.4 seconds – about half a second quicker than the GLA 35 – and easily feels quicker than that with launch control engaged and its all-wheel drive system working hard.

Driving Feel: 10/10

This is where the GLA 45 really shines. Because this crossover is happy to oblige should a little hooliganism be in order. This isn’t simply a powerhouse but a precise and lively companion, responding to pokes of the throttle with focused fury. It’s not a bare-knuckle brawler but a highly disciplined streetfighter that strikes with accuracy.

The eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission runs through the cogs quickly, while the unique all-wheel drive system can theoretically send all the available torque to the rear wheels. The steering is well-weighted and feels direct, while body roll is a non-factor even when hustling hard on a twisting road with the suspension set to comfort and the drivetrain in its most menacing settings.

Once it’s all dialled back, however, the GLA 45 is just as satisfying slogging along during the daily commute. It’s relaxed and easy to drive, and it’s almost possible to forget about that AMG badge on the back. It doesn’t take much of a stab of the accelerator to serve as a reminder, though.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

Given its stout powertrain and overall perkiness, the GLA 45 isn’t the fuel-burner one might reasonably expect it to be. According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), it’s good for 11.6 L/100 km in the city, 8.8 on the highway, and 10.4 combined. For some context, the hotted-up Hyundai Veloster N is rated similarly with its automatic transmission. In reality, truncated testing over the course of some 585 km saw this little Mercedes put back 10.7 L/100 km of 91-octane fuel – not bad given the manner in which it was driven.

Comfort: 8/10

Whether operated with gusto or not, the GLA 45 manages to keep occupants comfortable – especially with the dampers in their softest setting. It’s a far more supple ride than the lower A 35 hatch provides, that much is certain, while the seats are supportive. They’re also heated up front but not in the back, while front-seat ventilation can be added for a rather steep $1,200.

Absent from the list of both standard and optional features is a heated steering wheel, though the microsuede this tester’s was wrapped in as part of the optional AMG track pack ($2,500) was a blessing when adrenaline was pumping and palms were sweaty. The dual-zone automatic climate control helped, too, cooling the cabin in a hurry.

Styling: 9/10

Finished in stunning black and red leather upholstery ($1,990), this tester’s interior had the show to match the go of the GLA 45. Unfortunately, it was missing one of my favourite features from the A 35 I tested – and one that’s included with the all-black leather interior: a red top-centre mark on the steering wheel. It’s subtle, yes, but it’s a simple styling element that would round out the look.

Otherwise, the cabin features flashy HVAC vents and ambient lighting, as well as optional wood panels ($250) that add a dash of sophistication to the sportiness. It’s only the gloss-black plastic that misses the mark for me, with the finish attracting dust and fingerprints so quickly that it’s all but impossible to keep it clean.

This little crossover has the right amount of visual cues outside to tell the world it’s packing something special without going overboard. The gaping AMG grille, bright red brake calipers, and quad exhaust tips are understated signals only keen observers will pick up on. A blackout package ($1,000) was added to my tester, which replaced most chrome finishes with dark ones, while black cross-spoke wheels ($1,750) provided just a hint of subtle aggression.

Safety: 8/10

All manner of advanced safety and driver-assist systems can be added to the GLA-Class, but few come standard – even in this range-topping trim. Beyond forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, features like blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control come by way of the options list.

Value: 7/10

Those features only help to drive up the price of an already expensive little crossover. While the $60,500 sticker price before freight and taxes isn’t outrageous for the kind of performance it delivers – a Honda Civic Type R is about $48,000 before tax – the GLA 45 gets pricey when equipped with add-ons. This particular tester wasn’t fitted with any driver-assist suites beyond blind-spot monitoring, yet it still stickered at $76,430 with extras.

The Verdict

That’s the dilemma of the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 45. Make no mistake – there’s a lot stuffed into this small package. But the same kind of money could buy a larger GLC 43 that’s just as powerful but not quite as quick. It also lacks a hand-built engine under the hood, which is where this pint-sized performer really sets itself apart.

There’s no denying that this GLA 45 is a genuine dual-purpose performance vehicle, with outrageous excitement in a package that’s easier to live with than the average hot hatch. There’s also no compromise that comes with its slightly stilted suspension compared to the AMG-tuned A-Class hatchback, which makes it supremely cool in my books.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.0L   Model Tested 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 45
Engine Cylinders Turbo I4   Base Price $60,500
Peak Horsepower 382 hp @ 6,400 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 354 lb-ft @ 3,000–4,000 rpm   Destination Fee N/A
Fuel Economy 11.6 / 8.8 / 10.4 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $76,530
Cargo Space 435 / 1,430 L seats up/down  
Optional Equipment
$15,930 – Premium Package, $3,900; AMG Track Package, $2,500; AMG Driver’s Package, $2,000; Red and Black Leather Upholstery, $1,990; 21-inch AMG Cross-Spoke Wheels, $1,750; Night Package, $1,000; Navigation Package, $1,000; Digital White Paint, $890; Surround-View Camera, $650; Black Open-Pore Wood Trim, $250