Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - GLA - 45 AMG
Engine, transmission, exhaust soundtrack, ride quality, handling competence, long equipment list
Room for improvement
Front seats a bit of a let-down for taller drivers
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13 Nov 2014
NEGOTIATING a set of consecutive sweeping corners with scant regard for suggestions from those typically conservative yellow speed advisory signs, the GLA45 just hunkers down, gathers itself up and reveals more and more of its prodigious reserves of traction and grip the harder its accelerator is pushed.
Categorised as an SUV without looking or feeling much like one, the GLA45 is a car that just encourages you to push harder and faster, for it can feel a bit floaty in fast bends unless the driver shows a degree of commitment through their right foot on the way out.
It also rewards with its excellent exhaust soundtrack, with the revs above 4500rpm and the throttle open there is an almost motorcycle-esque howl emanating from the tailpipes, followed by a chatter of pops and crackles on the over-run when coming off the power or a whip-crack when changing up a gear.
Once up and running the heavily turbocharged four-cylinder responds instantly, with linear power delivery and no turbo-related delays. A slight hesitation at initial acceleration from standstill that lingers until around 2000rpm is the only clue to there being a big blower under the bonnet.
But this car reveals another side to its personality when its talents are not called for, delivering its occupants from A to B in comfort and style, but like an athlete in a tailored suit, there are omnipresent and tantalising hints at the potential within.
It starts from first fire-up of the engine, announcing its highly tuned presence with a loud throat-clearing blast through the four tailpipes before settling down into a purposeful rumble at idle that sends vibrations through the car – unless the idle-stop system is activated.
We must assume this is deliberate, visibly shaking bonnet panel of our test car adding character and making us feel as though a barely restrained animal of an engine was just itching to be released from its shackles.
At urban speeds, even modest acceleration is greeted with a deep burbling exhaust note acting as a statement of intent, before settling down to silence once up and running, for relatively serene cruising. Hats off to AMG for delivering satisfying sounds while eliminating tiresome boominess.
Of course a car like this rides firmly but the GLA’s jacked-up ride height (19mm over the A45) and well-damped AMG suspension mean that while potholes make their presence known, they do not send shockwaves through the cabin or otherwise disturb progress.
Overall the GLA45’s ride is impressively compliant and controlled, especially compared with its lower-slung brethren.
This was especially true on the aforementioned sweeping bends, with a large crater trying its best – and failing – to throw us off line or feed much kick-back through the steering.
The GLA45’s well presented and laid-out interior feels solid and is packed with every gadget from the options list of lesser variants, helping justify the considerable price gulf between this and the mid-spec GLA250 4MATIC. We did detect one or two annoying trim rattles though.
Recaro sports seats up front offer a bewildering array of powered adjustment – including how firmly the bolsters grip and a huge range of height settings – and the steering wheel adjusts for reach and rake. Plenty of headroom is available front and rear, while rear legroom is adequate for the long of leg.
However for taller drivers the incredibly firm front Recaros lack thigh support and can feel as though they are pushing the body forwards, so it can feel like more of a perch than a seat. That said, we did not experience back pains or numb-bum during our many hours in these seats.
Our drive through suburban Melbourne and into the nearby Yarra Valley revealed more about the GLA45’s distance-cruising ability – long-legged and comfortable apart from some high levels of road noise on the coarse-chip bitumen typical of Australian country roads – than its mountain pass handling.
That wasn’t the fault of Mercedes-Benz event planners, more the presence of a slow and ancient Mitsubishi Triton towing a trailer on what would have otherwise been the most exciting and dynamic part of the drive route.
Luckily some track time at Sandown had been booked, where it was possible to explore the GLA45’s handling characteristics without fear of colliding with a gigantic mountain ash tree or arousing the attentions of the local constabulary.
The Alcantara-trimmed AMG steering wheel, oddly squared off at top as well as the now customary bottom, is a delight to hold and provides direct, accurate, keen changes of direction.
On a track it was possible to find the limits of grip, but at speeds rarely contemplated on the public road. At all times the GLA45’s composed and compliant suspension ironed out undulations and ensured it was not upset by clipping kerbs.
The thrashing these little cars endured was testament to the drivetrain’s integrity, especially as we started the day with countless repeated full-bore starts using the ‘Race Start’ launch control function, the initiation process of which at first felt needlessly more complicated than other systems on the market but was no problem once accustomed.
However, there seemed to be some inconsistency about how the car launched, the front-end sometimes axle-tramping multiple times before drive was sent rearward. It isn’t clear if this was the electronic brain’s judgement call to avoid bogging down off the line by allowing a bit of front-wheel slip.
To say the GLA45 AMG offers a Jekyll and Hyde personality is a disservice to its breadth of abilities and in isolation it feels like an admirably uncompromised blend of sportscar and city runabout, with its searing performance and fun driving experience not diluting – or diluted by – its luxurious feel, interior comfort and practicality.
Yes it might lack the overall performance edge and sharpness of the lower-slung A45 and CLA45 but they have their own practicality and comfort compromises. We can see why some people at Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific think the GLA45 will become the most popular AMG among its compact offerings.
The GLA45 looks, feels and sounds special but will cope with everyday use without penalising you at the petrol pump yet it is the kind of car that will have you heading for the nearest mountain pass at weekends just for the hell of it.
That’s a lot to ask from one car but between the boffins at Stuttgart and Affalterbach the GLA45 comes close to the mark. As an all-rounder, think of the GLA45 as a Golf GTI that has been to the gym and is prone to the odd bout of ’roid rage.
At least you get to decide when to unleash the rage. It’s called Race Start mode.
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