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Mercedes-Benz’s GLA45 AMG is a jacked-up, go-fast hatchback for grownups

The idea of a subcompact SUV might be uncharted water for Mercedes, but the 2015 GLA45 AMG has the performance, styling, and luxury expected from the German automaker.

As if the last decade hasn’t already seen the line between SUV and crossover blurred enough as it is, automakers have taken things a step further recently with the introduction of smaller utility vehicles that are essentially jacked-up hatchbacks

On the luxury side of things, the market for premium vehicles that are affordable and small is starting to heat up here in the U.S., and the 2015 Mercedes GLA45 AMG aims to bolster the growing small-car lineup for Mercedes-Benz.

Based on the same platform as the popular CLA-Class (as well as the A-Class and B-Class), the 2015 GLA is pitted in the growing premium small utility vehicle market that includes the BMW X1 and Audi Q3, but the GLA45 AMG aims to take this segment to a new level of styling and performance for the younger buyers Mercedes hopes to attract. To find out just what kind of excitement Mercedes-Benz can cram into such a small package, we headed to Burlington, Vermont to spend a couple days with the 2015 Mercedes GLA45 AMG.

AMG scaled down, not scaled back

Not to break ranks from other AMG-branded performance models, Mercedes-Benz made sure that the highlight of the 2015 Mercedes GLA45 AMG was its engine. This hand-built 2.0-liter four-cylinder mill uses turbocharging and direct injection to help produce an incredible 355 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque, which Mercedes continues to tout as the most powerful production four-cylinder turbo engine in the world. With this setup, the 3,428-pound GLA45 AMG can scoot from 0 to 60 in just 4.8 seconds on its way to a top speed of 155 mph.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

If nothing else, buyers are going to want to check the box for the optional $450 AMG Performance Exhaust system. This marginal added expense pays for itself the first time the GLA45 AMG is fired up with rumbles, burbles and pops not commonly associated with a four-cylinder. Better yet, tip the GLA45 AMG’s seven-speed AMG-tuned dual clutch transmission into Sport mode, and heavy acceleration will emanate some V8-like noises from the exhaust outlets.

More surprising than its raw power is the fact that buyers won’t give up much in the way of fuel economy when making the jump from GLA250 4MATIC to the GLA45 AMG. The 2015 Mercedes GLA45 AMG is rated at 23 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, with a combined rating of 25 mpg, which isn’t that much lower than the 24 city/32 highway/27 combined rating for the all-wheel-drive GLA250 that is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder rated at just 208 hp and 258 lb-ft.

Sticking to Vermont roads

Vermont might be known best for its maple syrup, awesome winter ski weather, and its hordes of Subaru wagons, but some of the roads in this state are as lust-worthy as the pavement found in Southern California. To help direct all engine’s power to the ground, the GLA45 AMG comes standard with a AMG-tuned version of the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system that can send up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels and – unlike the GLA250 – the AMG model also features torque vectoring that is achieved by brake application at the rear inside wheel.

The AMG-tuned GLA looks and feels more like a hatchback version of a CLA rather than a hunkered-down crossover.

AMG also went to work on the GLA’s steering and braking system to make this performance model handle as well as it accelerates. Starting off in the city, the difference in the steering isn’t all that noticeable, but the touchy upsized brakes with drilled and slotted rotors felt a little too grabby during normal stops. Once we got out into the twisty Vermont roads, though, the upgraded brakes were easy to appreciate as the GLA45 AMG could brake much later than its taller GLA250 counterpart without feeling unbalanced.

Other elements that helped maximize the GLA45’s smile-inducing cornering abilities were the 235/40ZR20 Continental ContiSportContact summer performance tires and the $1,950 AMG Driver’s Package that was recognizable by the red calipers and 20-inch wheels but also included an even stiffer suspension than the standard GLA45 AMG.

Size matters

Browsing the spec sheet, the size of the North American GLA250 is on par with other small crossovers (including an overall height of 60 inches), but the GLA45 AMG sits at just 58.2 inches tall, which is not even a full inch taller than the current Mazda3. As such, while the GLA250 can justify its crossover moniker, this AMG-tuned GLA looks and feels more like a hatchback version of a CLA-Class rather than a hunkered-down crossover, and that is definitely a good thing.

In its transformation from GLA250 to GLA45, Mercedes made sure to give the AMG model a distinctive look from any angle, which starts with a noticeably lower stance and a more aggressive styling. Up front, the two-bar grille has been replaced with a more streamlined appearance and a subtle AMG badge, while the fascia gets massive air intakes that become familiar across Mercedes-Benz’s current AMG products. The rear view is also spiced up considerably with a faux diffuser and vertical air vents, as well as quadruple exhaust outlets integrated into the fascia.

To really get the most from the GLA45 AMG’s styling, be sure to check out two option packages: the $2,150 AMG Aerodynamics Package and the $750 AMG Night Styling Package. The former adds a unique chin spoiler, small aero wings to the front fascia, and a substantial rear wing that was likely inspired by Mercedes’ DTM racecars.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

Unfortunately, despite its name, the AMG Aerodynamics Package doesn’t actually improve the aerodynamics of the GLA45 AMG, which is due to the fact that its limited top speed of 155 mph wouldn’t benefit from any additional downforce, according to Mercedes. To the right eyes, it sure does look good, though, as does the Night Styling package that adds a sinister blacked-out appearance including the roof rails, mirrors, fascia accents and exhaust outlets, and this is amplified further by the $850 20-inch, 10-spoke black AMG wheels.

A hot-hatch for grownups

At first glance, it is hard not to envision the 2015 Mercedes GLA45 AMG as a luxury version of your favorite hot hatch. The good news here being that while your typical Subaru WRX STI, Volkswagen Golf R, or the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution all start life as economy-minded compact cars wearing a mid-$30,000 price tag, the GLA45 AMG brings all of the comfort, technology and refinement expected from anything wearing the Mercedes-Benz tri-star logo.

To anyone looking for a healthy dose of performance without having to give up too much practicality, the GLA45 AMG is a great option.

Mercedes is marketing the GLA-Class as an active lifestyle vehicle for “pre-family” customers, so it focused the majority of the comfort to the front occupants. In base form, the GLA45 AMG gets a nice set of sport bucket seats with integrated headrests, but buyers looking for optimal support (even if it sacrifices long-distance comfort), Mercedes offers the AMG Performance Seats. Trimmed in the Black “Red Cut” leather, this tester had the optional $3,750 as well as the $950 carbon fiber trim and the Alcantara-lined $500 AMG Performance Steering Wheel, which all added up to a pricey yet sporty interior ambiance.

To anyone looking for a healthy dose of performance without having to give up too much practicality, the GLA45 AMG is a great option. In a pinch, the rear seats can accommodate three of your closest (and more civil) friends, and there is also plenty of cargo room. Mercedes says that the CLA has an “emotional design with a small back seat,” and while the GLA’s rear seat is still a bit tight, there is far more headroom and cargo space thanks to its two-box design.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

One of the few complaints about the interior of the 2015 GLA-Class is the hard plastic along the lower edge of the instrument panel. Rather than the rest of the soft-touch materials inside the cabin, the lower part of the dash and the sides of the center console are covered in a hard, textured plastic that aren’t really an issue until drivers get the GLA45 AMG in its ideal environment – tight, twisty roads.

Pay to play

Stepping up from the GLA250 4Matic to the 2015 Mercedes GLA45 AMG will run you a cool $15,000, but like all Mercedes-Benz products, checking a few option boxes can quickly increase the bottom-line price. As such, the $48,300 starting price of the GLA45 AMG quickly swelled to $66,405 when factoring in the additional styling, performance and technology equipped on this tester.

At that price, the GLA45 AMG’s price and boy-racer styling (especially with the optional big wing and black wheels) might not match up but after spending two days and about 200 miles driving this new model, this new model has the heart of a true Mercedes AMG vehicle regardless of how you look at it.

As big of a hit that the CLA-Class has been for Mercedes-Benz over the last year, the GLA-Class should do even better positioned in the red-hot market for subcompact luxury utility vehicles, and it definitely won’t hurt for customers to have the option of this GLA45 AMG model that looks as sporty as it drives.

Highs

  • Amazing acceleration and handling
  • Boy-racer styling
  • Performance exhaust sounds like a V8
  • Fuel economy hit is minimal considering added performance

Lows

  • High price points when loaded up
  • Boy-racer styling
  • Optional AMG seats aren’t great for long drives