Mercedes-Benz has been on an AMG-all-the-things kick lately, but I’m not sure if that’s a blessing or a curse. On one hand, you’re spoiled for choice – there’s at least one spiced up, AMG-tuned variant of every model in the Mercedes lineup, like this 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 4MATIC+. But of course, that comes at the expense of exclusivity; what does it say when the three-letter badge of honour once reserved for the hairiest of hairy, high-po Benzes now appears on even the most garden variety of crossovers?
Freshly redesigned for 2021, the Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 is the German automaker’s latest push to beef up the AMG lineup, for better or worse. It slots between the base GLA 250 and bonkers GLA 45, intended as a Goldilocks-like balance between performance, luxury, and (relative) affordability.
Power comes from a massaged version of Mercedes’ 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, putting out a stout 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Hooked up to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, which sends all that kick to all four wheels, the GLA 35 hits 100 km/h from a standstill in 4.9 seconds. Respectable numbers for sure, right in line not only with the likes of the BMW X2 M35i, but also hot hatches such as the Volkswagen Golf R and Honda Civic Type R.
Problem is, when you push the GLA 35, it isn’t particularly dramatic. The A 35 impressed us with its firecracker-like personality, yet despite the similarities under the skin, the GLA 35 is far more demure and grown-up. The dual-clutch transmission kicks down quickly, but the steering lacks feedback and the exhaust system simply too quiet for its own good – sure, you get a bit more volume when you pop it into Sport and Sport+ modes, but it’s not as raucous as you’d expect.
Now, that’s not to say the GLA 35 isn’t without its merits. Despite the lack of aural drama, the GLA 35 absolutely takes off when you put your foot into it, making quick work of merging, passing, and stoplight drag races. As well, the standard 4Matic+ all-wheel-drive system is smart and helps the GLA hunker down and bite quickly in nastier weather. And although the steering is numb, it’s certainly accurate; combined with well-controlled body roll and the AWD system, snowy days and tight on-ramps (though not at the same time) will become your best friends.
Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of your friendship with rough roads. The optional 20-inch wheels certainly look pretty, but you’ll feel every single bump, manhole cover, expansion joint, and pothole. That said, on smoother pavement, the GLA’s highway manners are commendable – wind and road noise are well-managed, and the powertrain easily fades into the background with the GLA’s so-called “AMG Dynamic Select” doohickey set to Comfort mode.
Fuel economy is respectable. Mercedes-Benz has yet to announce official numbers for Canada, but the GLA 35’s trip computer settled at 10.6L/100km after a fairly even split between spirited city and highway driving over a week.
Middling powertrain aside, there’s otherwise a lot to like about the new GLA. Although it still somewhat resembles a tall hatchback from the outside, the 2021 rework results in some handsome bodywork and less awkward proportions. This is most evident inside, where the seating position and overall ergonomics are much more SUV-like. Calling the previous-gen GLA a crossover – particularly in AMG flavour – was a stretch. This new one? Not so much.
Inside, Mercedes’ new MBUX infotainment headlines the biggest changes for 2021. The setup looks slick – a pair of high-res 10.25-inch displays span across most of the dashboard, although the touchpad takes some getting used to. Still, it’s executed better than similar setups you’d find in, say, Acura and Lexus.
Once you master the slight learning curve, you’ll appreciate MBUX for its sharp and bright displays, crisp graphics, highly customizable interfaces, and the smart voice assistant activated simply by saying “Hey, Mercedes.” Not only can she help change the radio station, futz with the climate control and heated seats, and input navigation directions without having you take your hands off the steering wheel, but she’s also sassy – go ahead and ask her what she thinks of Audi and BMW.
But it’s not all about the infotainment. Material quality is top notch save for a few lower dash and door panels, fit-and-finish is excellent, and the interior ambient lighting looks incredibly cool at night. Ergonomics are mostly on point; visibility all around is good and for better or worse, the seating position is more SUV-like. There’s more than enough headroom and legroom up front and out back, and cargo space punches in at a sizeable 435 litres with the rear seats up, and 1,430 folded flat. For the record, the X2 M35i has more space behind the seats, but the GLA 35 has the advantage when you drop them.
All that said, value isn’t the GLA 35’s strong suit. Starting at $52,900, our particular tester was equipped with the Premium Package, which for $3,900 adds a bunch of features that should really be standard, including blind-spot monitoring, a power liftgate, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. It also had the $1,700 AMG Driver’s Package, adding bits like 20-inch wheels, a lap timer and performance tracker integrated into the infotainment, and a part-leather, part-Alcantara steering wheel with a red stripe and a couple of switches that let you toggle the various drive modes, suspension stiffness, and stability control. Neat stuff, but you’d think all that would be standard as well, given the AMG badge’s intentions.
Integrated navigation and the so-called Night Package (which is really just a bunch of black exterior trim) are another $1,000 a piece, and the admittedly lovely open-pore wood trim is $250. Crunch the numbers and that totals to a whopping $60,750 – and that’s not even including adaptive cruise control (part of the $1,600 Technology Package) or a 360-degree camera (another $650). Oh, and neither a heated steering wheel nor cooled seats are even optional. Ouch.
Mercedes’ push to AMG-all-the-things has resulted in a lot more choice and some true gems, like A 35 hatch and the C 43 wagon. But considering the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 4MATIC+’s merits don’t outweigh its shortcomings, this Benz with a backpack isn’t so much a Goldilocks as it is a forgotten middle child in the AMG family. The GLA 45 should prove to be the one to have in this lineup.