Enthuasists may cringe at the term crossover, but the Mercedes-Benz GLA-class is not the bloated people carrier usually associated with that word. Despite being marketed as an SUV, it’s really more a sport-oriented hatchback with a slightly increased ride height. And though it’s been refreshed for the 2018 model year, its core values remain intact—why change what works? Mercedes-Benz found American driveways for more than 24,000 GLAs in 2016.
Keepin it Fresh
Updates to the 2018 GLA-class amount to little more than a light freshening. New LED headlamps flank a restyled grille with crossbars that feature rectangular punctures like those on the larger GLS-class SUV. A revised front bumper with larger integrated fog lamps, revised LED taillights, and new wheel designs round out the exterior tweaks. Inside, an 8.0-inch infotainment screen replaces last year’s 7.0-incher, additional chrome brightwork adorns the dashboard, door panels, and center console, and new, more legible black-faced gauges replace the 2017’s gray-faced units.
A backup camera is now standard, and the power rear liftgate can be opened or closed with a quick wave of your foot under the bumper so long as the key fob is in your pocket. Android Auto joins the connectivity party as part of the Smartphone Integration package that previously included only Apple CarPlay. A new Night package adds a menacing exterior appearance and includes 19-inch aluminum wheels, window trim, exterior mirrors, roof rails, and exhaust tips all painted a glossy black.
The GLA has never been particularly roomy and the 2018 model is no different. Front-seat occupants don’t have much to complain about, especially when seated in the Benz’s optional sport seats, but those relegated to the back may feel cramped on longer journeys. Fitting five adults in the GLA is unpleasant even for short trips, it’s an all too intimate setting. The panoramic sunroof fitted to the GLA250 4MATIC we drove robbed precious headroom, too.
Although the cabin isn’t as posh as what you’ll find in an S-class—or even a C-class for that matter—it’s stylish enough, a bit more so with the newly added flourishes. It also seems well made and from high-quality materials.
New Look, Same Cook
Under the GLA’s contoured hood lies the same turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four as before. Its 208 horses and 258 lb-ft of torque are dispatched through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and then out to either the front or all four wheels. Mercedes-Benz claims a zero-to-60-mph time of 7.2 seconds, but in our test of a 2016 GLA250 4MATIC—Mercedes-speak for all-wheel drive—we managed to shave more than a second off that estimate. That’s quick enough for a small crossover, and we have no reason to think the 2018 model won’t be just as swift.
The turbocharger needs time to spool up, so when driven with a light right foot, the GLA feels more sluggish than its performance numbers suggest. The dual-clutch transmission is no help either; it lurches from gear to gear, particularly in the Comfort driving mode. Even when the Sport mode is engaged the gearbox continues to exhibit a certain unpredictability, but it’s less noticeable since engine speeds hang higher in the rev range.
Handling is sharp and sure-footed, though, which gives the GLA a sporty feel that its softer, more SUV-like rivals lack. The steering wheel needs only a light touch; its precision is appreciated and adds to the GLA’s agility. Take a corner at speed and the GLA settles in quickly with its firm suspension allowing little body roll.
The trade-off for such eagerness is a ride that can feel choppy and unnecessarily rough over bumpy stretches. Those seeking isolation from the unpleasantries of our country’s pockmarked infrastructure should look at the Lexus NX or perhaps the Lincoln MKC. Those softies are simply better at smoothing out road imperfections, but, driving enthusiasts will prefer the GLA on a snaking back road.
GLA-ing to Grandma’s House
With the intent of dispelling the notion that the GLA is incapable of actual off-roading, Benz set up a trial area in a woodsy expanse inside Hungary’s Hungaroring racetrack and set us loose. With its Dynamic Select toggle set to the Off-Road drive mode, the 4MATIC system uses individual brakes to regulate traction at both axles. The system is surprisingly adept and the GLA manages to claw its way up the steep dirt passes. Heading back down, we were instructed to punch a chrome-veneered button on the center console marked DSR. It stands for Downhill Speed Regulation—it’s more commonly known as Hill Descent Control—and with it activated, the GLA will safely creep down a grade at a preset speed. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever see a GLA250 4MATIC traversing Moab amongst Jeep Wranglers or bounding over desert dunes next to Ford F-150 Raptors—because it can’t do those things—but its off-road gear should make it more than suitable for snowy commutes, rutted two-track roads, or other occasional outdoor adventure.
The compromises the GLA requires in usability and comfort may be too much for some—again, it’s more of a tall hatchback than a real CUV—but Mercedes-Benz’s littlest ute belongs on the shopping lists of luxury-minded buyers who value driving prowess over practicality.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front- or all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback
BASE PRICES: GLA250, $34,325;
GLA250 4MATIC, $36,325
ENGINE TYPE: turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve inline-4, aluminum block and head, direct fuel injection
Displacement: 122 cu in, 1991 cc
Power: 208 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 1250 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Length: 173.9 in
Width: 71.0 in Height: 60.0 in
Passenger volume: 78–80 cu ft
Cargo volume: 15 cu ft
Curb weight (C/D est): 3350–3500 lb
PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
Zero to 60 mph: 6.0–6.1 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 16.8–17.1 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 14.6–14.8 sec
Top speed: 130 mph
FUEL ECONOMY (C/D EST):
EPA combined/city/highway driving: 26–27/23–24/31–33 mpg