Hot performer in hot segment

Compact SUVs are the hottest segment in the market right now. While the trend shows no signs of cooling off, the ironic nature of the compact SUV segment is that, as hot as the segment is, the vehicles themselves aren't particularly hot.  Roomy, versatile, easy to handle -- yes. Fun to drive, rewarding, high-performing -- not so much. But then along comes the Mercedes-AMG GLA45. It is everything compact SUVs are. As the result of our driving time of the vehicle in Hungary recently, we can confidently say it is indeed roomy, versatile and easy to handle. But additionally we can report it is incredibly fun, rewarding to drive and a high performer. And it has capabilities you'd never guess.

So why is it so much fun to drive? Well, Mercedes-Benz' AMG performance arm seems to have an uncanny knack for tickling our driving bone, and they have scored again with the GLA45. Though thoughtful touches abound, it is impossible not to start with the engine. The standard GLA250 and GLA250 4Matic feel just dandy with their 208-horsepower versions of the 2.0-liter engine. But things take on a completely different demeanor when you feel the thrust of the GLA45's 375 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque.

Sports car performance in an SUV

The AMG GLA45 vaults from zero to 60 mph in just 4.3 seconds -- performance car territory-- but equally impressive and less expected is the vehicle's extreme agility and ability to plant. Both are the product of AMG's superior engineering.

The handcrafted AMG 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo engine boasts a race-engine-like power-to-displacement ratio and yet it is completely tractable in low-speed, urban conditions. That simple fact is achieved through impressive complexity. The engine features spray-guided direct fuel injection via piezo injectors centrally located in the four combustion chambers. Through an ingeniously complicated combination of multiple fuel injection and multi-spark ignition, the engine achieves praiseworthy fuel economy, while its thermodynamic efficiency also results in low exhaust emissions.

Not high-strung and fussy

In days of yore you'd expect a highly tuned, racing-caliber engine to be fraught with part-throttle evils, but the 2.0-liter in the GLA45 exhibits none of those ills. Turbo lag? Nope. Lumpy idle? Nope. Inordinate fuel thirst? Nope. A lag between throttle application and response is what you might expect, but that is effectively neutralized by the twin-scroll turbocharger and maximum dethrottling of the exhaust system to improve pressure build-up. It works like this: apply throttle, feel immediate power and torque. Magic.

Since the deep recesses of time auto writers have described engines as "singing." In the GLA45 that metaphor has more than a little basis in fact. The standard exhaust system features an automatically controlled exhaust flap, so the intensity of the engine note changes according to the selected AMG DYNAMIC SELECT driving mode. With the optional AMG Performance Exhaust System, the car won't play your favorite tune, but the sound has a throatier burble, and it can be controlled by a switch or the selection of the drive program.

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More than just a powerful engine

Okay, you get it. We love the engine, but there's more to the GLA45's performance that just raw power. We also were impressed with the 7-speed manumatic transmission called, emphatically, AMG SPEEDSHIFT DCT. This dual-clutch transmission offers shorter ratios in gears three through seven than other GLAs, effectively getting you up to speed faster. It can be operated as a no-clutch manual via twin paddle shifters, and response times are extremely quick. In auto mode it has a nearly supernatural ability to choose the right gear for the task, making quick, positive shifts that enable you to concentrate on your forward vision.

Oh, and don't forget this is an SUV that has all-weather and off-road capabilities. Its standard 4MATIC all-wheel drive is AMG Performance-tuned to provide torque "steplessly and variably" to front and rear axles to match the driving situation. AMG has massaged the multiple-disc clutch integrated in the rear axle differential to deliver engine torque to the rear wheels should the front wheels lose traction. The GLA45 operates in most instances as a front-driver, but 50 percent of torque is directed to the rear axle when warranted.

Performance in all conditions

Our driving experience outside Budapest offered no snow and just brief spits of rain, but the GLA proved itself an all-around handler that shrugged off all conditions it was thrown into. Including urban creep-and-crawl near the city center.

For the 2018 model year, Mercedes-Benz has refreshed the styling of all its GLAs, and we like the changes. The Mercedes-AMG has a re-drawn, sharper front end, new air intake grilles, and a silver chrome front splitter insert. The formerly optional LED High Performance headlamps are now part of the standard equipment list, and multi-spoke 20-inch light-alloy wheels are optionally available in two colors: painted matte black with high-sheen rim flange or painted titanium grey with a high-sheen finish. Both are sharp.

Inside, the dashboard is covered with supple MB-Tex, featuring red contrast topstitching. The instrument cluster has gotten a minor makeover including a new numeral design, new gauge needles and a chrome frame. Perhaps the most appreciated new piece of equipment is the 360-degree "camera" that facilitates parking and maneuvering with a realistic surround view.

While we love the GLA45 we realize that the GLA250 will be the more practical choice, and the upgrades on the GLA250 are equally impressive. "Active Brake Assist" warns the driver if there is not sufficient distance between her or his GLA and the vehicle in front and, if advisable, it delivers autonomous braking in order to prevent a collision or minimize the consequences of a collision that cannot be avoided. Mercedes-Benz capitalized "ATTENTION ASSIST," also standard, which detects typical signs of drowsiness and warns the driver to take a snooze. Those of us who find our hands full will appreciate the optional "Hands-Free Access" that enables the rear hatch to be opened and closed with a foot movement.

In all the revised GLA250 is a very pleasant and useful small SUV that, equipped properly, can also perform remarkable feats off-road. And the AMG GLA45 is one of our new favorites -- agile, powerful and good-looking -- an unexpected sports car.


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