The new 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class is the smallest SUV you can get from the three-pointed star-previously, the boxy GLK was the littlest crossover in the brand's lineup. With downsizing come great responsibilities, especially when it comes to German luxury brands renowned for their prestige and engineering prowess. Thankfully, the GLA comes well-armed for battle against the likes of the BMW X1 and Range Rover Evoque.

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While taking on those foes, Mercedes bestowed the GLA with styling that's elegant, not gimmicky, and two solid powerplants plucked from the CLA sedan: a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder which produces 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, and a hopped-up GLA45 AMG version good for 355 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque. Both are routed through a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. Unlike its coupe-inspired CLA counterpart, the GLA's roofline is more upright (as is its ride height), enabling more generous rear headroom, but similarly lacks legroom. Mercedes-Benz's 4Matic all-wheel drive is featured on the GLA250 and GLA45 AMG models which will hit showrooms in September 2014, while a front-drive GLA250 is expected by next spring. Official pricing has not yet been announced, but the GLA should come in just under the CLA's $29,900 starting price.

Flows Right

Penned with a balanced hand, this first-ever compact crossover from Mercedes manages to combine both tasteful elegance and strong road presence-which takes on a more aggressive demeanor when ordered in leaner, meaner AMG form.

Inside, the cabin design offers a continuation of that theme, with a slightly more aggressive design language that incorporates galvanized bevels that make a masculine, big SUV-like statement. A solid list of standard equipment includes 18-inch wheels, a power liftgate, Bluetooth, and a 5.8" display screen. Among the standard safety items are collision prevention assist and attention assist. Bundled options include the premium package, which adds satellite radio, dual zone climate control, and heated seats. 

On-Road, Off-Road

Sling a GLA250 across tarmac, and you'll find that the driving experience feels much like the small sport /ute looks: taut, compact, and nicely balanced with a hint of jauntiness. Sure, the entry-level engine pales in comparison to its burlier, 355 horsepower AMG counterpart, but the base powerplant proves entirely adequate for zipping around town. Similarly, the base GLA's suspension feels planted and confident in corners; add a sports suspension, and the ride gets stiffer but the handling moves up a notch. Opt for the GLA45, and everything happens much faster: 60 mph arrives in 4.8 seconds, direction changes feel sharp and instantaneous thanks to stiffly tuned suspension, and slamming the brakes brings you to a stop sooner. The GLA45 may not feel quite as angry or as hot rod-ish as most other AMGs, but its progressive performance and lusty thrust make it more entertaining than most when provoked.

Perhaps the GLA's biggest surprise, however, is its ability to negotiate trails and light offroad work. Switch to the offroad mode, and Comand-equipped models will display steering position, roll angle, and the percentage of grade on the nav screen-not what you'd typically expect from a small premium compact crossover. We even lifted a rear wheel on a Euro-spec model with a raised ride height while traversing a challenging trail. Despite its road-biased ride, the GLA can plot a confident course across dirt and mud, delivering enough suspension travel to make it through many untrodden paths. Most compact crossovers don't have standard hill descent control-and frankly, most don't need it. But if you have the slightest inclination to head off the beaten path, it's good to know the GLA is ready for a bit of impromptu offroading if the mood or circumstance inspires.

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Winning Formula

The 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA has all the classic ingredients for success: enviable brand cachet, attractive sheetmetal, and a relatively low cost of entry. Sure, a generous equipment list will cost you (as will the pumped-up AMG version), but considering its value advantages over the competition, we suspect the GLA will do very well for itself in the long run.

Our advice? Opt for a GLA250, add a Premium Package, and call it a day. Even if you never take this bad boy offroad, you'll get a nimble, well-constructed compact crossover that delivers a rare combination of youthful energy and sophistication.

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