Traveling in Style

If you have read any of my previous reviews, you will remember that my favorite type of vehicle is the hot hatchback, also referred to as the “hot hatch.” With features like light and easy handling, precise steering, quick acceleration and room for just about anything, it is easy to see why this class of vehicle is so appealing. Automotive giants like Volkswagen and Ford have been producing some of the “best bang for your buck” cars lately. Ford has built the Golf R, Focus and Fiesta ST, and continues to build a major following among the target audience. Other companies like Audi, Mazda, Mini, Subaru and even Honda are in the ring throwing the best they have to sharpen their selection and offer a little edge to the class. However, with the GLA45 AMG, Mercedes-Benz has created an entirely new class of their own. It is called the “hyper hatch,” and you might want to familiarize yourself with the term. These vehicles provide just about the most fun you can have without going to jail.

Now, let me clarify. The GLA45 AMG is technically classified as a compact crossover, but standing next to it, it is almost exactly the same size as a Golf R, give or take a few millimeters. Just standing next to it, the car screams hatchback in every pitch. The only thing that is different is that it adds about 30 millimeters of ride height, which is great for the mild adventurer. This is not some slow-driving, left-lane-hogging, fast-food-getting, child-chauffeuring, leaves-the-blinker-on bore fest. No. This is a rally car disguised in sheep’s clothing, which can, coincidentally, do all of those things as well. Did I mention there is enough room inside for four people and a living room set from IKEA®?

So, with a car that I would classify with the word “hyper” in it, you would expect it to have a pretty impressive power plant, right? With forged pistons, one large turbocharger and a virtually flat torque curve past 2,500 rpm, you are looking at the most potent production four-cylinder on the market. With 355 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque drive, all four wheels are equipped with the Mercedes-Benz 4Matic system. This system will take you from 0-60 mph in 4.8 seconds, while delivering one of the best four-cylinder, rally car-type growls you have ever heard. It has one of the liveliest and most charismatic engines I have ever driven. All kinds of pops, crackles and bangs come from the exhaust on slightly over rev, and it sounds like a burly snarl from a lion when waking up on startup. The car behaves much like older turbocharged cars through the rev range. From idle to about 2,500 rpm, the vehicle has a slow swell that builds up exponentially. Then, the turbo kicks in, followed by a huge wave of torque that is constant and power that continually increases. It is a hilariously exciting occasion. Nothing beats its Race Start mode. After entering a series of buttons, paddles and switches, you hold both pedals down and the engine stays at 3,000 rpm. Let off the brake and you are off like a rocket.

Mercedes-Benz’s dual-clutch transmission also makes the cut for the GLA45 AMG. Shifts are well-suited to the driving mode that is selected. In comfort, it starts in second gear and lazily shifts, offering smooth shifts and gradual acceleration. On the other hand, when performing in Race Start mode, shifts catch so quickly that you feel it in the back of your head, pushing you forward. It adds an immense amount of theatrics, while Sport Mode is somewhere in between.

The powertrain takes a bit of getting used to before you can understand and operate it accordingly. Initially, it seemed like there was a disconnect or delay between pressing the pedal and actually setting off, but working with the clutches and modulating the throttle brings good control of everything and primes the dual-clutch transmission to do what it is supposed to. The only time the transmission is lackluster is when you are in fifth gear and suddenly want to shift into second to blast off in a fireball of growling goodness. There is a one-second delay initially, but once it is found, it goes. The solution is to plan ahead. Downshift with the paddles before you decide to punch it and the engine and dual-clutch transmission will always be in stride.

The only major cons I experienced with this car were in regard to the suspension, and it is not what you might think. The suspension greatly complements the performance of the car by offering high levels of grip, low body roll in corners and a planted feel on corner exits. My issue is with what it is actually like to drive the vehicle around town. I would love to see it come with adaptive dampening like the larger AMGs because the firm ride can seem uncomfortable after about 45 minutes of driving. Now, I should disclose that this car had the optional performance seats. Let us just say that comfort was not the first thing on their to-do list. I will say that the seats held me in better than any other seat I have had the pleasure of sitting in. The chassis is progressive and predictable, with a slight tendency to over-steer, but it was not uncontrollable. In Sport ESP mode, you get a little more wiggle room to play with the limit, but the systems are still there to save you. Safety features are also present to help watch your back while you are having fun driving the car. The steering could have more feedback and the turning radius was not overly impressive, but it still got the job done.

Speaking of watching your back, the GLA45 AMG comes standard with some pretty cool gadgets to keep you and your passengers at ease. The most intriguing one was the Brake Assist System (BAS). Essentially, the BAS is a nanny that uses stereo cameras and three different ranges of radars to monitor your course and help if it detects a collision. If the system detects an obstacle, it can prime the brakes and increase the sensitivity to help the driver stop in time, even if the driver does not apply enough force. Your brake pedal also becomes a backup braking function so the car will stop within an appropriate distance, if possible. It is scary to test, but it never failed once. The BAS plus Collision Prevention Assist and Attention Assist features make the car amazingly well-rounded. Standard bi-xenon and LED headlamps make sure the path ahead is lit at all times, and the voice recognition system keeps your eyes where they should be.

Even with no “options” on it, the GLA45 AMG comes well-equipped with Bluetooth audio, high-definition radio, 12-way power seats and a power hatchback. Of the packages, the premium package adds the most value with heated seats, automatic dual-zone climate control, a Harman Kardon sound system, automatic dimming mirrors and a few other goodies.

The visibility in the car is quite good, with mirrors of decent size and manageable blind spots. The rearview camera is not necessary, but it is a feature that offers drivers additional peace of mind. The pod-style vents, which wok very well, have to be the coolest looking thing ever. Although the infotainment screen takes some getting used to and seems like it is floating or a little out of place, it is a very responsive system with minimal delay.

Being a Mercedes-Benz vehicle, the initial quality of the materials that are incorporated are second-to-none. Everything is covered in soft-touch material with a premium feel incorporated into every button and stitch. What is even more impressive is that there are no bumps, rattles or squeaks because of how firm and sporty the ride is. It is completely solid. The engine ran a bit warm, but that is expected when pushing a high performance turbo engine. Dollar for dollar, it is hard to beat the package that Mercedes-Benz has produced. Grunt, noise, handling, safety and technology are all wrapped up in a box that looks aggressive, without being silly. At the end of the test drive, the car had taken me on one heck of a ride. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

A special thank you to Mercedes-Benz of Plano for loaning this vehicle to me to drive. Working with the dealership was a very positive experience!

Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson is the digital media manager at Frisco STYLE Magazine. He is the lead auto writer and has a passion for cars.