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First drive: 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG [Review]

Mercedes book-ends its CLA45 AMG sedan with the high-performance GLA45 AMG SUV.

The 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG 4Matic is the answer to the prayers uttered by those who were impressed by the brand's foray into compact SUVs, but disappointed by the output of the standard GLA250.

Still powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, this time built by the Mercedes-AMG tuning wizards in Affalterbach, it increases the AMG high-performance sport utility portfolio to four vehicles ranging from the GLA45 AMG, the ML63 AMG, the GL63 AMG and the big, brutish bruiser-boxed G63 AMG. With something for virtually every level of luxury goods buyer (providing you have the price of admittance) it's an embarrassment of riches.

A lowered suspension and lots more to raise expectations

Riding 4.5-inches off the pavement doesn't put this five-door hatchback in the running for the compact off-road vehicle of the year. Give that spot to the more pedestrian, but higher-riding GLA250, with its eight-inches of ground clearance over rocks and other rough terrain.

But this is clearly a case of less being more. What the GLA45 AMG lacks in clearance, it makes up in power and performance.

The GLA45 is powered by a 2.0-liter twin-scroll turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engine that produces 355-horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and 332 lb-ft of torque between 2,250 and 5,000 rpm. M-B claims it to be "the most powerful series-production” four-pot engine in the business. All GLA45s are available solely as 4Matic all-wheel-drive models and are mated to AMG's Speedshift DCT seven-speed dual-clutch sports transmission. Power is sent to the rear wheels via a power take off unit with two piece propshaft (for safety) that can send up to fifty-percent of the power rearward, in an imperceptible fashion. An electrohydraulic multi-disc clutch resides in the rear differential that is able to detect front wheel slippage. It's at this point that the clutch is pressed together, sending power to the rear.

Equipped with Race Start functionality, Daimler says it can launch the GLA45 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, but that's not to say it samples its petrol in Super Big Gulp fashion, like its G63 big brother. Au contraire, this 3,428-pounder drinks to the tune of a preliminary 23 city / 29 highway with a 25 mpg average. (Assisted by an ECO Start/Stop function.)

An AMG sports exhaust system is included with a variable vane in the rear muffler. And if it's not intoxicating enough, those with a thirst for extra aural excitement can order the available AMG Performance Exhaust system. More, more, more.

The baby G63 wanna-be rides on an AMG in-house-tuned sport suspension made up of a three-link anti-dive kit with coil springs and McPherson struts in front, along with a stabilizer bar. At the rear is a four-link anti-squat and dive suspension with coil springs and gas filled struts. Again, it is all tied together by a stabilizer bar. Steering is via an electrically-assisted and speed-dependent rack and pinion system.

For those measuring out their garage space, the GLA45 AMG 4Matic has a wheelbase of 106.3 inches and an overall length of 174.9 inches. Including mirrors, it is 79.6 inches wide. Cross-shoppers looking for high performance in other brands might be a bit disappointed because at this point there is no M-model of BMW's X1 or a Range Rover Evoque Sport, for that matter.

Attitude-a-plenty

Just as the GLA adopts many of its design cues, including the "dropping lines” contours from the sedan-based CLA, the GLA45 swipes a little bit of swagger from the CLA45. Front and center, a single lamella bisects the grill area, and is capped off with the three-pointed star. Hunkered down about 3.5-inches over the height of the standard GLA250, our AMG tester was outfitted with an aerodynamics package ($1,950) that was complete with a large front splitter, apron canard and rear deck lid spoiler. Available 20-inch AMG black spoke wheels were included and finished off with red Mercedes-Benz AMG brake calipers. We liked this choice as it filled up the wheel wells nicely.

Interior decorating

Upgrading from the standard (on GLA250) MB-Tex seat covers, we do get the real thing with the AMG standard interior package. But the French-stitched faux material makes a good choice for the dashboard covering as seen in our tester. Deep contour bucket seats held us nicely in place during corner cutting activities in Backroad, Vermont, where we tested this hotrod. A leather and Alcantara wrapped steering wheel felt to us like a pair of Sparco driving mittens. Oh, and then there were the bright red seatbelts, which look like they might have been swiped directly from the "Fast and Furious” prop room.

Speaking of visual entertainment, our example was complete with Sirius XM satellite radio coming from a Harman/Kardon premium sound system and MB's COMAND system with hard drive navigation and voice control, including 3-D mapping on a 7-inch high-resolution LCD screen. Pull over and you can watch DVD movies or let Gracenotes media database display titles, artists and album art of whatever you're listening to now.

Wheel time

Great handling, with a satisfying soundtrack, was the order of the day behind the wheel of this pint-sized AMG. We were instantly smitten by the burbling exhaust note that swelled to a crescendo when smashing the throttle with our size twelves. Power came on suddenly, followed by the rapid rev-pause-pop that occurred every time the AMG Speedshift gearbox went to a steeper cog. Power was even more so with the use of the "momentary M mode,” which allowed us to grab the paddle shift levers to blip through the gears faster than the normal engine mapping would typically allow. Think of it like a blast of energy from one of the Mercedes AMG Formula1 car's KERS unit.

Exceptional control, with the ability to save you from yourself, was available thanks to the AMG Speed Sensitive sport steering. The suspension helps to grip the road with no wallow by stiffer mounting parts, which displayed increased stability and poise around the turns. Owing to the ESP Curve Dynamic Assist system, which appears as standard, the GLA45 used brake-based torque vectoring to effectively shorten the length of the car as it encountered sharp turns on our drive route. The net effect was that of driving a really big go-kart.

The brakes offered exceptional grabiness, but not in a bad way. It just takes a few moments to acclimate with the potential that they are capable of. It was at that point that driver confidence is at an all-time high. The end game was a powertrain with fast shifts, rapid acceleration and stellar braking which is what you want from a semi-pocket rocket package like this.

Leftlane's bottom line

Already an impressive package, Mercedes-Benz ups the ante by offering the GLA45 AMG 4Matic SUV. With a small, but potent, powerplant under the hood, the brand brings high performance to a segment not typically known for such. And it does come with a price, (See below) but oh how we want one.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG 4Matic base price, $48.300. As tested, $64,725.

Black "red cut” leather interior, $1,500; Carbon Fiber trim, $950; Premium package, $2,300; Multimedia package, $2,480; Driver Assistance package, $2,500; AMG Night Styling package, $750; Aerodynamics package, $1,950; AMG Performance Exhaust, $450; Red brake calipers, $300; AMG Performance Steering Wheel, $500; Parktronic with park assist, $970; 20-inch AMG black alloy wheels, $850; destination fee, $925.

Photos by Mark Elias.

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