Review: 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

Mercedes applies the AMG treatment to its smallest SUV.

This is the new Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG and straight away there is a problem. As seen here it costs nearly $65,000.

For that kind of money you could buy many different cars and SUVs with varying levels of luxury and performance, including the Range Rover Sport, BMW M3, Porsche Cayenne Diesel, Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT and the Lexus RC F. Heck, Dodge will even sell you a 200+ mph Charger for that kind of cash.

So with that kind of asking price (and that list of available alternatives), the GLA45 better be good. But is it?

What is it?The GLA45 AMG is the souped of version of the regular GLA250, which is the smallest SUV in Mercedes' lineup. Tuned by the boys and girls in Affalterbach, Germany, the GLA45 is blessed with a hand built 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine that cranks out an impressive 355 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque.

In order to handle that kind of power in a front-wheel drive-based chassis, the GLA45 ships standard with an AMG-specific version of Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel drive system. A seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is the GLA45's only available transmission.

True to AMG form, the GLA45 also boasts a sports suspension and up-rated brakes.

What's it up against?The premium compact crossover segment is still in its infancy so there aren't a whole lot of natural competitors for the GLA250, let alone the hot-rodded GLA45. However, most people will probably cross-shop the GLA45 against vehicles like the Audi SQ5, Porsche Macan and BMW X4. As stated above, there are plenty of other options available for the GLA45's price point if you're not locked into the idea of a tiny performance SUV.

How does it look?Mercedes lists the GLA as a sport utility vehicle, but it looks more like a conventional hatchback to our eyes. That's particularly true in the case of the GLA45 thanks to a suspension that sits nearly two-inches lower than the setup under the GLA250.

Technicalities aside, the GLA45 is a decent looking five-door with clear ties to the CLA sedan on which it is based. The front of the GLA45 features Mercedes' latest headlight design complete with LED eyebrows. To set the 45 apart from the normal 250, the most sporting version of the GLA features a single bar grille, revised lower bumper with large air inlets and a pronounced splitter.

Our test car rode on optional 20-inch wheels that looked just a little too big for the GLA's compact frame. The 10-spoke design did at least give a better view of the over-sized disc brakes - along with bright red-painted caliper - sitting just behind. The rear of the GLA45 is treated to a couple of extra bumper vents and a quad-exhaust setup.

Final judgement on the GLA45's exterior styling depends on where you're standing - from the front the GLA45 looks pretty sharp, but its hind quarters come across as a little bloated. Moreover, other than an oversized set of wheels, the GLA45 doesn't really have any defining features that scream "Look at me! I'm an AMG!,” which might disappoint some buyers willing to spend north of 60 grand on a bonkers hot hatch.

And on the inside?The interior is where the GLA45 falls on its face, especially at this price point. Essentially the same design used in the CLA sedan, the interior of the GLA45 manages to be both ergonomically challenged and rather cheap.

But let's start with the few bright spots. We liked the GLA's AMG-sourced steering wheel and its textured-metal paddle shifters. Round air vents are a nice touch and a panoramic sunroof really does lend to an airy cabin. The GLA's back seats aren't as cramped as you might think and there is even some decent cargo space in the boot.

Unfortunately, that's where the good stops. Radio and phone controls take up the lion's share of the GLA's center stack, but we can't really make out why. The buttons on the left side of the head unit are redundant with the COMAND knob and steering wheel controls and the right side is a mostly useless dial pad. HVAC controls are tucked below in a way that makes them very difficult to use with a quick glance.

While newer Mercedes products like the C-Class and S-Class use a new touchpad interface to control the COMAND infotainment system, the GLA45, as we just mentioned, uses dial wheel. The wheel setup isn't as intuitive as the touchpad and can even be a little distracting to use. Even if you use the dash-mounted buttons to select a specific function, you're still locked in to using the wheel to scroll through the different menus.

Mercedes' decision to use a free-standing infotainment screen in the middle of the dashboard has been a polarizing one, but we've grown to accept and even kind of like the look. The 7-inch unit in our test car offered good resolution.

Phone pairing wasn't the quickest process in the GLA45 and required several attempts before our Android phone was linked. The system at least did a good job of remembering our phone thereafter.

The GLA45's AMG-specific shift lever looks cool but comes off as gimmicky in use. We really wish all automakers would stop trying to reinvent this wheel.

Materials in the GLA45 and so-so at best. The dash is covered in vinyl, er, rather MB-Tex and is passable as a leather substitute, thanks in part to its double stitching. Optional carbon fiber dash inlays add to the GLA45's sporting nature. But most of the other surfaces in the GLA45 are crafted from the kind of hard plastics that you'd expect in an entry-level compact, not from a car with the three-pointed star on its nose.

During backroad stints we really appreciated the extra bolstering of our tester's AMG Performance Seats, but they weren't as fantastic to live with on a day to day basis. The aggressive thigh bolsters made it awkward to squeeze into and out of the GLA45, particularly in tight parking spots where you can only partially open the door.

High-end features like a head-up display and adaptive cruise control were missing from our tester's feature sheet.

But does it go?The GLA45 earns back some points for the way it drives. With more horsepower on tap than a C5 Corvette, small proportions and a lightning quick steering rack, driving the GLA45 feels like what we imagine it'd be like to ride a flea.

The GLA45 darts from corner to corner, with its AMG suspension keeping everything perfectly flat. The GLA45 is no dog when the road straightens out, either, with the tiny four-cylinder belting out the kind of forward thrust you'd typically associate with a V8. Brakes are just as good at scrubbing off speed as the turbo engine is at making it.

The GLA45's seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox has no problem keeping pace when left in auto mode. However, we found it much more engaging to use the paddle shifters, with each pull accompanied by a satisfying throttle blip.

And while we're on the subject, the GLA45's raspy exhaust note is somewhat of a contentious point. The GLA45 sounds at home wailing down a country lane, but can be rather juvenile when tooling around town. We're sure a fair share of passersby mistook our $65,000 Mercedes for a clapped out Honda Civic with an exhaust kit.

Heavily bolstered seats and loud exhaust aside, you could legitimately use the GLA45 as a daily driver. Unlike the CLA45, which turned our bones to dust, the GLA45 has a suspension that can actually soak up bumps. It's far from S-Class comfortable, but the GLA45 is completely tolerable on the kind of roads you'd encounter on a typical commute.

As with most dual-clutch transmission, the GLA45's is somewhat dimwitted from a standstill, but acts in a normal manner once you get going. That seven-speed helps the GLA45 to earn ratings of 23 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway from the EPA. We saw mid-20s in mixed driving.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG boasts an exciting drivetrain, but that's not enough to justify its other shortcomings at this lofty price point.

If all you really want is a well-made hot hatch with all-wheel drive, what's wrong with the Volkswagen Golf R?

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG base price, $48,300. As tested, $64,525.Universe Blue, $720; Ash Leather, $1,500; Carbon Fiber trim, $950; AMG Performance Exhaust, $450; Red brake calipers, $300; Blind Spot Assist, $550; PARKTRONIC with Park Assist, $970; AMG Performance Steering Wheel, $500; Panorama Sunroof, $1,480; AMG Performance Seats, $2,250; 20" AMG wheels, $850; Premium Package, $2,300; Multimedia Package, $2,480; Destination, $925.

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