Mercedes' GLA45 SUV performs like a hatch on steriods
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Lines have blurred between vehicle sectors in recent years - the hunt for the utterly loyal customer being honed to the nth degree in order to predict and fulfil every single need that buyer might have.
As these categories have been stretched and twisted, pushed and manipulated into various forms, the boffins in the basement have been rubbing their oily hands together.
These are the go-fast gurus that live for nothing more than making things go very, very quickly. At Mercedes-Benz, it's AMG; at BMW, it's M Division - but whatever the label there's the same need for big power and big presence. It seems that the AMG guys - those responsible for the GLA 45 that you see here - have moved forward from their previous ethos of big V8, rear drive, bravery required.
We've been the first in New Zealand to test the "45s" - the A45 hatchback, the CLA 45 coupe, and now the GLA 45 compact SUV (for want of a better moniker). The CLA 45 got a particularly hard spanking, as we took our place at the front of the field for Targa North Island as a safety car earlier this year, putting the smart and svelte little machine through some serious closed road workouts.
It was, not surprisingly, a strong performer but, quite surprisingly, was putting in stage times that were knocking on the bootlids of some of Targa's quickest cars.
The A45, CLA and now GLA all share the same basic architecture. An insanely strong, lightweight structure, tricky suspension and part-time AWD system combined with a two-litre four-cylinder engine that should really need a doctor's note before you're allowed to play with it.
To call this turbocharged monster madness is a severe understatement. It sucks up an insane 1.86 bar of boost (that's 27psi in the old money), meaning that despite its small form, and despite the fact that it has half the number of cylinders as most things to have emerged from AMG's secret lair, it makes 265kW.
I drove the GLA 45 this year in Malaga on the international press launch of Mercedes' take on the compact SUV. The GLA was going to be a showroom star, said the marketing folk - and in all likelihood it will be. Designed to sift into the same spaces as the likes of BMW's X3 and Audi's Q3, it's one of the hottest segments and will likely remain that way until the next big-little thing comes along.
Essentially taking over from station wagon territory, Mercedes take on the compact SUV really does reinvent the wagon - coming off like a hatchback on steroids, without the size. In "normal" trim it has tweaked suspension and altered calibration for light off-road duties, when required, and hill descent control is available on some models.
AMG's dual clutch transmission handles the GLA 45's power well.
But the GLA 45, like the dynamic duo it shares its underpinnings with, is on a whole different level - and with an entry point just shy of $100,000, it would have to be.
The version you see here is not the average GLA 45, either - complicated, I know - but its special Edition One (a $6390 premium). In this so-called mountain grey metallic trim, with its black and red leather interior, it's not quite as alarming as the glaring white version that we labelled "fast and the spurious" on the Spanish launch. It doesn't exactly ooze mass-market appeal, with its in-your-face graphics treatment, that huge rear wing, and the massive front spoiler with winglets. But there are definitely those who will see the appeal in this extroverted look - and it does get itself noticed.
Sitting on red-rimmed 20-inch wheels with drilled rotors and shiny red calipers doesn't help the shrinking violet factor, but the truth is you'll hear this thing coming.
The two-litre is pushed hard by the direct injection of fuel and the large amount of boost that it's being forcefed, and this means that when it's being hustled along, the fairly open-flowing exhaust has a tendency to pop and cackle like a road-going rally car.
It won't make you popular with the local constabulary, but the lads will love it.
With 450Nm on tap, the staunch GLA is capable of a sprint to 100km/h in only 4.8 seconds - the sort of pace that you'd have been paying supercar sums for only a few years ago. This energy transfer needs a whole lot of reining in, and AMG's SuperShift DCT (dual clutch transmission) handles it impressively well. Like all DCTs, when it's pushed hard a bit of judicious lift can reap huge rewards, and backing off the gas ever so slightly gets the changes through harder and faster - and with seven cogs in total, it's technically very capable of blasting past the 250km/h electronic speed limiter.
The key to keeping all of this madness in check is the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system.
The official line is that it is only actually four-wheel-drive when the need arises, but with 265kW pushing through the front end that really means anything over 50 per cent throttle or 3000rpm. Not surprisingly, the abilities of this wee rocketship take many by surprise, and on one fairly rural test drive it was necessary to talk a C63 owner down off the edge. He was not impressed that a "little bloody hatchback" was proving more nimble and, at times, a lot quicker than his 6.3-litre V8.
To be fair, the C63's thunderous soundtrack did make the 45's crackly offering sound like microwave popcorn, but comparing apples and oranges is best left to the statisticians.
Around town the GLA doesn't quite meet the Benz luxury standards - it's light and tightly sprung, so even in C-mode (comfort) it does still give the odd jarring response to those nasty urban judder bars that are seemingly modelled on Aoraki's profile, just for laughs.
But it can be driven quietly in this mode, left to change gears by itself and kept at revs low enough that the impressive thirst becomes excellent economy. The next time you push the button, down on the tunnel behind the shifter, you'll get the stroppier S mode (sport) and every time becomes a bit more urgent. The next push selects M (manual) allowing changes via the flappy paddles mounted with the satisfyingly fat and purposeful AMG steering wheel. For those who like to take it one step further the traction control button, when pushed once, engages sports handling mode. This transforms the car again, removing interruptions from a computer that's overly concerned with the drivers' welfare, and allowing it to shake a tailfeather quite vigorously before it steps in and calms things down.
The 45 series of A-Class based machines from AMG have proven Mercedes-Benz's point - there is plenty of power to be made through the right application of direct injection and turbocharging. It underlines the fact that there's a good chance we'll still be able to have fun at the wheel while the EU's science types come up with lower and lower emissions targets. But the real scary thing is, during that Spanish launch of the whole GLA range, talking to an AMG engineer about the power of the four-pot engine, he didn't laugh when I started bandying around numbers - like 300kW. In fact, he seemed a bit smug.
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