Mercedes-Benz struck gold when it introduced the GLA-Class in 2013. Here was a small CUV with a reasonable price tag, a prestigious badge, and inoffensive driving manners – it was the Holy Grail of entry-level luxury, to an extent, and a hot seller that ushered in a new generation of first-time Mercedes owners.
This is despite the fact that the first-generation GLA wasn't actually very good. The interior was shoddy and came just after Mercedes started really getting serious about cabin design and materials across the board, rather than just on the S-Class. The ride was rubbish, the cabin cramped, the driver's seat was uncomfortable, and in your author's humble opinion, the GLA looked a bit like a turd relative to the svelte CLA or the rugged, upright GLK (as Mercedes called the GLC back then).
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The new 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 is none of those things. This is a vastly superior vehicle that, straight out of the bag, feels like the star of the premium subcompact CUV class. The exterior is attractive and fits in with the larger Mercedes family, the cabin design and materials are lovely, there's ample space in both rows, the ride is plush, and at $44,000 for an example with cutting-edge active safety gear and infotainment, it's almost a bargain.
Design is the main selling point for luxury crossovers of all sizes, and it's a place the GLA excels inside and out. The proportions – now 4 inches taller, 1 inch wider, and an inch shorter, but with a longer wheelbase – are cute without looking benign, with a chunky silhouette that's still somehow svelte and natural. The lines are crisp, but as with so many of Mercedes' newer products, they feel organic rather than hewn – it's like the difference between a smoothed and eroded piece of earth and one cleaved with a shovel.
The actual styling elements – the Panamericana-shaped grille and slim, knowing LED headlights remove the derpiness of the original GLA and replace it with something that shouts luxury. We're happy to see Mercedes went for something in line with the CLA, rather than the more angular housings found on the A-Class.
The detailing in our tester's AMG “diamond-block” grille feels premium in a way the old GLA never managed, too. In back, there are slim LED taillights with pleasant detailing that ties in neatly with more expensive Mercedes crossovers and SUVs – these look more or less like scaled-down versions of the units found on the range-topping GLS.
The cabin shares a substantial amount of its design and styling with the A-Class and CLA-Class, which is just fine with us – those two sedans boast the best cabins in their segment. That said, the design feels very familiar. In fact, Mercedes' slab-like dash display is in real danger of starting to feel stale (good thing there's a new S-Class around the corner to shake things up).
Beyond the common piece of glass, which houses two 7.0-inch screens as standard or two 10.3-inch displays as an option, there are three circular, ball-and-socket-style climate vents in the center stack above a set of toggle-style climate controls. As expected, every one of these touchpoints feels like it will last a lifetime.
The cabin shares a substantial amount of its design and styling with the A-Class and CLA-Class, which is just fine with us.
Mercedes scattered silver plastic pieces throughout the cabin, which contrasts pleasantly with the plentiful piano black and black plastic trim. While the quantity of petroleum products in here is worrying, the quality makes up for it – the soft-touch dash exhibits excellent fit and the glossy surrounds for the climate vents feel solid. Inserts on the passenger's side dash and front door panels are focal points for the cabin's available 64-color ambient light system, and are available in one of four finishes – our tester featured the no-cost “Spiral Look,” although we'd have a tough time passing on the matte walnut trim.
Unusual for such an affordable vehicle, Mercedes offers eight different upholstery options (two more than BMW and three more than Audi). We'd hesitate to spend the coin on the real leather and instead would opt for our tester's combo of MB-Tex and Dinamica, fancy names for fake leather and fake suede. Included with the AMG line and featuring flashy red stitching, this pairing felt more than adequate for a car that starts in the mid-to-high-$30,000 range.
Easier To Live With
While customers shop based on style, what keeps them coming back to a brand is driving quality and comfort. The GLA excels in both areas. The front seats are flat but proved comfortable over a 150-mile drive. We appreciated the ride height and increased roof height in the GLA, too, as it made getting in and out a more pleasant procedure than in an A-Class or CLA, regardless of which seat you're aiming for.
If you do happen to get in the back, the GLA's stretched wheelbase affords a plush 38.0 inches of legroom, a full inch more than you'll find in a BMW X1 and 1.9 inches more than in an Audi Q3. The rear bench can also slide fore and aft, giving the passenger compartment an added degree of versatility. It's so spacious we were even able to use the second row as a makeshift dressing room when prepping for a video shoot. That said, the slidey bench costs $360 when it should probably just be standard.
The turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and eight-speed dual-clutch transmission are an able pairing in daily driving.
Overall, the GLA's ride is impressively plush for a car riding on a short 107.4-inch wheelbase and, in our tester's case, optional 20-inch wheels (18s are standard). The GLA struggles with larger imperfections, but no more than its rivals – on smoother or only mildly pockmarked roads, though, the ride is serene with excellent body control and little tire noise. Road noise from impacts was more prominent than we'd like, though, and there was a bit too much wind noise at freeway speeds.
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The turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and eight-speed dual-clutch transmission are an able pairing in daily driving. There's 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, all of which is available from 1,800 rpm. That ample low-end shove means the 3,500-pound GLA scoots ahead eagerly – there's still enough juice, though, so that this tiny CUV pulls at higher engine speeds. It's refreshing to find a small, turbocharged four-cylinder that doesn't feel out of breath when pushed. If you want more power, though, there is an AMG GLA 35 available.
As for the eight-speed DCT, it's quick to engage off the line and free of bad manners around town. Upshifts in typical conditions are quick and difficult to notice, while the gearbox is a willing partner when pushed toward more dynamic behavior. The GLA boasts steering wheel paddles, but it feels a bit silly using them in such a car – the computers are more than capable of keeping the powertrain working in harmony.
The Tech-To-Dollar Ratio
As in its first generation, the GLA's goal in life is to be a gateway drug for first-time Mercedes buyers. This car is the driver behind a new crop of consumers, so it needs to sell them on the brand's technology.
That means it boasts the German automaker's latest infotainment system, MBUX. The heart of the GLA's tech suite, MBUX remains one of our favorite hardware/software combos on the market. It's relatively easy to learn, reconfigure, and eventually optimize, and Mercedes deserves credit for giving drivers so many ways to interact with the system (there are four, including a voice assistant and touchpads that allow the driver to keep their hands on the wheel).
As for actual MBUX content, the voice assistant is hit or miss, but we adore the optional augmented-reality navigation system, which projects route information onto an image from the forward-facing camera. The tiny GLA also boasts cutting-edge active safety gear. There's the usual equipment, like standard automatic emergency braking, crosswind assistance, and a driver attention monitor. The real goodies, though, come with the $1,700 Driver Assistance package.
Tick this reasonably priced box and your GLA becomes one of the smartest, safest vehicles on the road. The pack includes typical active safety gear, like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist, but both are better on the Mercedes than the competition.
The ACC system incorporates route-based speed adaptation, so if you're piloting the GLA on the highway, it can slow down for medium to sharp bends. The system works beautifully, too, with smooth, predictable deceleration that should help consumers trust the technology. The lane keeping system, along with the included Active Steering Assist, can move the GLA over by simply toggling the turn signal. Again, the implementation is flawless – you'll want to use these systems.
As we said, though, you will be paying for them. But despite our tester's high price – $54,515 out the door – the GLA strikes us as something of a bargain. Prices start at $36,230 for a front-drive model or $38,230 for our 4Matic-equipped tester (both a bit more than the X1/Q3). Tacking on the Premium package, which includes the twin 10.3-inch displays along with proximity entry and auto-dimming mirrors, requires just $1,750. Throw down another $1,295 for navigation, which includes the AR technology. As we mentioned, the Driver Assistance pack demands $1,700, while a surround-view camera and Active Parking Assistant add another $1,090.
Despite our tester's high price – $54,515 out the door – the GLA strikes us as something of a bargain.
With those options, and sans much of our tester's aesthetic equipment, you'd be just a hair over $44,000. That's well within the price range of a moderately equipped BMW X1 or Audi Q3, neither of which offer such a comprehensive suite of active safety gear or the kind of show-stopping convenience technology you'll find in the GLA. And with well-equipped compact models easily creeping into the $50,000 range nowadays, a sub-compact, $44,000 GLA with all the safety kit starts to look like a tempting option.
That's precisely what Mercedes needs if it's hoping to replicate the original GLA's success. That car had impressive success at bringing new customers into the fold, even though it wasn't a great Mercedes. But the second-gen GLA is unquestionably a smarter, more complete, better looking package – if that can't get another new crop of first-time Mercedes shoppers in the door, nothing will.
Gallery: 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class: First Drive
2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 4Matic