I don’t particularly like subcompact crossovers. Much like meetings that could be emails, the subcompact crossover could simply be a hatchback. They’re all short and tall, with odd proportions, and most are built with utility and fuel economy in mind which means they’re no fun. Mercedes-Benz, of course, threw their competitive hat in the ring in 2014 with the subcompact GLA-class, which included a fairly-bonkers variant from AMG. This year, the littlest Benz has been totally redesigned, and I spent a week with the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 to see if it could break the mold.
What Is It?
This is a 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 35. Based on the all-new-last-year W177 A-Class, the all-new 2021 GLA shares a platform with both the small sedan and boxier GLB-class crossover. The AMG-ified “35” is not the fastest, nor the slowest, of the GLA lineup. AMG has made this not-hatchback a little hotter, yes, but they’ve also made a super-hot variant called the GLA 45.
In any case, the GLA 35 is powered by a variant of the M260 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder from the GLA 250, but breathed on by AMG to make more horsepower and torque than basic Becky’s lease special. The GLA 35 produces 302 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, up 81 horsepower and 37 lb-ft from the GLA 250.
Every GLA 35 sends power through an “AMG Speedshift” 8-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, and down to the ground with standard “AMG Performance” 4Matic all-wheel drive. AMG worked to stiffen the nose of the GLA 35, which they claim increases torsional stability and reduces toe and camber change under heavy cornering. Adaptive shocks are standard, offering three stages of damping.
Finally, AMG stuffed bigger, four-piston brake calipers under the front wheels, and they clamp down on 13.8” brake rotors.
As with any Mercedes-Benz, it’s possible to option the GLA 35 to a stratospheric level. Mine was (thankfully) minimally equipped, and MSRP came to $54,455.
Let the Music Make You Free, Be What You Wanna Be
Crawling through city traffic is not the GLA 35’s strength. A light foot results in slow clutch engagement from the DCT, followed by a throttle that opens a bit too far. It’s tough to be a smooth driver at low speeds.
Granted, “low speed” is not the point of any AMG. As traffic parts and your right foot gets heavier, the drivetrain comes into its own and feels more cohesive. Even as a high-riding crossover, the GLA 35 wants to dance. Acceleration is brisk enough, and there’s even a “Race Start” mode if you want to sit at every red light going bwapbapbapbap! and beat the minivan next to you who didn’t know you were racing. Maximum power is made at 5,800 rpm and tapers fairly quickly past that, typical of a smaller engine with a small-ish turbocharger doing the work.
While the DCT shifts quickly on its own, there are paddles for the times you truly know best. A button on the center console forces the transmission to listen, and it absolutely will not upshift, even if you’re sitting on the fuel cut. Hilarity ensues if you Race Start the GLA in Manual mode and forget to pull the upshift paddle in time. The seatbelts work well to restrain your body when power is abruptly cut.
Suspension tuning is fine, better than what I experienced in last year’s A220 sedan and about on par with the platform-mate GLB 250. AMG-tweaked “Sport” and “Sport+” modes worked out to “pretty firm” and “only suitable for a freshly-groomed racetrack.” I preferred the Individual drive mode, with every option cranked up to the most sporty and suspension in Comfort. Braking performance was generally strong, though the nose wandered a bit under heavy stops – potentially a side effect of the Pirelli winter tires on my particular vehicle.
My biggest complaint with the GLA 35 was in the lifeless steering. It was devoid of feel in Comfort mode, and only got heavier in Sport or Sport+. Given the tweaks from AMG elsewhere, this seemed like an odd characteristic.
…But is the Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 Enough of an AMG?
The original GLA 45 was a really bonkers car, all things considered. It was a hot hatch that was forced to sit up straighter and “be a crossover” on paper while its optional green or purple paint glistened.
This new GLA, by contrast, is trying really hard to actually be a crossover. So when it’s “AMG-ified,” it needs to be pretty outrageous, just like the original. And I don’t think the GLA 35 is outrageous enough. It’s quick, sure, but almost every perk of the GLA 35 can be added to the GLA 250 in some way.
Mercedes-AMG has kept the GLA 45 around, and the redesigned model sounds about as wild as the original, save for some tragically subdued paint colors. The GLA 45’s hand-built engine features nearly 200 horsepower per liter of displacement – the current record among four-cylinder powerplants – and it feeds a 4Matic system that can send enough power rearward on demand to induce a drift. It is absolutely on brand as an AMG. This GLA 35, by comparison… not so much.
There are elements of the GLA 35 that I like. It’s relatively compact, yet fits four six-footers in comfort. Cargo space is plentiful with the rear seats raised or lowered. The dual 10.25” dash screens and standard ambient lighting lend a premium feel to the cabin. The drivetrain is good in most scenarios, and certainly more fun than some rivals.
Yet in my time with the GLA 35, I found myself wishing it was an honest hatchback. Ground clearance is minimal, so why bother with this sort of adventure cosplay? Nobody is taking a GLA off-roading. Knowing there is a truly-ridiculous variant coming to dealerships soon – with a base price similar to this GLA 35’s MSRP – made this “AMG-lite” model feel like more of a GLA 350 than a true Mercedes-AMG.