“[We] could feel it within seconds,” we wrote in our First Drive of the 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA250. Within a few feet of setting off, we knew: This little Mercedes drives like a real SUV.
Fast forward a few months and we found ourselves rolling out in the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA35. Once again, we could feel it within seconds. Except now, it was different: This sporty subcompact crossover drives nothing like the GLA250—or much like an SUV.
Familiar sights remain, like the curvaceous body and swanky, spacious cabin. Yet from behind the wheel, there’s no comparison. Even in this diet-AMG form, one level below the full-fat GLA45, the engineers in Affalterbach banished the GLA250’s slightly tippy handling and easygoing powertrain calibration. Rather, the GLA35 drives like a true performance car. As we found on the road and at the test track, it’s a seriously capable machine. But it’s so rough and aggressive that it could be too much for enthusiasts seeking a fun, upscale daily.
Road Trip Torture Chamber
Whereas a supple, quiet ride makes the GLA250 pleasant to bop around in, there’s nothing plush about the GLA35. As we noted in our First Drive of the GLA35, the AMG GLA’s ride quality is downright harsh. Stiff springs kick the car’s wheels up over road scars before tight dampers yank the rollers back down. Additional underbody bracing and unforgiving rear suspension bushings add to the abrasive ride. The AMG adaptive suspension’s softest Comfort setting makes the ride tolerable at best. Dialing it up through Sport and Sport Plus reduces any smoothing effect without adding any worthwhile improvement in body control. Hard seat padding doesn’t do occupants any favors, either.
The roughness remained despite our test car’s optional 20-inch wheels 255/40 Continental Sport Contact 6 tires having a bit more sidewall compared to the 21-inch units with 235/35 Conti rubber that were fitted to our First Drive GLA35 (19-inch wheels are standard). The tires made a racket, frequently flinging pebbles into the wheel wells and droning constantly at freeway speeds. This—and a whistling noise that emanated from the grille area from about 50 to 60 mph—turned the short drive up Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu’s canyon roads into a slog.
Off the highway, we didn’t have time to think about such unpleasantries. On winding roads, the GLA35 drives with an intensity that demands focus.
Punchy Little Punk
Naysayers will dismiss the GLA35’s turbocharged 2.0-liter I-4 as just a chipped version of the GLA250’s engine. After all, Mercedes admits that it’s simply “AMG-enhanced,” not “AMG handcrafted,” like the crazy backward-mounted bomb in the GLA45. Its 302 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque are solid increases over the GLA250’s 221 hp and 258 lb-ft, though, even if these figures fall short of the GLA45’s 382 hp and 354 lb-ft of twist.
The GLA35 is certainly no slouch. Its 5.0-second 0-60-mph time is much quicker than the GLA250’s 6.8-second stroll. Crossing the quarter mile takes 13.6 seconds at 101.8 mph in the GLA35, while the GLA250 trundles through in 15.3 seconds at 90.8 mph. AMG makes launching its cars deviously simple. Engage Sport Plus, hold the brake, mash the accelerator, let the revs settle, release the brake—the GLA35’s eight-speed dual-clutch automatic engages first gear hard, and off it goes. Keep the pedal down and power builds in a sweet surge nearly to redline. Turbo lag is hardly a consideration. The throttle lacks millimeter precision, but in the midrange, there’s little waiting for boost to build. This bassy four-banger sounds good, too.
Keeping the engine near its 5,800-rpm power peak and 4,000-rpm torque peak can be tricky due to the paddle-shiftable transmission’s sometimes uncooperative nature. Upshifts aren’t an issue—the big metal paddle on the right snaps off slick gearchanges. It’s the left paddle that frustrates, as you sometimes have to hit it repeatedly to get a downshift. The computers seem excessively cautious about over-revving the engine. Leaving the transmission in Sport Plus and letting it pick the optimal gear is an impressively effective workaround. This prevents stymied manual inputs, although it takes away the involvement of shifting for yourself.
Proper Sport Car Numbers
If the GLA35’s forward acceleration somehow doesn’t impress you, its braking will. With four-piston fixed calipers squeezing 13.8-inch rotors up front and single-piston sliders clamping down on 13.0-inch rotors out back, stopping from 60 mph took only 102 feet. That bests the carbon-ceramic-rotor-equipped 2021 E63 S AMG by 7 feet, the 2020 Porsche Cayman GT4 by 4 feet, and the 2020 BMW X3M Competition by 2 feet. Give braking zones extra space until the tires are warm, though—the GLA35’s initial attempt took 120 feet. On winding roads the firm, feelsome pedal inspires confidence and dares you to press it later. At the limit, tight, rapid ABS pulsations never make the car skittish. Yet in town the brakes aren’t grabby, leaving just enough space at the top of the pedal travel to allow light pressure and smooth stops.
AMG’s tune of its 4Matic all-wheel-drive system gives the GLA35 tenacious grip through corners and dynamic exit traction. On the skidpad, it averaged 0.97 g, better than the 2020 Chevrolet C8 Corvette 1LT, which hit 0.95 g. Around the figure-eight it hangs with big-bore Mercedes-AMG SUVs: 24.8 seconds at 0.75 g average puts it more than a second ahead of the 2021 GLE53 Coupe and 0.2 behind the 2021 GLE63 S. Wrestling the car along is a physical endeavor, though; the speed-adaptive steering always feels heavy.
The GLA35’s performance left road test editor Chris Walton slightly dumbfounded. “What an absolutely weird and awesome vehicle this is,” he said. “When the tires were cold it oversteered in a lurid drift, but once they heated up the all-wheel-drive shuffled power around and kept the nose pointed where it needed to go.” Walton summed up the GLA35 as “a little beastie.”
What Else Does It Have—And What’s Missing?
The GLA’s clever packaging provides a surprising amount of passenger and cargo space within its small dimensions. Dual 10.3-inch displays running the three-pointed star’s capable and complex MBUX infotainment system are standard in the GLA35. Our test vehicle carried $9,800 in options, none of which—such as the dual-pane sunroof, decent Burmester audio system, nifty steering wheel-mounted drive mode toggles, or stiff gray leather upholstery—enhanced performance. Given the sporty company it runs with, the GLA35’s $48,600 base price seems like something of a bargain.
Still, through countless corners and full-throttle blasts, there were traits we never quite found: character, personality, soul. We got the sense this thing had been extensively lab-tested and track-tuned, built to hit numbers more than evoke emotions. Some intentional turbo lag, kickier shifts, or another degree of body roll—any flaw besides its harsh ride—might have made it more fun.
Call It What It Is
Yet the GLA35 succeeds in feeling totally different from the GLA250 by packing a real performance punch. The numbers it lays down rival sports cars that are far more costly, while not being so excessive that this performance can’t be deployed and enjoyed every day. Combining that dynamic capability with useful space in a subcompact footprint makes it—like the original GLA AMG—more of a hot hatch than an SUV. We could feel it from the very start.
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