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The world's most powerful production four-cylinder finds its way into the GLA crossover. Is it any good?

Where once it was a bit of a niche-busting oddity, the Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 is now an entirely legitimate proposition if judged with the perspective of the wider market.

Back in 2014, when the outgoing car was launched, the European SUV boom was - although firmly on the radar - in its relative infancy. Performance SUVs, particularly smaller ones, were a novelty. The GLA 45 went up against the characterful Audi RS Q3 and (bar the larger, slightly pricier Porsche Macan) not much else. 

It’s so entertaining that it’s easy to forget you’re carrying more than 100kg more (with a body a full 190mm taller) than the A45. Really, the only noticeable difference is a smidgen more lean on initial turn-in

Now everybody's at it. BMW's sporting division has given the M-lite treatment to the X2, Volkswagen has the T-Roc R and there are countless others. The formula was so successful with Seat's Ateca Cupra that an entirely separate performance brand was launched off the back of it. There's a clear appetite for a category that many enthusiasts continue to sneer at today. 

Back to the car at hand. As we saw with our first UK drive of the standard, second-generation GLA, this is now a fully fledged compact SUV rather than an A-Class that’s been hanging around the gym too often. It can now match the RS Q3 on practicality terms as well as performance. But does that size increase dampen its appeal relative to the smaller, lighter A45

Let's get the elephant in the room out early: the GLA 45 is a long way from a value offering. Its £59k base price is enough to raise eyebrows, but our European-spec left-hand-drive test car (driven in the UK, with international launches not on the cards for now) featured the German equivalent of the Plus pack. That's a £6000 fee for an extra inch of wheel diameter (now 21s), the aero-boosting bodykit, multibeam LED headlights, an upgraded hi-fi, electric sports seats and additional driver assist tech.  

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There are clearly many more configurator boxes to tick beyond this, as this particular car comes in at a simply ludicrous €87,863 (around £78,000). But test cars being crammed to the roofline with options is nothing new, so let's move on. 

As with the old car, the GLA 45's mechanical make-up is pretty much wholly reflective of its hatchback cousin.

With the UK again not receiving the 382bhp ‘base’ variant, there’s only the GLA 45 S, which extracts an extremely stout 416bhp from its 2.0 litres and four cylinders. It’s the most powerful four-pot in series production, with an impressive specific output of 209bhp per litre.

Crucially, Mercedes-AMG has worked to calibrate the delivery of its full 369lb ft of torque to come in at a surprisingly high 5000rpm. The intention is to remove the linear power delivery common with many turbocharged cars and introduce a more peaky, naturally aspirated-style top end. 

What this translates to is a car that perhaps feels less muscular than you might expect in the low- to mid-range. There’s still ample pick-up once the needle clocks 3000rpm, but there’s none of the thump-in-the-back drama of Audi’s five-cylinder unit. It doesn’t sound as characterful either, despite the theatrical pops and bangs in the angriest drive modes, but it’s more engaging than the old GLA 45’s engine as the reward is a crescendo of power as the rev needle swings across the dial, catapulting you forward at a startling rate.

While our road driving didn’t allow for properly timed launches, if the A45’s performance is anything to go by we’d confidently say the quoted 0-62mph time of 4.3sec is conservative - this should be a four-second car (perhaps even less) in the right conditions. 

But this isn’t the one-dimensional driving experience that some all-wheel-driven performance models deliver. Sure, it can be neutral, approachable and unflappable if you want it to be, with limpet-like grip levels even in damp weather. Only a touch of torque steer is occasionally evident if you plant your foot in a low-speed corner exit, but otherwise the rack itself is accurate, naturally weighted and more feelsome than most performance hatchbacks or crossovers.

No, the GLA 45’s most impressive feature is the electrohydraulic four-wheel drive system’s ability to chuck up to 100% of power not only to the rear axle, but individually to each rear wheel. This means a more neutral, balanced cornering stance aided by strong stability, and virtually no understeer. Of course, you can also drift, which is novel in a small SUV, but in a more natural and progressive way than some similar systems. Once you trust that the back end will swing round (and it will), you’ll find that even someone of modest talent can have fun moments of rear axle rotation that are managed effectively by the electronics. 

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It’s so entertaining that it’s easy to forget you’re carrying more than 100kg more (with a body a full 190mm taller) than the A45. Really, the only noticeable difference is a smidgen more lean on initial turn-in, and a more SUV-like driving position detracting slightly from the overall experience. 

Familiar low-speed compromises remain, too. Like the A45, there's a not insignificant amount of driveline shunt from that otherwise quick-changing dual-clutch gearbox when crawling around town or parking, making smooth manouevres a learned art. The ride is taut, though not uncomfortably so in the softest setting of our car's (you guessed it, optional) adaptive dampers. And the turning circle isn't great, either. 

However, the cabin is a nice place to sit once you're over the fact that, beyond the sporty trim and yellow detailing, it's essentially a £30k interior in a £60k-plus car. One really nice touch is the wheel-mounted controls for the drive modes, including a wheel for each preset and then individual stalks for the drivetrain and suspension behaviour. It's also substantially roomier than the old GLA 45; up front, in the back seats and in the boot, making it a genuinely versatile family holdall. 

That depends if you're prepared to sacrifice exterior styling (and cash) for the GLA's extra space over the A-Class. To our eyes it's a less attractive car (even than its forebear) while the A45 remains dynamically superior, even though the margins aren't as great as you expect. 

It's serious money, for an admittedly serious car, too. In fact, its pricing puts it perilously close to some larger and more powerful 'proper' sports utility models such as the Porsche Macan Turbo and Alfa Romeo Stelvio Quadrifoglio. Though with Mercedes developing a reputation for keenly priced leasing deals, it may not be the financial kick in the teeth it appears at first glance. 

Regardless of all this, there is currently no small SUV that can hold a candle to the GLA 45's dynamic repertoire, outright pace and (crucially) fun factor. It is proof that not all SUVs must have a compromised driving experience. And for many, that'll be worth its weight in sterling. 

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Mercedes GLA

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