The smaller end of the performance SUV market looks a lot more complex and interesting all of a sudden.
That’s mainly thanks to the introduction of the Porsche Macan - but some credit for the newfound richness must go to an offbeam alternative to the Porsche from Mercedes-AMG, which might just be good enough to make you wonder if you really need a performance SUV at all. It is the GLA 45 AMG.
This hot 4x4 sits squarely in the ‘crossover’ camp. It makes an Audi Q3 RS look like a bespoilered tower block, and has a silhouette much more like a generously proportioned family hatchback than a jacked-up station wagon. However, while it makes the GLA undeniably distinctive, that positioning does invite questions about exactly what’s on offer in this car.
You don’t get a particularly convenient hip point, nor particularly commanding forward visibility. Boot space is better than in a typical five-door hatch, second-row passenger space is likewise – and both are much more generous than in an A-Class or CLA. But neither is generous in absolute terms.
The GLA’s a second-generation sort of crossover. It has a layer of SUV versatility just thick enough to add flavoursome punch to the usual German premium-brand recipe, but – like fresh horseradish sauce on a salt beef sandwich – absolutely not enough to make you wince.
And, conveniently for Affalterbach, that makes the GLA a very credible candidate for a performance makeover: relatively light and low-riding, with little fat-on-the-bone or concessions made to unnecessary offroad suitability.
Fitted initially with a 355bhp, 332lb ft turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, identical to the powertrain found in the A 45 and CLA 45, the GLA is reputed to be capable of 0-62mph in 4.8sec and limited to 155mph. This was later upped to 375bhp in 2015, after Audi put Mercedes-AMG's nose out of joint with its more powerful RS3.
The GLA 45 also rides 15mm lower than a standard GLA (but still 40mm higher than an A45), and features a chassis modified with not just beefed-up springs, dampers and stabilisers but stiffer steering knuckles and bushings too.
The car has a nicely judged handling and ride compromise allowing for plenty of compliance and everyday habitability, as many will desire in a pseudo-SUV. It rides most lumps and bumps quietly and comfortably, with only the sharpest ridges crashing through into the calm of the cabin. The car’s standard exhaust system is hushed enough at cruising revs not to intrude, either.
That the car lacks a bit of sporting edge is a condition you can remedy by opting for AMG Performance suspension, which firms up the tune that little bit more without reducing the car to a bone-shaking mess. Lateral grip is slightly better balanced between the axles, the steering even more direct and informative, with a hint of throttle-off adjustability of cornering attitude present in the handling mix when you work up a real head of steam.
But precision, stability and turbo-fed traction are the car’s most persuasive hallmarks, and make it feel remarkably flat, quite fast – and a lot of fun – on a twisting road. Like the A45 AMG, it would be that bit more absorbing if the power-on balance of the car was sweeter and the rear axle that bit more playful –but that’s a criticism you could level at the vast majority of German performance machinery of this ilk.
The car certainly isn’t short on bombastic character, and is all-the-more amusing if you opt for the optional sports exhaust (as well as the firmer springs), which pops, whooshes and growls with uninhibited abandon. Stay off the throttle and Mercedes claims that it'll average 37.6mpg too, which should prove tolerable for most.
On the equipment front, the GLA 45 gains all the standard equipment found on a AMG Line specced GLA plus the additions of 19in alloy wheels, AMG-tweaked braking and exhaust systems, electrically folding door mirrors, bi-xenon headlights, parking sensors, plenty of AMG decals and badging, Garmin sat nav, ambient interior lighting and heated performance front sports seats.
One undeniable fact remains: that, for the same outlay as a Macan S, the GLA 45 AMG would be a bold purchase at the moment. But it’s definitely worth considering for those who wonder, even for a second, if Porsche’s new baby Cayenne is quite compact enough.