Mercedes-Benz GLA250 and GL45 AMG

“SUV” once implied big, broad-shouldered machines with a truck heritage and a bit of attitude. The breed still exists, witness the Cadillac Escalade LED headlights glaring in your rearview mirror.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

In the past decade or so, however, we’ve seen tiers of ever-smaller SUVs slide in under the big guys to the point where the term “SUV” doesn’t seem to apply, especially to smaller, luxury versions. Are they now crossovers? Hatchbacks? Good heavens, are they station wagons? Are we confused? Well, Mercedes refers to the 4-door CLA with its swoopy roof as a coupe, so we’re in good company.

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The momentum in small luxury whatever-you-call-them is growing of late with the likes of the Porsche Macan S, Audi Q3, Lexus NX and Lincoln MKC. So, no surprise, Mercedes-Benz is also in the game.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

Dare we call Mercedes’ new GLA a station wagon version of the automaker’s CLA coupe/sedan? While the marketing types at Mercedes grind their teeth over such a suggestion, it’s relevant to point out the two Mercedes share the same 106.3-inch wheelbase platform with a MacPherson strut front suspension and an independent rear layout. The base engine for both is a direct-injected 2.0-liter turbo four rated at 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, with an optional AMG version at 355 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque, all through 7-speed automatic transmissions. For the moment, all GLAs have 4Matic all-wheel drive. The pair’s curb weights aren’t much different, and under the tape measure the GLA is a few inches taller, one inch wider and, depending on 250 or 45 AMG version, 8.4-9.8 inches shorter in length. The GLA does have added ride height…more on that later.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

Visually the CLA/GLA pair is closer than cousins. There’s the Mercedes face with its three-pointed star and a similar indentation along the body sides. Naturally the GLA’s roofline is taller compared to the curvaceous sedan, the rear somewhat squared off for carrying capacity, but the overall resemblance is obvious. Even more so inside, where the dashboard of one mirrors the other. That’s generally good news with an attractive layout and most controls within easy reach. Mercedes’ Comand navigational/audio/etc system is still running third to Audi’s MMI or BMW’s iDrive in usability.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA250
2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

Aft of the front seats is where the GLA shines. You might not want to ferry four six footers on a 200-mile drive, but for kids or short journeys there is sufficient space in the second row. Fold those seats flat and like the other small SUVs the GLA comes into its own as a–dare we say–very nice station wagon.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

There are fun station wagons out there and do yourself a favor if you can and drive a Cadillac CTS-V wagon before they disappear. That Caddy is a snarling animal compared small luxury wagons, though both tend to be nicely balanced from a handling standpoint. In the case of the GLA250, which gets to 60 in 6.4 seconds, the performance fits the image. There are those, of course, who will prefer the image of the GLA45 AMG, which ticks off 60 mph in closer to 4.8 seconds. You can find Car and Driver’s full road test of the GLA250 here.

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Where the GLA stands out from its CLA sibling is–oddly enough given it SUV label–ride quality. It’s likely the added ride height that makes the difference. Ride in the CLA is firm enough you find yourself looking for a ride control button to smooth things out on a “comfort” setting. There isn’t one. You don’t even look for it in the GLA, thanks to the smoother ride. And that ride height doesn’t take anything away from the fun aspect of the GLA in both 250 and 45 AMG form whether on a freeway or carving down a winding road.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

Putting a price on all this can be difficult. We know the 4Matic all-wheel drive GLA250 opens at $33,300 and the GLA45 AMG from $48,300. Add $925 for transportation. The front-drive GLA250 will arrive next Spring at $31,300. No one is better than German automakers at bumping prices with options. You can play with this at Mercedes’ website where the automaker invites you to “build” your own GLA on up through the option list. We had no trouble moving a GLA250 into the mid-$40,000 range and the GLA45 AMG into the middle-$60,000 arena. We recently drove a Porsche Macan S, which starts at $49,900, but managed just over $64,000 with options. Ditto with a BMW X4 that arced off its $44,700 base to roughly the same price.

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These may be smaller SUVs-wagons-hatchbacks-crossovers-whatever, but that doesn’t mean they are inexpensive. Then again, they have their luxury side. For anyone from Millennials looking to buy their first “Merc” to retirees who like road trips, the GLA should be on their radar

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA250