Introduction: Quick. Silver
Is this the Swiss army knife of small Mercs?
Comparisons can be odious. I’d rolled in to pick up my new long-termer in a Mercedes-AMG A 45 S. I’m going to nail my colours to the mast in quite spectacular/foolhardy fashion here and declare this the most talented hot hatch that’s ever been built. Not going to say best, but without a doubt the most capable. What’s more, the A45 was retina-melting yellow with black contrast alloys. Punchy.
And there, sitting in a forlorn corner of the car park was the vehicle I was due to pick up, an AMG GLA 35 in resale silver. Still very agreeable, but I’d be lying if I didn’t feel that I was arriving with Kim and leaving with Khloe. The A45’s taut focus was replaced by something a bit suburban and, well, adipose. Couple that with a black and red interior that looked as if someone had just flayed a Wiggle and I was left wondering if this was going to be a relationship I’d gel with at all.
Things picked up rapidly. The seats offered a good deal more padding than the A 45’s cushions and squabs, which aren’t too far off park bench spec. There’s also a stack more headroom, which prevents the cultivation of an Oakley-shaped dent in my scalp on bumpy roads. Finally, there’s a bit more in the way of ride height which, given that plenty of roads from the back of my property are still dirt, certainly gets a tick of approval from me.
I did note that the glitzy piano black transmission surround from the A 45 had been replaced by a more proletarian black plastic, but that’s perhaps no bad thing as it won’t show up fingerprints quite so readily. This being a 35 rather than a 45, there’s no race mode in the manettino dial underslung from the right-hand steering wheel spoke either, but Sport Plus delivers enough whoomphs and bangs from the exhaust to earn the stink-eye from the next door neighbour when he’s working nights.
About the biggest compliment I can give the GLA 35 is that even after stepping out of the hellion A45 S, it didn’t feel slow. A sprint to 100km/h of 5.1 seconds is entry-level Boxster/Cayman quick and I’d bet on the all-wheel drive Merc’s easy repeatability of those numbers every time. I haven’t yet tuned into the optimum permutation of the drive modes, so did the usual and set the Individual mode to comfort suspension and angry everything else. This resulted in a measure of heave, queasiness and generally lax body control on lumpy roads.
Lashing it down a bit more firmly cuts out the bilious float, but also introduces a measure of nerviness into the secondary response. The ContiSport Contact 6 tyres also resonate a little on coarse chip, but certainly not to the extent of the lower-profile Pilot Sport 4S rubber fitted to the A 45 S.
One curious quirk I’ve encountered is that the GLA 35 is entirely intolerant of the sort of casual tickling of revs at a red light to prevent the idle-stop actuating. Even with a faint breath of revs and the right clog on the brake, it can actuate the launch control system, which then gets itself into a pickle if you pull away gently, jerking inelegantly. I’ll probably just get used to killing idle-stop altogether, as the button is conveniently located adjacent to the starter button.
I’ve never run a Mercedes with the MBUX infotainment system as a long termer, so will probably need to pick ex-Wheels Editor Alex Inwood’s brain on how to get the best from it. The voice assistant chimes in with annoying frequency if you so much as mention the word ‘Mercedes’ in the vehicle and it’s now referred to as ‘the M word’. I’m already starting to have nightmares about sitting in an automated car wash and having somebody shout, “Hey Mercedes, open sunroof” at me through a megaphone. I’m putting off the inevitable with the easy familiarity of the car’s excellent wired Android Auto connection.
There’s certainly a steep learning curve involved with the AMG GLA 35 but that often bodes well for a good long-termer, the vehicle revealing itself little by little over the course of an extended tenure. I’m already loving how easy it is to flick the eight-speed dual-clutch into manual mode, or firm up the dampers for a particular set of corners. I get the impression that the complexity of this car means that no two users will ever interact with it in quite the same way. Every time I drive it, I discover a new function. This could continue for quite some time. Some buyers will love that, while others might find such depths unnerving.
While I’m still trying to get under this GLA 35’s skin, there’s something grin-inducing about running a car that’s as quick as a VFII SS-V in a straight line, which can clamber up my Lhotse Face of a driveway, easily seat four grown-ups, yet drink fuel at a modest 7.4L/100km. In theory. More on that later.
Things we love:
1. Quick enough
2. Exhaust sounds
Things we rue:
1. Keen launch control
2. Red/black trim
3. Floaty in Comfort
Update 1: Head for the Hills
Enright tries to find the road where the GLA 35 works best
I DROVE A LONG WAY TODAY, in a bid to find something elusive. In just over a month with the Mercedes-AMG GLA 35, I’ve never quite keyed into its whole ride/handling balance. In short, the default Comfort mode is a bit of a soufflé for dynamic driving, while on the other hand, any of the firmer drive modes deliver crisper handling albeit at a severe impost in terms of ride quality.
To that end, I sketched out a 300km drive loop that delivered a mix of road conditions: a rolling country route to Yarra Junction, replicating the Timber Trail route driven in the Jaguar F-Type R in December’s issue of Motor, following that with 25km of dirt on Mt Baw Baw’s awesome South Face Road, and then freeway back home to mine in south-east Melbourne.
On gently meandering roads, Comfort is fine, yet a bit floaty. Anything that requires a little more commitment through a corner finds that drive mode wanting. The GLA wallows inelegantly onto its outside front hoop, and there’s an uneasy relationship in the kinematics between the front axle’s response and the gearing of the electrically assisted rack.
Click into Sport and things become better, but the roads where this mode pays dividends are patchy, and sharp jolts come smashing through the GLA’s superstructure. Same with Sport+. Only on the smoother bitumen on the final stretch up to Baw Baw Village does the AMG feel properly composed, and there’s proper grin-inducing fun to be had here. Then comes the long dirt section.
South Face Road isn’t your usual dirt track through the woods. It’s built for vast logging trucks and as a result feels weirdly supersized. Deserted too. You can pick a line and play with it, unsettling the car on the way into these sweepers and nudging it in and out of neutrality with the throttle. Some of these sweeping bends are fast and tree-lined though, so it’s best to temper the heroics. A slight ache in my core muscles shows that the seats want for lateral support, but the driving environment is otherwise good.
The freeway schlep home impresses with one of the very best adaptive cruise control systems I’ve ever used, coupled with a great stereo. I stop for a bite to eat at a servo and I’m reminded of a curious, not to mention painful, issue with this car. All three people who’ve driven the GLA since it’s been in my tenure have managed to open the driver’s door into their shins. We all now sport matching red welts where the bottom corner of the door angles back far more sharply than you’d expect. I manage to absent-mindedly clout myself again.
Nursing a sore shin and a bucket of coffee, I try to order my thoughts. It’s clear that the GLA 35 AMG offers a broad dynamic skill set, but it’s not one of consistent competence. There’s no mode that delivers the sort of sinewy, jinky low-speed fun that you’d expect from this car, one of crisp steering, sharpish throttle, firm anti-roll yet finessed damping. At the same time, it’s still a covetable thing and otherwise lovely to live with.
I’d struggle to look past a Volvo XC60 T6 R-Design on air were I in the market for a quick, stylish and compact SUV for $80-odd grand, but I can see why the AMG will appeal to buyers looking for slick tech and a flintier attitude.
The longer I spend with the GLA35, the more I admire it. Like some people, the more interesting ones are sometimes the ones that take the longest to get to know.
Things we love:
1. Great lights
2. Fast seat heaters
3. Great HUD
Things we rue:
1. Sore shins!
2. Unsettled ride
3. No Race mode
Update 2: Shine On
Dirt-road driving triggers Enright's very dormant OCD
I’M NOT SURE where you stand on cleaning cars. When I used to work over the aisle at Unique Cars, we tended to separate the owners we engaged with into two discrete categories: drivers and polishers. The former loved dynamics but had less of a fixation on three-bucket systems, while the polishers saw driving as a necessary evil required to move their lifestyle-affirming bauble from one place to another. I liked the drivers.
I’m now wondering whether that’s showing a little too much. I’ve long subscribed to the view that if you own an SUV, it looks better with a bit of dust up its flanks. However, I’ve grabbed the camera to snatch a few shots of the GLA 35 this month and then put it back in the bag because the baby Benz looked more like a Dakar recce car than a cherished long termer.
If I wasn’t the Editor here, I’d get a stern ticking off over that. Instead I issued myself a verbal warning and performance managed my way in the direction of a cheapo wash mitt.
Fortunately the GLA 35 is an easy car to clean. The five-spoke alloys are pretty unfussy and there aren’t a whole lot of extraneous vents, creases or horizontal surfaces to trap dirt. The interior is also easy to keep clean, apart from the inevitable and constant fingerprint smears on the touchscreens. Big door bins and a huge central compartment offer a stack of storage, although we discovered that a smartphone in the door bins can hide almost imperceptibly beneath an overhanging lip.
On a few occasions, the electrically operated rear hatch has misbehaved. Press the button on the hatch to close it and it swings through its arc as if it’s about to close, only to halt in the last few centimetres. Walk toward the front of the car, thinking the hatch is closing as expected and it’s easy not to notice that it’s in fact open. I was relieved of two packets of Monte Carlo biscuits due to this, an outrage I expect Mercedes boss Ola Kallenius to rectify forthwith.
Then there are the small calibration issues that need to be ironed out at the facelift, like having to wait for the reversing camera image to clear down off the screen long after you’ve selected a forward gear and are waiting to enter a nav destination. Or the grabby lane-keep assist that always defaults on and which requires a delve through the menu system to deactivate. Or the gear selector that sometimes refuses to select reverse at the first attempt in the middle of a hurried three-point turn. These are all relatively easy software fixes.
I still don’t think the styling is as pretty as the old GLA, which was a genuinely cohesive and deft piece of design. However, perhaps counter-intuitively, the new model is all the better for making the exterior lines a bit bluffer and more of what people expect from an SUV rather than an elevated hatch. In other words, the GLA seems to fit its intended niche that bit better now.
It’s also a bit of a grower. While I’d never give an unreserved thumbs up to the ride and handling of this most un-AMG of AMGs, its other attractions as a daily driver have wormed their way into my affections. The all-weather grip, the M260 engine’s 225kW punch, the (generally) clever infotainment system and the sheer left-field idiosyncrasy of the GLA 35 all weigh in its favour.
I’ve still yet to see another come the other way, which may speak volumes about that difficult-to-pigeonhole quirkiness. Still, I’ll be sorry to see it go.
Things we love
- Quick idle-stop
- Can carry 2-metre load
- Race Start easy
Things we rue
- Forgets drive mode
- Lane-keep default
- Crackly Qi charger
Update 3: Sleeper Sell
You need to be quick on the draw to beat a GLA 35
I THOUGHT I’D GET BORED of launching the Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 off the line. I know I did after a day spent doing exactly that when I first got my hands on a Tesla Model S back in 2015. The novelty wore off. Even trolling Mustang drivers at the lights, eyeballing them and then laughing like a drain as they blared away while I rolled gently off the line palled after time. But that was because I was punching down. Everybody knew a Tesla was lightning quick off a dig.
The GLA 35 is different. It looks so innocuous. No big spoilers, no lairy paint finish or stripes; nothing but a slightly frumpy shape. If I owned one I’d probably debadge it to make it even more of a Q-car.
Just out of sheer curiosity, I rigged it up to a VBOX data logger last week and achieved 4.9 seconds to 100km/h, which is not only 0.2 below AMG’s claim, but also seriously bloody quick. It’s almost a full second quicker than the benchmark hot hatch, the Civic Type R and will also smoke the all-wheel drive Yaris GR Rallye. Want to aim higher? How about a 991 Carrera 4 or an Aston V8 Vantage 4.7? Five years ago these were pretty senior performance cars and the GLA has their measure, off the line at least.
Chest-wig chariots like SS-V utes are child’s play for the baby AMG.
While the GLA 35 is a weapon par excellence for infuriating blokes with Southern Cross tatts, a recent price hike of $765 sees the asking price lift to $83,700. Yes, you are getting a Porsche Macan GTS level of performance, but there’s always that other voice in your head, telling you that you’re driving a Mercedes A-Class on stilts and that this is a Lot Of Money. You’d need to make up your own mind whether those stilts are worth around $11K over the price of the A35 hatch.
Thankfully, I’ve diagnosed the mystery of the non-closing hatch. If there’s anything in the boot which nudges the parcel shelf even slightly out of its first detent as you close the tailgate, the shelf will then trip the sensors and the hatch won’t close all the way, remaining a few centimetres open.
As 1RB 2SM departs the MOTOR garage, you’ll spy a new entrant winging in, with more power, a 50 per cent reduction in the number of driven wheels and a whole lot of new questions to answer. This should be good. - AE
Things we love
- Great lights
- Dual pane sunroofs
- Cabin storage
Things we rue
- Vents shine in mirrors
- Column gearshift
- Seatbelt warning
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