2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA35 4MATIC: Luxury hot hatch
Mercedes-Benz is selling the 2021 AMG GLA35 4MATIC as a performance-oriented luxury compact crossover. It's comfortable and fun to drive, with an all-wheel-drive system that increases traction, which is a real plus in the rainy Pacific Northwest.
But let's be honest — it's really an upscale hot hatch, a premium version of the small sporty hatchbacks that first became popular in the 1980s in this country after the introduction of the original Volkswagen GTI. And that's a good thing.
Back then the concept was a little simpler. The original hot hatches were based on hatchback economy cars like the VW Rabbit, Toyota Corolla, Dodge Colt and Omni, and Suzuki Swift. They were outfitted with more powerful engine, stiffer suspensions, wider wheels and tires, and special exterior and interior trim. They were inexpensive and entertaining, and many enthusiasts chose them over sports cars, especially in wet weather climates.
A few compact coupes eventually got added to the mix, prompting some to rename the concept pocket rockets. The additional power from the inline fours came from such advanced (at the time) technologies as dual overhead cams and turbocharging, although Dodge and General Motors eventually slipped a couple of small V6 engines into the mix, with Chevy even offering cold air induction. The competition got more serious — and expensive — as time went on, with Subaru and Mitsubishi upping the ante with their turbocharged and all-wheel-drive equipped street-legal rally cars, the Impreza STi/WRX and Lancer Evo.
Not many are around anymore because the models they were based on weren't designed to last, and the early turbo engines had reliability problems that have since been fixed. Unfortunately, most were not replaced with other versions when they went out of production, limiting the options for hot hatch and pocket fans today. But now Mercedes has introduced its own version, which it's pitching a crossover because they are more popular than hatchbacks. But the GLA it is based on is closer to a small wagon than an SUV.
The base GLA comes with a is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 221 horsepower and front-wheel-drive. But our AMG version was upgraded with turbo 2.0 that cranks out 302 horsepower, the company's excellent all-wheel-drive system, a stiffer suspension, wider wheels and customizable drive modes. Mercedes says resulting AMG GLA35 4MATIC can hit 60 in five seconds. Bigger brakes keep everything under control.
Although the GLA is classified as a subcompact, it has a lot more interior room than most others, thanks to its upright styling. There's plenty of room for four adults, although squeezing a third into the back seat is possible for short trips.
The GLA is Mercedes' smallest vehicle crossover, it is still a Mercedes, meaning it comes will all the luxury and tech that buyers expect. Our test version added a sport twist to that, with racing-inspired seats upholstered in Nappa leather and Dinamica microsuede, a suede-wrapped steering wheel, and special AMG trim.
The GLA also comes with several screens that are integrated into one panel across the dash. It looks great and each screen can be configured to offer exactly the information the driver desires (even three clocks). The Mercedes-Benz User eXperience (MBUX) package supports gesture control and voice commands, including Internet access by saying "Hey Mercedes" and asking questions.
Naturally, this level of performance and refinement does not come cheap. While the base 2021 GLA starts at around $36,000, our tester was priced at $53,600, which is more than some very well-equipped three-row SUVs. But If you want to spend more, the AMG GLA45 bumps the engine up to 382 horsepower for a reported 0-60 time of 4.3 seconds.
My only complaints are those I have with practically every Mercedes. First the shifter is a stalk on the steering column, which makes putting it in gear about as exciting as hitting a turn signal. And second, the touch pad below the hand rest is too easy to accidently swipe, unintentionately changing radio stations in the middle of a song or program.
With more and more companies phasing out cars, there are relative few hot hatches or pocket rockets these days. But the concept lives on — albeit in luxury form — in the satisfying and ultra-relaible 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA35 4MATIC, and that's worth celebrating.
2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA35 4MATIC
Base price: $47,550
Price as tested: $53,630
Type: Compact SUV
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (302 hp, 295 lbs-ft)
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
EPA estimated mileage: 23/29
Overall length: 173.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,700 pounds
Final assembly: Rastatt, Germany
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