(Disclosure: Unlike the Silverado High Country we previously reviewed, this GLA35 was not a press car. It was rather an indulgent pleasure cruise sourced from a lovely private owner on Turo who enthusiastically preached about its sporting nature in the listing. I wasn’t so sure if I wanted to write about it in the beginning, but after a few days spent zipping around Utah, I’m now confident this car is worth sharing with the world. Many thanks to friends who invited us on this trip and to the wonderful owner on Turo.)
Everyone loves a rambunctious thrill-seeker when it comes to enthusiast cars. Whether it ruffles your feathers or not, you can’t help but at least respect cars yearning to shine in a sea of gray blobs and silver boxes. Skittles-colored pony cars and any shade of Civic Type R come to mind. But what about the silent underdogs? What about the wolves in sheep’s clothing choosing to waft through a crowd without alerting a single soul of the power it wields?
Upon arrival in Salt Lake City, Utah for the SharkFest car show, my friends and I discovered the hidden joy of such a car. Of the group that traveled to the heart of Mormonville, split between one other close friend and me, was a Turo rental, which the owner had enthusiastically touted its discreet fun-haver personality. We parked the Silverado press truck for its well-deserved rest at the Airbnb and took delivery of our mostly nondescript rental weekender: a 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA35.
“Look at this little thing, it’s pretty cool,” we remarked at the start of our stint.
In less than a week, our somewhat deadpan demeanor turned into more of: “HOLY FUCK, IT’S THIS FAST? AND THERE’S STILL A FASTER MODEL?”
Just thought I’d dig those quotes out from my memory to better paint a picture of the psychological effects of busting it down Mercedes style with just a little bit of AMG.
What Is It?
Introduced for the 2021 model year for the second generation of the GLA, itself based on the A-Class, the GLA35 is a middle-ground car slotting between the acclaimed GLA45 and the tame GLA250. But even with that fabled three-letter badge adorning its rump, you wouldn’t be at fault for brushing off the GLA35 as another commuter-grade, plastic-clad hatchback masquerading as an SUV. That’s simply the awkward image nerfing the appeal of all great sporty crossovers.
- MSRP: $47,950 (As tested: approx. $58,000)
- Powertrain: 2.0L turbocharged DOHC inline-four // 8-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Horsepower: 302 horsepower @ 5,800 RPM
- Torque: 295 pound-feet @ 3,000 RPM
- Seating Capacity: 5
- Cargo Volume: 19 cubic feet
- Curb Weight: approx. 3,730 pounds
- Fuel Economy: 23 MPG city // 29 MPG highway // 25 MPG combined
Base price for the relatively-unchanged 2022 model is $47,950. While the actual as-tested price is unknown, building a near-identical GLA on the Mercedes website brings you to roughly $58,000-ish, with some heavy-hitter options including $1,500 for the glass roof, $2,250 for the 21-inch wheels, and $1,550 for the AMG Aerodynamics Package.
The motor is rather unremarkable as far as mega hot hatches go. Being the middle child of the GLA family and a lowly peasant among “true” AMGs, the GLA35 uses an “AMG-enhanced” version of the GLA250’s turbo four-banger. It produces 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet, rivaling many high-tier sport compacts. The in-house AMG SPEEDSHIFT eight-speed dual-clutch dispatches gear changes and routes power to the 4Matic all-wheel drive system. If that powertrain and drivetrain layout sound familiar, that’s because it very well should. Think Volkswagen Golf R, or lower trim Porsche Macan.
Three-way adaptive dampers take care of the handling and adjust via the drive modes or the Individual menu in the infotainment. Reigning in this spritely sport utility are 13.8-inch rotors clamped down by four-piston calipers up front and 13-inch rotors halted by single-pistons in the rear.
This specific Turo car sported Pirelli Scorpion winter tires, not ideal for a summer blast through Utah backroads, but they sufficed without dampening steering feel and handling too much. It helped that sidewall was kept to a minimum by the optional 21-inch wheels.
Mercedes In The Streets
If you couldn’t tell by the first few words, I’m an evangelist for understated heroes. Who doesn’t love a good sleeper? Aside from the beefy brakes lurking behind those tasteful, if a bit oversized, wheels, and the charmingly silly aero kit, this car does little to speak of its hidden nature.
The aero kit itself isn’t as gaudy as the same package for other Mercedes, and the elements comprising it are a bit small; it’s almost apologetic for wanting to exude a teeny ounce of boy-racer flare. From afar, the GLA35 appears to be just a GLA250 with a fancy grill and some big wheels and could pass as some AMG-Line variant of the plebian cars. As a result, this car catches no eyes and garners zero attention. Only those who know may offer a glance, which was nearly no one outside Utah Motorsports Campus.
The GLA35 shouts just as faintly on the inside, at least in this spec. It rather prefers to whisper with mild hints of sport, such as the carbon inlays – which can be replaced with wood or aluminum – and the flat-bottom wheel with paddle shifters. Heck, if you blink, you may even miss the tiny AMG script at the bottom of the digital gauges, which is crystal-clear and flawlessly legible, much like the infotainment screen flanking it. The gauges can be customized to display whatever information you want for a more commuter-spec or performance-grade layout. CarPlay dominates most infotainment functions.
If there are hiccups to be had with the interior, it could be that any move to change drive mode settings shows its intent in full-screen, interrupting navigation for a few seconds. It’s only a moment, but that moment could determine if I miss my exit or not. Fail. CarPlay is also wired where rivals gradually shift to wireless, and the rear seat has no fold-down armrest or cupholders in a world where base model Corollas offer that.
Deal breaker? Nah, definitely not. But it’s little details that can cheapen the hell out of an already-expensive hatchback. Thankfully, overall build quality is your typical German car-tight, and the interior layout is the classiest and most elegant in its class, as most Mercedes often are. The dreariness of the dark interior is broken up by sharply contrasting aluminum trim pieces all over the cabin as well as the optional and customizable ambient lighting with two-tone color schemes.
The Ukrainian nightclub blue-and-yellow combo is my current favorite.
Ride quality is as commendable as can be for a little tike on 21-inch reeyums, which is to say it’s merely okay. Sport Plus is firm and only sometimes harsh, while Comfort brings things down to Civic territory. It’s not a standout in terms of ride. In fact, it’s roughly on par with many modern sport compacts, meaning it’s livable for a week-long vacation through the tattered urban streets of downtown Salt Lake City. You can feel the car trying its damnest to soak bumps with as few harsh impacts as possible, and you can aid it further by speccing the smaller and less expensive wheel options.
AMG In The Sheets
So it’s a normal-ass hatchback most of the time when you just want to take a breather. Sounds practical. Sounds comfortable. Sounds, uh, boring?
But boring is a facade the GLA35 puts up remarkably well. Flip a couple of switches and drop the hammer, and it’ll gladly demonstrate how it earned its three-lettered badge of honor.
This car is quick. 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet are no joke, especially when it’s geared so short and can shift so quickly – the DCT, bland and unenthused in Comfort, slamfires shifts at full tilt. To put its athleticism into quantitative data, the professional testers at Motor Trend rang one out to 60 miles per hour in five seconds flat and through the quarter in 13.6 seconds at 101 miles per hour. It’s a spritely little bastard!
Engage RACE-START launch control, and the GLA leaps forward with fervent tenacity. On a short little pull to 60 miles per hour, it refused to surrender to our other friend’s Mustang GT, a hulking brute with over 130 more angry horsies under the hood. Its Achilles’ heel was my inept self letting the car hit its rev limiter in manual mode, which blessedly reveals that manual shifting is truly manual rather an auto upshifting when it has enough of your tomfoolery.
Whether you’re gliding through backroads or really letting it uncork, the GLA makes itself heard. It snuffs its serene half and begins to flutter, whoosh, and bark enthusiastically as the turbo takes deep breaths. The noise is properly sporty in the cabin yet not so much outside, where the exhaust still tries to uphold some semblance of maturity. Its song is far more punk than a GTI but sedate when played over a Veloster N’s power ballad.
The steering in any mode, while sadly numb, is razor sharp. Paired with AMG’s three-way Ride Control shocks, it tucks into corners and darts from side to side with superb athleticism far greater than its 3,700-pound weight will have you believe. The dampers iron out most road imperfections reasonably well, never allowing the GLA to upset itself when moving at a decent pace through the hills of East Canyon and near Park City, despite its short wheelbase. Shod in proper tires, you can encourage the GLA to keep up its hoonigan jackassery all the way up to nearly a G of grip, but the winter tires of this car kept antics to a safe limit, especially as the skies began to storm down on the Utah canyons.
Such aggression and competence raise questions of how capable it’d be on track on a cool day. But that’d have to wait for a real press car. So what do you say, huh, Mercedes?
The Good, The Bad, The Questionable Price
Huzzah! Mercedes-AMG has graced the States with its interpretation of a roadgoing rally car; fast and fun, cozy and practical, just as the best hot hatchbacks always are. There’s a whole lot to love about an understated car, such as the GLA35, walking the line between maturity and maniacal, but it raises a similar amount of skepticism.
Besides weirdos like me, who is this thing for? At roughly $48k just to start, you can’t help but think of even quicker, more track-oriented delinquents such as a Civic Type R or Volkswagen Golf R, the latter also playing the mega-refined, split-personality card. Get frisky with options, and you’ll land near base model Porsche Macans, which sport superior quality but is a performance bracket below the GLA35. So perhaps it’d be more palatable if the GLA stopped cosplaying and owned up to its A-Class roots like the true Mercedes hot hatches sold elsewhere. But of course, that would never sell to America’s suburbanites.
The car itself is also too damn easy to overlook as a whole, especially when the GLA45 exists and headlines are frequently stolen by the subbrand’s earth-crushing V8s, radical hybrid supercars, and full EVs. Unfortunately, all these boundary-pushing efforts from AMG leave the lesser 35 models to get lost in Affalterbach’s sauce.
But now you know what GLA35 is about. Don’t scoff at this adorably-proportioned bean of a sports car-killer, as beneath its calm surface lays bonafide performance, with motorsports in its DNA and asphalt twisties in its sights. This gentleman’s sports compact may not bear an AMG heart, but it admirably encapsulates the AMG spirit.Published in Reviews