With all the cheekiness of an eldest sibling proud to finally shine amongst two younger but highly gifted siblings, the refreshed 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 is what the German company lauds as its entry to its range of “GL” SUVs. But in reality, it slots right in between the taller and more traditionally boxy GLB crossover, and the highly hyped A-Class 5-door hatchback.
So yes, the GLA is the first step on the brand’s SUV ladder. Yet thanks to its taller size, upgraded A-Class-like interior tech and sport-tinged styling, it’s likely just as tempting for those who would like a taller and more SUV-ish A-Class with all-wheel drive than those looking for a more svelte version of the taller yet still compact GLB, the GLB’s boxier design and available seven seats likely appealing to more SUV traditionalists.
No matter the exact segment, it’s still a Mercedes-Benz, meaning it lands priced at the high end of each class, especially once options are added that come in other vehicles at a much lower price point. Some may appreciate that they may not have to pay for features they don’t want. But it also means that unless you tick most or all option boxes, sometimes the GLA surprises with missing features, as we discovered on our $53,065 tester on a drive up to Muskoka cottage country, starting from Mercedes-Benz Canada’s downtown Toronto HQ at the GLA’s socially distanced Canadian launch.
The new GLA is a healthy 10 cm taller than before, making it less of a visual “is it a hatch or a crossover?” conundrum. Black protective body cladding all around reinforces the SUV vibe, plus helps reduce paint chips from road debris. The GLA now becomes 5.4 cm taller than the A-Class hatchback, with the GLA, GLB and as of 2020 models the A-Class all coming standard with Benz’s 4MATIC all-wheel drive system in Canada, while U.S. GLA models come standard with front-wheel drive.
Surprisingly, the revised GLA is actually shorter than before, by 1.5 cm, although its width and wheelbase have been stretched by 30mm each, allowing for more rear legroom, and some adjustability allowed between rear seat room and cargo room by the sliding and folding rear seats.
The big news for the GLA is the addition of the high-tech MBUX system from the A-Class, along with its available augmented reality-enhanced navigation directions that provides arrows and addresses super imposed on map directions for easier following. There’s also an AI function that allows you to say “Hey Mercedes”, and then tell the car what you’d like, which is very useful for folks who don’t want to search around the dash, onscreen menus or spend time digging in the manual to find various functions.
Stepping inside feels like a step into the future, with connected twin flat screen panels, one directly in front of the driver to replace the usual gauges, the other a similar seven or 10.25-inch (as pictured) infotainment screen for all your navi, radio and phone displays. A row of traditional climate displays lie underneath three jet turbine-style air vents, near an available wireless charging pad and a USB-C charge port.
One of my fave features was the large two-piece panoramic sunroof, which comes standard on all GLA models, with a powered cover that can retract when you want less sun, or while parked on a hot day in summer.
The $3,600 Premium package on my tester features those larger screens, that “Hey Mercedes” virtual assistant functionality, an Off-Road oriented mode for “light off terrain” that shows you on the screen your incline angles and adjusts your crawl speed, CarPlay or Android Auto (but wired still, sadly), and truly impressive LED interior ambient lighting, with 64 colour options, that can change randomly, or with temperature change adjustments.
The best example of talking to the car was when I hunted around for the heated steering wheel button, couldn’t find it, and just said “Hey Mercedes, turn on my heated steering wheel.” And it did. Like an angel from heaven.
Unfortunately, it’s not all heavenly when it comes to the advanced tech in the GLA. Since basically everything is customizable on the screens, it may take you a while to set everything how you’d prefer, using touch sensitive squares on the steering wheel that don’t always swipe to the area or function you’re hoping for. Even after lots of radio customization, screen selecting, and station setting, there’s still no way to go from one station preset to another with one simple button push on the steering wheel without taking your eyes off the screen, or hands off the wheel.
As a constant station flipper, this would be a dealbreaker for me.
Now using Mercedes-Benz’s more efficient M260 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, the GLA 250 now makes 221 hp, with its all-wheel drive system and 8-speed dual-clutch automatic helping it to a 6.9 second 0-100 km/h time.
Overall, this is an impressively smooth and powerful mill. But there is an occasional lag still off the line, especially when you want to go now, which feels like either turbo lag, or the transmission shifting itself from a comfort-oriented second gear launch to first gear.
Shift paddles are standard, which reinforces that driver involvement is still encouraged from the driver’s seat. There’s a dynamic dial on the centre console that lets you quickly choose from Eco, Comfort, Sport or Individual modes. In sport mode there’s a noticeable willingness to downshift to a lower gear, and quicker if using the paddles, while stiffening up suspension settings, but not to punishing levels.
Hardcore enthusiasts may wish for a little more indication that you are in Sport mode besides the small S up on the dash. But if you’re this performance-oriented, the GLA’s quicker 302 hp Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 may be more your speed, which also arrived at Benz dealers this summer, or the extra spicy GLA 45 and its 382 fire-breathing horsepower that’s slated to arrive in 2021.
From a fuel efficiency perspective, the GLA 250 is now slightly better than last year, achieving an overall combined average of 8.7 L/100 of premium fuel. That’s fairly good fuel economy for luxury SUVs of its size, but not so great when compared to other regular-sipping luxury SUVs in the segment like the Lexus UX, hybrid or regular, at 6.0 and 7.2 L/100 km, respectively.
Like most Mercedes-Benz models, there are plenty of standard safety features on the GLA, the most advanced of which is likely Active Brake Assist, which uses radar and a windshield-mounted camera to at first warn (signal, then sound) of an impending collision, then can brake autonomously, or add to your braking if needed, up to roughly 60 km/h.
But perhaps disappointing to some, from a safety and value perspective, is that many of these safety systems on the GLA are optional.
This particular tester cost $53,065 before taxes and fees, more than $10,000 above the GLA 250’s base price of $42,400, and there was no active cruise control, lane keep assist function, or even a visor that extended past the top of the windshield. All but the latter is available on an Intelligent Drive package for another $1,900, which admittedly adds quite a bit more tech, including a Stop-and-Go system that can restart automatically when coming to a stop in traffic jams, an Evasive Steering Assist that can help steer around pedestrians in emergency moves, a cross-traffic intersection braking function that brakes for pedestrians and crossing vehicles, and a host of other active safety functions.
The new blind spot assist with Exit Warning system is included in the Premium package, a system which watches for cyclists coming up behind and warns the driver once parked for up to three minutes after the car is turned off.
But add up all these options, including Active Parking, head-up display and a $650 360-degree camera, and you’re running close to the $60k mark before taxes, which seems pricy for a vehicle this size.
Mercedes-AMG GLA 35
Once you’re over $50k, it may be worth looking at the GLA 250’s quicker AMG sibling, the GLA 35. It starts at $52,900, and comes with a 302 hp, AMG-tuned version of the 2.0-litre four, with 295 lb-ft of torque that puts it well into super hot hatch power levels.
A brief sampling of the GLA 35 on snowy cottage country roads proved entertaining, even on winter tires, and without testing its 5.1 second 0-100 km/h time or getting anywhere near its electronically limited 210 km/h top speed.
The acceleration difference is massive at first squirt, although it wasn’t quite blow-you-away power, in part thanks to the slippery conditions and falling snow. The flat-bottom steering wheel looked great but unfortunately wasn’t heated, and the seats didn’t squeeze the driver with a death grip in the name of cornering stability.
With the GLA 35 and 250 parked nearby, it was interesting to note how much lower the GLA 35 rides, at a full nine centimetres less than the standard 250, and once again putting it closer to hot hatch territory than more typical hot SUV heights. At 1,404mm, it rides lower than an A-Class hatchback, somewhat negating the advantage of easier ingress and egress of taller crossovers, in exchange for less body roll in curves.
If you can live with that and no heated steering wheel (sniff), a lightly optioned GLA 35 is an intriguing value equation in the GLA lineup. But for many Canadian buyers the heated steering wheel is a must, and so the revised GLA 250 will be plenty sporty and practical, with a mix of sleek interior tech and urban passenger-friendly crossover dimensions worthy of a test drive in this class, as well as a careful approach to that extensive options list.
The vehicles were provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.