Benz looks to entice millennials with its compact crossover


DIGITAL EDITOR ANDREW STOY: I like a lot of the new crop of compact crossovers -- unlike some folks on our staff, I think a comfortable ride height, AWD and decent gas mileage makes a lot of sense, even if the practicality is rarely better than that of a comparable sedan.

Audi and now Mercedes-Benz seem to have settled onto a turbo I4/dual-clutch transmission formula for their entry-level models, and the GLA250 uses the same powertrain as the related Mercedes CLA250 sedan. If you don't mind the herky-jerky starting and weird low-speed performance of that powertrain, you'll likely enjoy the GLA. I'm not a fan, and while I acknowledge the fuel economy and performance benefits of a good dual-clutch ?box, the setup feels awkward in an entry-luxe crossover.








A stab of the throttle is required to get forward (or rearward) motion started in parking lots, and gear changes -- while smooth and quick -- seem to either lug the engine (in the regular "E" mode) or hold gears too long ("S" mode) for around-town driving. Sure, you can bang off reasonably quick shifts via the steering wheel-mounted paddles, but no one really does that and you shouldn't have to in order to get acceptable shift points.

If you do find yourself with some open road and pop the GLA into "S," you'll be rewarded with a quick, entertaining little driver; surprisingly, this car is more at home on tight curves than it is slogging through rush hour traffic, with the exception of slightly rubbery steering. The little turbo four suffers from a bit of lag (though whether it's the engine or the trans is difficult to tell), but once it spools up there's lots of power to get things going in a hurry.

But that's about it -- the GLA250's interior is too tight to really be useful for families; the cockpit is nicely trimmed but not spectacular, even in our tester with about $7,000 worth of interior add-ons, and the exterior styling is unlikely to make anyone swoon. The whole package just leaves me pretty flat, though to be fair, I'm the kind of buyer Mercedes would like to have moving through C-class and into E-class by now. I'm supposed to have outgrown the GLA at this point in my life, so I'll be interested to see the opinions of the younger punk kids on our staff.

ASSOCIATE EDITOR GRAHAM KOZAK: I guess I'm theoretically in the right demographic for the GLA250; I have no kids to cart around and there's plenty of space in here to serve my day-to-day needs. It's the perfect size to take to the farmers' market, or I could put some fixed-gear bikes on top or maybe some kayaks and enjoy the active-yet-connected on-the-go lifestyle so popular (or so I'm told) among my fellow millennials.

Plus, there's that all-important tristar up front; the GLA250 will hypothetically serve as a signifier of my good taste and upwardly mobile status and an entry point into the wonderful world of Mercedes-Benz ownership. Try getting that from a Subaru!

The concept of entry-level luxury is baffling to me, personally -- I'd rather just hold out for a few years and throw down on a really nice car I can comfortably afford than jump into the cheapest car offered by a marque. But Mercedes must have some reason to believe it's crucial to hook potential buyers while they're young, even if means offering them a marginally lower-quality (but still solid) vehicle. And, hey, the GLA250 is better than the C230 Kompressor, right?

The hatchy lines are handsome, the stance is spot-on and I love the gorgeous, optional poplar wood trim inside. That and the steering wheel were probably the best parts about the interior, though, from a materials perspective; that truly premium feel you get from the C-class is just not here.

The drivetrain isn't ideal, either. 208 hp and 258 lb-ft from the turbo four isn't bad, but somehow all that output gets lost -- at least momentarily -- between first and second gear. Getting into the throttle to launch from a stop isn't so bad, but if you're, say, creeping through a yield sign there's a weird point where power just drops to nothing for an instant. This has to be a transmission programming issue, and maybe it's not such a bad thing for an "eco" mode, but it doesn't go away in "sport." Frustrating.

That aside, I liked this lot more than I liked the CLA250, and it seemed more reasonable than the CLA45AMG -- a car I was not particularly fond of. (Haven't tested the GLA45 AMG yet.)

So does the GLA250 ultimately make any more sense to me than it does to Andy? The $45K sticker is an eyebrow-raiser, and I suspect that a lot of guys in the target market for this vehicle aren't yet making enough money to justify the purchase. More in my price range is the five-door Mazda 3, but I can't imagine someone cross-shopping a Mercedes and a Mazda. The Subaru XV Crosstrek, which I happen to like a whole lot, is in the same spot.

But again, much as I tend to like Mercedes products, I don't get googly eyed when I see that emblem.

If you'll set aside the compact crossover/hatchback distinction for a moment, the Volkswagen Golf R seems like a more likely contender -- and, at least to me, the more desirable option. Its base price is comparable, and a loaded model will be less expensive than this well-optioned GLA. You'll get 80 extra horses, all-wheel drive and the option of a manual transmission.

It's a car that, as an enthusiast, I could see potentially scraping and saving money to get, whereas the GLA seems more like a decent option to consider if you've got the cash.

ONLINE FEATURES EDITOR JAKE LINGEMAN: I'm probably in this supposed demographic, too -- out of college, couple of bucks in the pocket, ripe for Mercedes' pickings. Unfortunately, you won't find me within a mile of one of these "luxury compact SUVs." You could do just as much with a hatchback, or a bigger luxury sedan, and that bothers me.

We took the GLA to lunch and had to squeeze five people in, and it was literally a squeeze. Luckily our lunch destination was only down the street. It's not super tall, either, and it doesn't have a ton of extra space in the back. And it doesn't even ride that high, which would give it an advantage over a hatchback or an all-wheel drive sedan.

The interior has woodgrain, which looks out of place with the more futuristic styling, both inside and out. I like the turbine-looking air vents, and that they're easy to open, close and direct. The infotainment screen still looks like an add-on to me. I don't know how much it would cost to integrate it into the dash like the pricier Mercedes, but that would be my first suggestion. The seats were mostly flat; they look nice, but there isn't a ton of padding. I didn't really slide around, but I wasn't driving too aggressively either.

This turbo four feels a bit underpowered for this car, with nearly 3,500 pounds to pull around. If you really flatten the throttle, it feels quick, but in normal driving you basically struggle to get up to speed. Eco mode really keeps the revs low, and shifts early. You have to put it in S mode to get any sort of urgency, and even then you have to put the pedal down far.

The bonus of all that is mileage, obviously. The GLA returns 32 mpg on the highway, which is impressive. I suppose it would be a comfortable car for a road trip, as long as you had three or fewer people. I'm not sure you could fit four and a bunch of luggage.

On the other hand, shifts are quick from the dual-clutch tranny. If you were really looking for speed, you can use the paddle shifters and rev it to hell.

Steering, like Andy said, is a little...something. Soft maybe. It's no Toyota Corolla, but it isn't a C63 AMG, either. It did soak up most of the bumps, which is what Mercedes drivers like, but it was louder than I expected inside. The 2.0-liter sends some noise through the firewall and I did hear a tiny bit of wind noise, too.

As a youngish adult, I could easily see myself in a CLA, or even better a base version of the gorgeous C-class, but not this one. I would like to try the AMG version, although that starts at $48K, and goes up from there.

Options: Multimedia package including Command system with navigation, rearview camera, 7.0-inch high resolution LCD screen with 3D map views, enhanced voice control system, 10GB music register, DVD player, gracenote album information including cover art, SD card slot, SiriusXM traffic and weather and navigation map updates included for 3 years ($2,480); PO1 premium package includes SiriusXM radio with six months service, media interface, heated front seats, Harmon/Kardon surround sound system, garage door opener, compass, drivers side and interior auto dimming mirrors, dual-zone automatic climate control ($2,300); sport package including 19-inch AMG wheels with all-season tires, brakes with perforated front discs and MB logo, AMG bodystlying ($2,200); interior package including leather seating surfaces, MG-Tex on dash with top stitching, sport seats with integrated headrests ($1,700); bi-Xenon headlamps ($850); illuminated star ($550); blind spot assist ($550); satin light brown poplar wood trim ($325)