The Mercedes GLA250 shows just how far the definition of sport utility vehicle is being stretched these days.
Looking more like a compact hatchback, the new GLA starts at $34,225 and is the smallest vehicle available in the U.S. with Mercedes' name on it (save for the all-electric B-Class, which has sold a quaint 448 copies through November of this year).
It's aimed at a burgeoning segment of tidy crossovers from luxury brands such as Lexus, Audi and BMW. The automakers are racing to reach down-market and grab new buyers. These cute-utes are also aimed at younger, wealthier buyers living in cities who want the badge without the bulk.
But it's technically an SUV, because of its elevated ride height and all-wheel-drive system. To create this vehicle — whatever you call it — Mercedes essentially took its entry-level CLA250 sedan and bolted a smaller hatchback body on top of it.
More than eight inches shorter than that sedan, the GLA is tailor-made for people who regularly face shoe-box size parking spaces. It also has the turning radius of a golf cart, so maneuverability is sublime.
Inside, the hatchback setup means the GLA has a smidge more headroom in the rear seats than the CLA sedan. And there's more than half a foot of additional rear-seat legroom than in the sedan, meaning tall passengers have plenty of space.
Just pack light. The diminutive GLA250 has just 11.8 cubic feet of rear cargo room; even the CLA sedan has more. Good thing the seats fold down.
Otherwise, the insides of the GLA are well-built and the dashboard layout is straightforward and clean. The only snobbish caveat is anyone who's spent time in a new higher-end Mercedes will notice that the GLA's interior design is from the brand's earlier generation of vehicles.
And despite the GLA's approachable base price, few creature comforts come gratis. The sunroof, navigation system, backup camera, heated seats and dual-zone climate control are all extra, pushing the sticker price on our South Seas Blue model to a not-so-compact $45,505.
That price also included the $2,200 Sport Package, which upgrades the base 18-inch wheels to 19-inchers. Though we liked the sporty handling on our test model, skip this upgrade since it makes for a rougher ride around town. But in general, the GLA handled the road with crisp poise and excellent steering.
Unfortunately you can't skip this model's powertrain, at least not without spending an additional $15,000 on the AMG version. Since it's based on the CLA, the basic GLA250 gets the same engine and transmission, warts and all.
A 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine is paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The engine makes 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, and — with the all-wheel-drive system — propels this GLA from zero-to-60 mph in 7.1 seconds, according to Mercedes.
Fuel economy is rated at 24 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. Over a week of nearly all city driving, we averaged 21.6 mpg.
A dual-clutch transmission is normally a good thing, offering crisp and seamless shifts compared with a garden-variety automatic. Ferrari and Porsche have used them to great effect for years.
But like the CLA sedan, the GLA's shifts are neither smooth nor well-timed. And the turbocharged engine has a frustrating lag from a dead stop.
Things get better when you put the GLA in its Sport mode, but you have to do this every time you turn on the car. The engine — in any mode — has ample power once it's at cruising altitude, though it sounds like an angry hair dryer.
Overall, the drivetrain is unimpressive, especially for Mercedes, even an entry-level one.
We also tested the GLA45 from the automaker's AMG performance division. This little devil (ours was Jupiter Red) starts a tick over $49,000.
It's powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine that makes 355 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque. With all-wheel drive and the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, this AMG will do zero-to-60 mph in 4.8 seconds, according to Mercedes.
Though it was jarring around town, the GLA45 starts to make more sense on open roads. After a smidge of turbo lag, it has torrents of power and tenacious grip.
On top of the base price, our GLA45 test model came loaded with the entire options catalog, pushing the price to $65,985. That includes blacked-out 20-inch wheels, an aggressive body kit with a massive rear wing and a raucous $450 performance exhaust setup that coughs with each upshift.
The overall effect was like a prep school kid with a mohawk. Who knows how many of these fun-but-weird little things Mercedes will sell.
But the standard GLA250 is a disappointment. Though well-built and nicely sized, the drivetrain is a turnoff and you have to spend freely to get any meaningful amenities.
This is the kind of pitfall a luxury automaker should avoid; no one wants new customers to be turned off by their first experience with the brand.
It's even more of a disservice to Mercedes, since the automaker has a tsunami of segment-leading models (C-Class, S-Class, ML and GL SUVs) awaiting buyers once they start spending more money.
For now, it's best to leave the cheap seats to someone else.