2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 4MATIC Review: Embracing the SUV

  • SUV styling feels grown-up and on-trend
  • Excellent drivetrain
  • Cabin is more spacious and tech is plentiful
  • Adaptive suspension helps cover all bases
  • Gets very expensive when you add options
  • More cargo space, but only if you drop the rear seats
  • Where's the hybrid?

America loves SUVs. Despite the best efforts of many to coax US drivers into sedans and wagons, demand for sports utility vehicles just keeps growing; with the 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA, the German automaker decided to simply go with the flow. More SUV-like than its hatchback-styled predecessor, it's a version of the entry-level luxury crossover that seems particularly tuned for American tastes.

The old GLA had a lower, sleeker Euro look to it. Handsome, certainly, but it's not hard to conclude that buyers stateside will be much more convinced by the taller design of this second-gen model. It's actually a half-inch shorter in fact, but – by lengthening the wheelbase, among other tweaks – there's more headroom, elbow room, and rear shoulder room inside, even with a higher seating position.

Overall cargo volume has risen too, at 50.5 cubic feet versus the 43.6 of the first-gen GLA, but that's with the rear seats down; with them up, it's actually a little less, at 15.4 versus 17.2 cu-ft. It's a similar story when you compare with Audi's Q3, which has more trunk space than the new GLA with the second row up, but less when down. BMW's X1 is still ahead, mind, with 27.1 cu-ft and 58.7 cu-ft with seats up and down respectively.

The GLA a curvy thing, and I'll confess I wasn't entirely convinced when Mercedes first released pictures of the 2021 update back at the end of 2019. In the metal, though, things are far more cohesive, particularly with the $2,600 AMG Line styling package. The grille lands just on the right side of brash, with its bold center bar, while the oversized front lower intakes may not be entirely necessary for cooling, but they do lend the GLA a powerful stance.

At the rear, the light clusters are particularly shapely, while Mercedes' chrome trim falls is tasteful rather than excessive. The 20-inch AMG Multi-Spoke wheels fill the arches well, too, though ride comfort will undoubtedly be a little better with the thicker rubber on the standard 18-inch or optional 19-inch wheels.

Where does this all leave Mercedes' other compact SUV, the GLB? Very nearby, the automaker concedes, though it insists that it has a different value premise to the new GLA. You can have your GLB with a third-row, for instance, with its more traditional styling adding up to more space inside. The GLA, meanwhile, is a little smaller and easier to park.

As standard you get a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4 engine – with 221 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque – and an 8-speed automatic transmission. 0-60 mph comes in 6.8 seconds in the front-wheel drive version, or 6.6 seconds for the all-wheel drive; you get maximum torque from just 1,800 rpm. Mercedes expects more people to opt for the AWD 4MATIC version, which is rated for 24 mpg in the city, 33 mpg on the highway, and 27 mpg combined. My own mixed driving suggested they were all reasonable predictions, as long as you're not too eager with the gas pedal.

There's more horsepower than the old GLA, though a little less than from the Q3 and X1. Eventually there'll be an AMG GLA 35, with 302 horsepower, and a 382 hp AMG GLA 45.

We'll have to wait to see how they hold up, but the 2021 GLA 250 4MATIC is no slouch. Tap Mercedes' drive mode dial into Sport mode and the little SUV keeps its engine simmering and the transmission eager to downshift. You don't get the slick air suspension of the automaker's more expensive models, but $990 adds the Adaptive Damping System and I'd say it's worth it.

That adjusts the firmness of the dampers, helping cut body roll in corners as well as that front to back lurching that lesser SUVs can provoke under aggressive braking. Comfort mode, meanwhile, gets softer dampers and more relaxed engine tuning, and benefits from little in the way of wind noise until you get beyond 70 mph. If you really want, you can clack away at the little metal paddles behind the wheel and change the gears yourself, but most of the time the transmission is best left to its own devices.

Pricing starts out competitively, and then spirals in the usual way as you get options-happy. The 2021 GLA 250 4MATIC starts at $38,230 with $1,050 destination; a front-wheel drive version kicks off at $36,230.

LED headlamps and taillamps are standard, as are power front seats, keyless start, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power lift gate, rain-sensing wipers, and MB-Tex cloth upholstery. The standard dashboard has a 7-inch digital instrument cluster and a second, 7-inch touchscreen for the infotainment system; that supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and there are four USB-C ports spread around the cabin.

It's running Mercedes' latest MBUX software, which is cleanly laid out and can be controlled via the touchscreen, a trackpad in the center console, touchpads on the steering wheel, or by voice. The latter is more useful than you might expect, too, with the "Hey Mercedes" assistant unusually good at parsing what you're asking for. You can use it to set the navigation (if fitted), control vehicle features, and adjust the multimedia, among other things.

I suspect many GLA buyers will opt for the $1,750 Premium Package, though, and so does Mercedes. That upgrades both displays to larger, 10.25-inch panels, which look a whole lot more impressive. It also adds auto-dimming mirrors – with power-folding side mirrors – along with hands-free access and keyless start. A $1,295 Multimedia Package gets you navigation, along with Mercedes' augmented reality assistance that overlays upcoming turns atop a live camera feed of the road ahead on the center infotainment screen.

The cabin in general is high-quality and familiar. Mercedes knew it was onto a good thing when the latest-generation A-Class' interior met with generally rave reviews, and it has replicated that formula – particularly among its more affordable models – ever since. It leaves the GLA feeling not especially new if you've spent much time in other recent Mercedes cars and SUVs, but overall I'd say it was a net-win.

There's plenty of space up front, though the rear is a little more cramped but still fine for two adults. Leather trim is available for $1,450, in four colors (including a striking red), along with optional wood trim at $325. You can have heated front seats for $500, or heated and cooled front seats for $950, while a heated steering wheel is $250. 64-color ambient lighting goes a long way in lifting what can otherwise be a fairly dark cabin, though you pay $310 for it. A head-up display is $1,100, a wireless charging pad for you phone is $200, and the Burmester Surround Sound audio system is $850.

All-in, my review car had lurched up to $54,515, and that feels like a lot. You can have a GLE SUV for less, in fact. My advice? Figure out what you really can't live without and try not to be swayed from there, no matter how tempting things may get in the well-disinfected dealership.

The glaring omission is a hybrid option. In fact, I can't help but think the new GLA would make an intriguing all-electric crossover, were Mercedes of a mind to do it. The larger EQC is coming to the US in 2021, but the idea of a GLA EV roughly the size of a Polestar 2 seems like a tempting one. Even a plug-in hybrid would be welcome, but for now only the larger GLC SUV offers such a drivetrain.

2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 4MATIC Verdict

Hybrid absence aside, there's a lot to like about the 2021 GLA 250 4MATIC. Mercedes' gateway to SUV ownership now actually looks like an SUV, but with more flexible cabin and cargo space, and the elevated driving position that so many drivers love. A perky engine leaves me mighty curious to see what the AMG-blessed versions bring, but is more than sufficient on its own, while ride refinement feels borrowed from the GLA's pricier siblings.

Back in 2014, SUVs made up about a third of Mercedes' overall sales. Last year, 56-percent of its sales were SUVs, and 2020 is shaping up to see that rise again to the 60-percent range. With trends like that, it's clear that the new 2021 GLA arrives right on time to give the entry-level crossover a more burly upgrade. The fact that it comes with few compromises and plenty of benefits means it should make just as much sense for luxury subcompact SUV buyers as it does for Mercedes itself.