The Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 Is Turning Into a High-Performance Bargain

A big hot hatch with a hand-assembled engine for less than $30,000?

The Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 is more of a compact crossover than a big hot hatchback, but hear me out. With crossovers accounting for more and more market share as we continue along through these turbulent early-2020s, a handful of them do stand out as potentially good to drive and possess some charming character to boot. On the low-end, examples would include the recently sunsetted Mazda CX-3 and its newer stand-in the CX-30. On the high-end, the GLA 45. Will these sway enthusiasts into loving compact crossovers en masse? Absolutely not, but I think it’s worth giving credit where it’s due. Especially when reviewers affirm they’re fun to drive. And most intriguingly, these Mercs are starting to depreciate into the striking range of more modest budgets.

I’m talking about Mercedes’ previous iteration, the X156 GLA, which has depreciated quite a bit. This could make them a really fun, entry-level luxury car bargain to keep an eye on.

What in the Heck is the Mercedes-Benz GLA?

The Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 Is Turning Into a High-Performance Bargain
Image: Mercedes Benz

Let’s start with the X156 basics. The GLA, or, Glah for short (kidding), is Mercedes’ smallest and most entry-level crossover. It actually shares the same platform as its A-Class, the brand’s smallest and most entry-level sedan. This platform is known as the MFA platform.

The basic, entry-trim GLA 250 isn’t really anything to write blogs about. 2.0-liter turbo-four, 0-60 in just over seven seconds, and decent entry-level-luxe amenities… it’s a ground floor for prospective beginner luxe buyers. The engine is Mercedes’ M270DE20LA that makes as much as 208 horsepower depending on when it was produced. But on the whole, it seems that the car offers a pretty bland, uninspiring experience. Its looks are equally uninspiring; in my opinion, it’s got clean lines, but it just blends in with the rest of the compact crossover segment.

Which is Why the GLA 45 AMG Is So Special

The Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 Is Turning Into a High-Performance Bargain
Image: Mercedes Benz

From the outside, the AMG’s looks are substantially better. This example’s surely got some optional graphics tacked on, but for the most part, it simply looks a lot more fun. Bigger and sportier wheels, nice ground effects, a front splitter, some change-up in the rear fascia around its sporty exhaust pipes, a wing, bigger bumper intakes, and more. On the inside, they seem to be similarly adorned with luxury, which some reviewers found to be a little lacking for the GLA’s price point. Though still, what I can recall from my brief ride in one a few years back, it’s definitely a nice place to be.

Then there’s the 45’s fun factor on the road. According to Christian Seabaugh at Motor Trend back in 2015: “the GLA45 AMG is a riot on wheels; it’s fast as stink and begs the driver to wring the four-banger out for all it’s worth. Without a doubt, the GLA45 is most at home being throttled mercilessly on winding back-country two-tracks.” When looking under the hood and beneath the wheel arches, it’s easy to see why. Thanks to fully-independent suspension at all four corners to tighten up body roll and improve grip, a 7-speed dual clutch transmission, and a raucous turbo-four under its hood making as much as 375 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque in later-gen models.

Matt Farah of The Smoking Tire gave similar praise to this grippy little hatch when he tested one that same year.

…Er, big hatch, rather. Remember, think of this small crossover as a big hatch. Anyway, it might weigh around 3,600 pounds, but these big power figures more than make up for that. Mercedes claims it’ll hit 60 mph in 4.3 seconds from a standstill. Not bad at all.

The only thing that’s more eyebrow-raising than MB making a big, fast hatchback, is the engine beneath said hatch’s hood: it’s hand-assembled! That’s right: it’s handcrafted in the same facility in Kölleda, Germany that produces the Benz’s other four-cylinder engines. One employee cobbles together the all-aluminum block, forged steel crankshaft, and forged pistons with their own bare hands. By the way, it makes sense that everything has to be forged, as this angry 2.0 produces a lot of horsepower for its displacement.

What’s more, it sounds like the AMG’s cooling system is up to the task, potentially even making it track-worthy. This is actually based on the same design that cools the SLS AMG, Mercedes AMG’s former flagship sports car. It utilizes air-water charge cooling, a large front radiator as well as supplemental radiator in the wheel arch, water cooling to the intake ports, and integrated transmission cooling to the water’s lengthy circuit throughout the engine bay. This could mean more full-throttle on track, lap after lap, without the threat of intake charge, oil, and water temps creeping up too high.

Prices Are Looking Quite Enticing

The Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 Is Turning Into a High-Performance Bargain
Image: Cars.com screenshot

Right now, it’s not hard at all to find an earlier-in-its-generation X156 AMG for south of $30,000 with less than 80,000 miles. What’s quite wild, is just six-or-so short years ago, they went for nearly double, commanding a base price of $49,225, with well-equipped examples sitting just south of $68,000, according to Car and Driver. Of course, like I’ve said in several of these bargain luxury highlight pieces, the more inclined a potential buyer is to DIY wrenching, the better. Modern Mercedes are complex, and the proverbial Mercedes Tax (like the BMW Tax) on parts doesn’t help. But as always, the best strategy is to find an example that has documented, substantial service history, is in good overall condition, and doesn’t have any title concerns. Then, researching some of the GLA’s common mechanical shortfalls is crucial. From what I’ve seen, the GLA 45 doesn’t have a ton of DIY resources out there, though there are some.

But still, if the idea of a big hatchback that can out-accelerate a lot of performance platforms for fairly short money is appealing, and if relatively-new European luxury amenities are enticing, the GLA 45 AMG ought not be overlooked.

Peter Nelson

Peter NelsonPeter Nelson has been wrenching on and playing with cars since he started driving them quickly between the cones at Chicagoland autocross events in his late teens. Nowadays, he can be found wringing out his Mazda2 at tracks all over California. His writing background includes Winding Road, Donut Media, and Autolist.com. He's also an avid cyclist and '80s/'90s action film connoisseur. Contact the author here.