Mercedes-AMG has been turning out hotted-up versions of the German luxury brand’s vehicles for decades. The legendary shop takes a normal Benz, gives it a massive power upgrade and aggressive styling, and the resulting vehicles are fantastic. Purists believe that the hand-built engines placed in higher-end AMGs are the only way to go, but there are plenty of “lower-level” cars worth your time. The Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 is one of them, as the compact SUV offers surprising power, solid utility, and boxy-cool styling.
The GLB 35 starts at around $50,000. Like all Mercedes models, it’s possible to crank the price tag up considerably with better upholstery options, more tech, and a variety of cosmetic and performance options. My test vehicle came in just shy of $60,000 and lacked a sunroof if that tells you how easy it is to go wild.
Of course, the star of the show is the engine, and here it’s been enhanced by AMG rather than hand-built. The turbocharged 2.0-liter mill produces 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque and sends it to all four wheels through an AMG-tuned eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. That combination is good enough to propel the GLB 35 from 0-60 in 5.1 seconds, around a 1.5-second improvement over the GLB 250.
Beyond the engine, AMG worked its magic on other parts of the GLB, especially its suspension. AMG Ride Control Sport Suspension is standard and offers three stages of damping force, depending on the drive mode and driver selection. Where many vehicles offer selectable drive modes that alter throttle response and other vehicle characteristics, the GLB is legitimately a different SUV in each mode.
Selecting Sport sharpens throttle inputs and tightens up suspension firmness, but Sport + turns the GLB into a snorting, snarling monster. Turning the dial to set Sport + brings a series of changes to the GLB 35’s performance, sound, and feel. The exhaust becomes louder, dampers firm up immensely, and every driver input is registered in a split second. At full bore, the GLB feels not all that different from a rally car, as its loud and frantic demeanor is reminiscent of Subaru’s best from a few years ago.
On the road, the GLB is stiff, but not overwhelmingly so. Noise, both from wind and the road, is a prominent fixture in the SUV’s interior, especially at highway speeds. There’s a bit of a disconnect at lower speeds in that the transmission and engine sometimes fail to be on the same page, leading to some stumbles and awkwardness when driving around town.
But, Mercedes doesn’t want us comparing the GLB to a Subaru. The Volkswagen Golf R, Audi RS3, and BMW X3 M make better comparisons to the GLB 35. In that regard, the Mercedes is in a bit of an odd spot because it’s not as rowdy as the RS3, not as practical as the X3 M, and far more expensive than the Golf R. You’re buying a badge here, but it’s not a bad badge to have in your driveway.
Inside, the GLB 35 sports an upscale interior with sporty finishes and solid tech. My test vehicle came with Mercedes’ MB-Tex synthetic leather, which offers much of the benefit of genuine leather without the smell or guilt. Power front seats and 64-color ambient interior lighting are standard, but buyers can upgrade with heated seats, ventilated seats, genuine leather, and more.
Mercedes’ MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) system offers a responsive and mostly intuitive way to interact with the vehicle. It runs on a 10.25-inch touchscreen and 10.25-inch digital gauge cluster. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard, along with Bluetooth, HD Radio, SiriusXM, USB-C inputs, and more. Various upgrades bring a Burmester sound system, augmented video navigation, WiFi, and other tech features. There’s little to complain about here other than Mercedes’ confounding touchpad controller. It’s nearly impossible to register a precise input, and things get even worse with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto running.
The GLB earned five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but it has not been evaluated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The exorbitant costs of crash testing vehicles mean that some don’t get tested yearly. Standard driver aids are generous and include Blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alerts and safe exit assist, driver attention assist, a rearview camera, forward collision alerts, and automatic emergency braking. Several upgrades are available, including speed limit assist, active LED headlights, adaptive cruise control, and parking sensors.
At nearly $60,000, several other vehicles may fit your needs better, but few will deliver the visceral, raw sensation of slamming the throttle down in an AMG-tuned vehicle, even one without a full-blown hand-built engine. That said, unless you need the power and ferociousness, the regular GLB 250 gets the job done with the same utility for a fraction of the price.