The 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class is the smallest and least expensive SUV in its lineup, and a welcome entry to the brand. The GLA-Class offers a happy compromise. The smallest crossover SUV in the Mercedes lineup is also the most affordable at $37,280. It may not be the best Benz, or even the Benz rolling in your dreams, but well-equipped and flush with options, the GLA250 satisfies many wants without sacrificing many others.

The redesigned 2021 model is less of a compromise than the first generation model launched for 2015. It’s taller, wider, roomier, with a more comfy ride and better technology. The extensive options list limits this notion of compromise, and some of it should be standard, but the 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class is much-improved. The beginner Benz matures into its larger proportions with a taller ride height, wider stance, yet it’s a bit shorter in length. It looks more like a proper luxury crossover instead of a hatchover like the outgoing model. An aviator theme carries over from the mesh grille design to the turbine vents inside.

Taller, wider, a bit lovelier, the 2021 GLA250 charms like bubbles. The first GLA250 launched for 2015 had the proportions of a hatchback more than a crossover. Now more than an inch wider, 3.6 inches taller, and with a longer wheelbase, the 2021 GLA250 grows up as an SUV yet is still cute as a bubble. The wheelbase grows 2 inches and with up to 20-inch wheels the profile and the stance get larger, buffer, more filled out. The face carries over the airliner vibe with a tri-star planted between wings spanning a mesh grille. The standard LED headlights are complemented by an available Exterior Lighting package ($900) that, upon startup, illuminates the periphery in sequence. Those adaptive headlights are meant more for safety, but it looks pretty cool from the cabin too.

A peppier turbo-4 adds some punch, but forthcoming AMG versions pack a real punch. The enhanced 2.0-liter turbo-4 in the 2021 GLA250 delivers capability and confidence even though it skews to the efficient side of German engineering. The bump in horsepower from 208 to 221 enables it to hit 60 mph in 6.6 seconds in all-wheel drive, and it handles well enough to be shifty in urban areas, despite the taller ride height.

The turbo-4 pops quick enough without much lag, so nosing out from a stop or passing on the highway is a breeze enabled by standard paddle shifters. Unlike other Mercedes’ crossover SUVs, the GLA250’s 8-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission sends power to the front wheels, not the rear wheels. It keeps most of the 258 pound-feet of torque up front until the available all-wheel-drive system calls on it to get a grip. In Sport mode, up to 30% of the torque goes to the rear wheels.

All-wheel drive, or 4Matic in MB speak, comes with a standard off-road package with a hill descent that brakes itself at speeds up to 11 mph. The torque splits evenly between the axles, but we had no opportunity in taking it off-road, and the 5.6 inches of ground clearance would make us think twice. The GLA250 rides 0.4 inches higher off the ground than last year, but the independent rear suspension and aluminum MacPherson front suspension cushion the ride and soften the cabin. It’s not meant for the autocross, but the AMG variants might be. The GLA35 is powered by a 302-hp 2.0-liter turbo-4 and, at the top of the line, a 2.0-liter turbo-4 making 382 hp in the AMG GLA45. The only compromise with the GLA45 will be in your discretionary income.

Of all the turbo-4s, of all the luxury ‘utes, in all the world, the GLA250 is pretty efficient. Along with that modest horsepower boost, the 2.0-liter turbo-4 in the 2021 GLA250 gets a 1 mpg city improvement to 25 mpg city, 34 highway, 28 combined. With all-wheel drive, those numbers fall to 24/33/27 mpg. Regardless, the GLA leads the pack by 1 mpg combined over the BMW X1 and Volvo XC40. If efficiency is the primary concern, consider the Lexus UX Hybrid’s 42 mpg combined, or try the Tesla Model Y electric compact crossover.

Unfortunately the GLA hasn’t been crash-tested by either the NHTSA or the IIHS. Automatic emergency braking stands out as the main standard advanced safety feature, but the options list runs long in the German way. The Driver Assistance package ($1,700) includes a more sophisticated emergency braking system that can shift onto the shoulder under 37 mph in traffic, active lane control, blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alert, automatic rear emergency braking, and adaptive cruise control that can restart from a stop and adjust to changes in posted speed limits. Other safety options include a surround-view camera system and parking sensors.

The interior contrasts soft-touch dark synthetic leather with metallic surfaces such as aluminum or textured faux carbon fiber (carbon fauber?) around the circular vents, door panels, and the center console. Adjacent 7.0-inch screens can be upgraded to 10.3-inch screens that lean toward the driver. The lower panels belie some plastic pieces that remind you of the entry-level nature, but your passengers would have to look to find fault.

The second-generation 2021 Mercedes-Benz GLA addresses the biggest problem with the first model: cramped rear seats. Rear leg room expands 4.5 inches, the seats move more than five inches, and cargo volume behind the second row improves. Those seats tend to the stiff side with short seat bottoms, however. But the 8-way power-adjustable front seats and overall fit and finish keeps it classy enough for the premium market. 

The wider, taller proportions of the 2021 GLA make for a roomier inside overall, but some of the expanded rear space eats nearly an inch of leg room from front riders. The front seats are on the compact side, but provide enough support and comfort. A multicontour seat option slightly shifts the seat position every 20 seconds or so, like a poor man’s massaging seat. An expanded rear seating area makes for a comfier GLA250.

Still, overall comfort is much better, and four adults of above average size can travel in relative comfort, though the cargo space grows only half a foot to 15.4 cubic feet. Trunks of mid-size sedans can handle that, but they don’t have the cute bubble shape of the GLA, nor do they have the higher ride height and broad outward visibility. The blind spot on the rear passenger side is still large, so the Driver Assistance package might be necessary.

Solid standard features and an extensive options list limit the compromise in the GLA250. The redesigned GLA250 comes with the kind of standard features that uphold the luxury promise, but the extensive options list ensures that few GLA250 cabins will look the same. The combo, plus a sharp 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system that can be controlled in four ways.

On the outside, LED headlights and taillights come standard along with 18-inch wheels with all-season run-flat tires. Mercedes-Benz skips trims for packages, for the most part, and the base GLA250 comes with 8-way power-adjustable front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, power liftgate, keyless entry and ignition, and a panel of side-by-side 7.0-inch screens for the instrument cluster and the center display. With Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility and the latest MBUX infotainment system with natural voice recognition, the climate, audio, navigation and other controls can be operated four ways: through the touchscreen, on the latest touchpad in the console, through steering wheel controls that we prefer, or voice activation with the wake-up prompt, “Hey Mercedes.”

The functionality is relatively seamless, even though you might have to scroll right or left through several option pages. There’s a lot of content for the $37,280 starting price, including delivery. All-wheel drive adds $2,000. The Premium Package expands the screens to 10.3 inches and is welcome relief for tired eyes ($1,750). That package and other performance elements will come standard on AMG GLA35 and GLA45 models when they’re launched later in 2020. Other options include panoramic sunroof, a surround-view camera system, multicontour power seats, the advanced safety features many mass market automakers include as standard, and augmented reality navigation that uses the front camera to show where to turn next. A 4-year/50,000-mile warranty is competitive.

Mercedes’ new GLA-Class is a great choice in an increasingly competitive premium small SUV class. The 2021 GLA is the cutting edge choice with efficient powertrains, dynamic driving manners, and cutting edge technology all wrapped in a more attractive right-size package. It’s the stylish small SUV that we’d want to be driving on a daily basis since it does everything well. What the GLA lacks in true off-road capability, it more than makes up for in comfortable city settings that drivers will appreciate for years to come.