MERCEDES-AMG GLA 35 VS AUDI SQ2
MERCEDES-AMG AND AUDI TURN DOWN THE FIREPOWER AS THEIR PERFORMANCE CROSSOVERS ENGAGE IN COVERT COMBAT
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LOOK CLOSELY. THESE grey hunks of wrought German metal are more than you think. See those four exhaust pipes on that Audi Q2? Only S models get that. And what about those brake calipers behind the wheel spokes of that Mercedes-Benz GLA 35? Yep, the letters spell out A-M-G. The devil is in the details.
While we’ve been drunk on headlines about hot hatches with Nürburgring lap records and drift modes spawning an SUV-inspired version, luxury brands have been quietly working on crossovers with a little less mongrel than the RS or 45-badged flag bearers. Mercedes-AMG arrived late to this party. Not the crossover thing, it has been building an A-Class on stilts in the form of the GLA since 2013. We’re talking about that 35 badge and its performance package.
Historically the good men and women at Affalterbach have upgraded Mercedes-Benzes only to the highest level, taking them to the edge of what their engines and frames were capable.
More recently, it has dialled things back on cars with 35 badges, aiming to strike a balance between civility and driver focus. For the GLA, this means a helping of extra horsepower, considered handling upgrades and subtle design tweaks all-round.
To do this, most of the GLA 35’s performance bits are pinched from the A35 hatch. It has an uprated 2.0litre turbo four-cylinder and Haldex-type all-wheeldrive system, extra bracing underneath, special steering/ suspension links and adaptive suspension.
A new eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that replaces the seven-speed unit is the only significant mechanical change to its hatchback sibling.
Otherwise, on the outside, AMG styles the GLA for stealth. This begins with a fancy vertical-slat grille, larger 19-inch wheels and a rear bumper with dual exhaust exits. We’ll get to the interior later.
When it comes to understated performance, however, Audi has been mastering the practice for years. And now that its Q2 has comfortably reached middle-age, it’s ready for the S-badged makeover.
The SQ2 follows a tried-and-true formula, with the Volkswagen Group’s venerated 2.0-litre EA888 turbo four-banger in its nose with hot hatch rivalling punch. Downstream, a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission handles gear shifts, while a Haldex-based all-wheel-drive system merits the quattro badge.
The SQ2 misses out on adaptive dampers, instead opting for fixed-rate S suspension to complement its wider tyres and variable-rate steering. And while these parts are the same vital organs found in an S3, the Q2’s compressed MQB platform means they are packaged in a smaller, higher-riding frame.
This should count for more at the drag strip because while the Audi makes do with fewer kilowatts, using 221kW/400Nm and slightly narrower footprint against the GLA’s 225kW/400Nm, it is the lighter pick.
Setting up each car for a sprint is equally as easy. To activate launch control in the Audi, set the drive mode to Dynamic and the ESC and transmission to Sport. The GLA, meanwhile, only requires changing the drive mode and ESC, not the transmission.
THE SMALL DIFFERENCE IN TERMINAL SPEED HINTS AT HOW EVENLY MATCHED THEY ARE WHEN YOU REMOVE A STANDING LAUNCH
THE SQ2 FOLLOWS A TESTED FORMULA, WITH VW’S EA888 IN ITS NOSE WITH HOT HATCH RIVALLING PUNCH
As we unleash our contenders off the line in wetbut-drying conditions, their ESC systems struggle to reconcile micro doses of wheel spin. While this means neither reveal their true performance on the first run, the Audi is already beginning to realise an advantage. It launches more effortlessly, turning its mid-range into proper forward momentum, while the GLA needs more revs to hit the same sort of stride.
For the second run, ESC is switched off with the hope each car’s traction control just lets all-wheel drive sort things out. And we’re proved right. The GLA reaches 100km/h from rest in 5.15sec, much quicker than before and just sneaking below AMG’s claimed time of 5.20sec.
The Audi’s stability software is more relaxed about wheelspin when launching from a dig. The upside of this is the Audi can launch on a lower grip surface to avoid bogging, so it bolts from the line, hitting 100km/h from rest in 4.79sec and beating its factory claimed time of 4.9sec by a full tenth.
This early lead seals the 400m race in the Audi’s favour, as it crosses the finish line after 13.10sec at 167.12km/h, comfortably in the lead ahead of the GLA, which arrives in 13.47sec at 166.41km/h.
That gap over the finish line suggests there is a dramatic difference in straight-line performance between the two but the small discrepancy in terminal speed hints at how evenly matched they are when you remove a standing launch from the equation.
Given their power-to-weight ratios are almost lineball, it’s the GLA’s quicker shifting dual-clutch transmission, stacked with more ratios, that accelerates the 35 more convincingly throughout the entire speed range of a rolling drag race. The GLA only loses out from 80-120km/h because the upshift to third happens at 107km/h, instead of 130km/h in the Audi.
But the GLA 35 cannot hide from its weight when it’s hard on the brakes, even if it’s fitted with more impressive hardware than the SQ2. Its four-piston fixed front calipers and wide Continental SportContact 6 rubber just have more physics to deal with.
The Audi, meanwhile, has single-piston sliding calipers all around. Its Bridgestone Turanza T005 rubber is also less focused, so it’s surprising to see it stop from 100km/h in a shorter distance than the GLA, taking 36.68m versus 38.94m. That’s 2.26m shorter.
However, as we’ll see, the Audi’s brakes begin to suffer when you swap straight roads for twisty ones. We leave the drag strip behind and head for a mountain pass, with corners that make up in commitment what they lack in sheer quantity.
Smoke. That’s what we get when pulling up after a couple runs in the SQ2. The Audi only uses brake torque vectoring to help traction on corner exit – and clearly, the brakes are struggling with the responsibility of providing both grip and retardation.
Ultimately, this is a symptom of the harder 235mm Bridgestone tyre and slower all-wheel-drive reaction times. Despite the front brakes dragging in corners to move power to the loaded wheel as you power out, the nose pushes wide, with the outside front tyre failing to ground torque to the contact patch which then needs to be sent to the rear.
Meanwhile, the GLA accelerates much cleaner off the corner, using grippier 245mm tyres and a quickerthinking all-wheel-drive system to keep wheelspin in check. And while you’re inevitably on the picks sooner in the GLA because of its heftier weight, there’s no sign of fade or billowing smoke.
Clear differences in handling also emerge at corner entry. With the GLA, the front-end responds to steering inputs incisively. Even when the adaptive dampers are
at their stiffest, the GLA needs time to control its body mass, thanks to a higher centre of gravity.
Contrastingly, you can bully the Audi with an assertiveness that comes from its superior body control. The flipside of its fixed-rate suspension placing more grip on the rear axle is you need to work harder on the steering, brake or off-throttle transition to get the Audi rotating for a bit of fun.
Slackening off the steering weight in the Audi helps with tipping the front-end in, but it also makes it harder to judge where the steering is in the range of its variable ratios. So, really, the Audi offers grip and stability at the cost of precision.
Acceleration-wise, the GLA’s engine packs quite a sting. And despite AMG fitting the M260-spec four-cylinder with tricks like short-path water-to-air intercooling, it delivers outputs late in the revs, generating peak torque at 3000-4000rpm and hitting peak power at 5800rpm.
Meanwhile, the Audi’s EA888 spreads its grunt over a broader area. A variable profile exhaust cam helps it achieve peak thrust sooner, between 2000-5200rpm. Power is also spread across 5300-6500rpm.
As a result, the GLA gobbles up gears as it charges through a short and concentrated power band, upshifting well before its 6500rpm redline to avoid clipping a soft limiter. The Audi prefers to stay in gear, pulling hard from down low and spinning freely to its 6750rpm redline. Hence both have differing characters.
However, that buttery smooth nature of the Audi does not equal X-factor. And the GLA is more theatrical. Its transmission reacts a fraction quicker with a crisper
THE GLA 35 IS MORE THEATRICAL AND ITS GEARBOX REACTS A FRACTION QUICKER
THAN THE SQ3’S WITH A CRISPER SHIFT
YOU CAN BULLY THE AUDI THROUGH CORNERS WITH AN ASSERTIVENESS THAT COMES FROM ITS SUPERIOR BODY CONTROL
shift, while the engine note, which can sound a bit artificial, is rorty and envelops you more convincingly.
The Audi is far from boring, though, and its subdued engine noise plays into its cloak-and-dagger personality. Disregard it at your own peril. But a sprinkling of aggression in Dynamic mode on upshifts or full-throttle intake noise would liven up things.
And as for the drive home? The GLA makes a strong case as a grand tourer. Comfort mode relaxes damper stiffness, and on a relatively long 2729mm wheelbase, the car breathes easier over undulating Aussie roads.
Meanwhile, we appreciate the Audi is more confidenceinspiring because of its firm suspension, but the constant flow of information from the chassis can prove taxing. You almost bounce in the seat as it rebounds over bumps, making two-hour drives feel twice as long.
The Audi’s saving grace on long drives are excellent sports seats stitched with Nappa leather. Larger seat pads equal more comfort, and the seating position sinks much lower into the chassis than the GLA’s raised items – so there’s more headroom. It’s also easier to see out of its cabin, thanks to slimmer front A-pillars.
Standard Bang and Olufsen speakers in the Audi also go a long way to making up for an interior design that is obviously based on the previous A3’s, but it’s in danger of looking stale, even with fancy new red and illuminated decorative inlays. The 705-watt system kicks with powerful bass, strong midrange and offers fine tuning of individual characteristics like the subwoofer and surround sound.
But while the main infotainment screen is controlled entirely through a central rotary dial, which seems dated in an age of touchscreens, it’s a decent way to navigate menus on the move with your eyes on the road.
Meanwhile, the GLA’s sound system lacks the same depth of sound, but the dual-pane infotainment is currently the last word on resolution, and the software responds fast with haptic feedback through the central touchpad. There’s just an overload of ways to complete one thing. For example, you can access drive mode preferences through the centre screen, steering wheel dials or console buttons.
Ultimately, the Mercedes-AMG GLA 35 offers more seating space, a bigger boot, higher-end cabin technologies, quicker all-wheel drive reactions and more grand touring appeal, but you’ll pay for the privilege. Thanks to a driving assistance and vision package ($1990 and $1190), optional metallic paint ($1490) and 20-inchers ($790), it comes in at $89,036 as-tested RRP.
That’s almost $23K more expensive than our SQ2, which costs $65,970 before on-roads with only a Titanium Grey C-pillar blade ($1200) and 19-inchers ($370) adding to the price. And it’s that gap, no doubt exaggerated by the federal Luxury Car Tax threshold, which tips the balance in the Audi SQ2’s favour. It trails the GLA in size and luxury appeal, but it’s healthily equipped, convincingly quicker, and a genuine bargain. It’s well worth a closer look.