► Hot junior crossover face-off
► Fast and dirty, or just plain wrong?
► Our twin test has the answer
Some things in life I find hard to see the point of: ties, Brussel sprouts and The Daily Mail being three such unfathomable entities. To that list, I was thinking of adding the Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG and Audi RS Q3.
The reason for my cogitations was that within the confines of a simple classification, a slightly jacked-up hatchback with seating for four, or five at a push, and a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and a small SUV with a 2.5-litre five-cylinder motor are perfectly acceptable creations, even if a diesel engine might be more sensible.
However, if you’re the type of person for whom a car offers something other than mere self-powered passenger transport (and you are), then do these family cars with an evil streak perfectly deliver everything we might want in a car: performance and practicality? They could, but I’m not so sure these do. Both cost about £45,000 and deliver more than 300bhp, which for a sports car from either brand would be lovely, thanks very much. But £45,000 and 300bhp-plus for small SUVs and jacked-up hatchbacks? The mind boggles.
Mercedes GLA45 AMG vs Audi RS Q3 twin test
The mind remains boggled when the eyes sending it signals are first clapped on the GLA 45. It has been festooned with two AMG packs, the £1150 Night Package consisting of black 20-inch alloys and high-gloss black body strips, and the £1530 Aerodynamic Package, which despoils the bodywork with front canards and splitter and some gloss-black shelving plonked where a rear spoiler might usually go. I think my Roxette and Tiffany CDs were housed in something similar in 1988. Perhaps if the car had been dark grey or black, all these additions might not have looked quite so brash, but I, and everybody who came into contact with it, had never seen a Mercedes-Benz looking quite as naff.
The RS Q3 by comparison is the model of restraint with its pearly Sepang Blue paint job and lovely brushed aluminium trinkets – I particularly like the way the bevelled strip of metal travels in one continuous piece around the entire door frame and the triangles picked out on the edges of the spoiler, which reminded me of no Thatcher-era music storage system. They are the sort of expensive-feeling details that Audi excels at, suggesting no car, not even one as niche as this, was a lashed-up afterthought.
Looking the part (or not) is one thing though: acting it is another because any car carrying these two performance-division badges should not do a disservice to the brand. And the highly turbocharged four-pot in the GLA is not your usual AMG fare. Lots of power is though, and 353bhp at 6000rpm, fed through all four wheels with a 0-62mph time under five seconds, points to some pretty rapid ground coverage.
On the road with the Merc GLA45 AMG
Indeed, there are times when the GLA is stupendously fast and I don’t think the RS Q3 would have a hope keeping up with it, being 70kg heavier, taller by nearly ten centimetres and almost 50bhp shy.
But I say at ‘times’: the GLA is rather hard to pin down because the combination of a smallish engine forced into producing immense power has resulted in significant turbo lag as it rolls its sleeves up to deliver the punch. Combine this with seven oddly spaced gears and a throttle that acts like an on/off switch and you can get it into some odd moments. Spasms of industrial power delivery are followed by sulky lulls, while the revs, which climb very quickly and top out even more smartly, can leave you changing down yet bouncing off the limiter.
The noise it makes is also pretty harsh, throwing out all sorts of buzzsaw screeches at various points in the range, unlike the operatic soundtrack of most AMG cars, although once the exhaust is hot the crackle and bang of gearshifts is very on-brand. Then, on other occasions when you’ve got used to the rhythm of the staccato power delivery and gear spacing, the GLA comes alive, flowing through bends on its supple suspension with nicely weighted, if a little slow-acting, steering. It’s a car that requires a lot of patience, because it is a spikey bugger, but get it right and the Audi will be a very well-packaged, nicely detailed speck in the rear-view mirror.
How does the Audi RS Q3 compare to the GLA45 AMG?
Somewhere behind in the Audi though, the driver will be having a very satisfying time of it, if they are happy coming second, of course. That’s because the RS Q3 feels less manic, with its five-cylinder turbocharged engine creating a much deeper, more voluptuous sound with more considered power delivery through a more sensibly spaced seven-speed S Tronic ’box. You could hardly call it slow but it doesn’t have the attack-dog mentality of the GLA, and I’m not sure it has the level of accelerative insanity an RS model should. It’s not exactly pipe-and-slippers though, because there is a surprising amount of tyre roar, the damping is firmer, the steering noticeably sharper than the Merc’s while also receiving more messages from the front tyres about what’s going on. Which makes a pleasant change for an Audi.
But its less suitable proportions make the RS Q3 less agile, and through corners it tends to grip until the point at which, like somebody ripping a plaster off suddenly, it tears itself from the tarmac. This, however, is easily rectified by lifting the throttle.
In the cabins, the story follows the theme of the exteriors. The RS Q3 is finished beautifully, with the £250 carbon inlays in the doors and dash just the cool techy trim this car needs, while there are great looking RS seats in soft Nappa leather and all the simple, easy-to-use instruments of quality Audis. It feels like a car you could travel a long way in, at a low-rev woofle, with no stress.
The same journey in the GLA would leave you frazzled, gabbling and with a sore arse. The seats are hard, especially the side bolsters which are best avoided on entry and exit. Some of the cabin materials are a bit iffy in comparison to the RS Q3, and the Alcantara steering wheel was already showing signs of getting too shiny and buffed after only 2000 miles. I’ve never understood using Alcantara – unless you have hairy palms it is less grippy than leather. And I don’t have hairy palms, I promise.
So what to make of them? Well, the Audi is the nicer thing. It’s more cohesive and well presented with a characterful engine that provides this small SUV with more power than a Porsche Boxster. In fact, I ended up liking it a lot, although in the back of my mind lurked the caveat of its eye-watering price. The Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, manages to be naff, brilliant, awful, hilarious and mad all in one go. I couldn’t possibly recommend it to anyone, unless they were naff, brilliant, awful, hilarious and mad.
Ultimately, I’d have the RS Q3 as I think it would be the easiest car to live with, but after a few days in each I still hadn’t really worked out why 45-grand cars like this exist.