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Preview: Is this Baby Benz an SUV or a hatchback?

The design of the GLA 250 and GLA 45 AMG is a departure from Mercedes-Benz’s boxy-design ethos found in the G-Class.

Mercedes-Benz

The GLA may be the new baby of Mercedes-Benz's SUV lineup, but it sure doesn't look like its older SUV siblings. Mercedes-Benz hasn't veered much from its "boxy is foxy" design ethos first seen in the Gelaendewagen in 1979 – a look still offered today with the painfully un-aerodynamic G-Class and in more modern form in its cubic GLK.

Benz now calls both the GLA and the GLK compact SUVs, but the GLA is much smaller and lower. In fact, it will be about as tall as the Smart ForTwo subcompact hatchback. Given that Mercedes-Benz decided not to sell its entry-level B-Class hatchback in the United States, one suspects Benz marketers are concerned that SUV-loving Americans may perceive the low-riding European GLA as a touch too hatchback-like.

When the 2015 GLA 250 and fire-breathing GLA 45 AMG arrive in September, it will be the third line of Benz's new generation of small, four-cylinder-only cars in Canada.

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But the GLA's standard 4Matic all-wheel drive plus the more SUV-ish (if still hot-hatch worthy) styling means the GLA 250 will be pricier than the B-Class. Wise GLA shoppers may wish to test drive the B because of its lower price, identical mechanicals, increased headroom all around and more plentiful cargo space. Ditto for the aforementioned GLK 250 Bluetec, which – despite the same number designation – uses a different and more frugal diesel four-cylinder.

What neither the B-Class nor the GLK offer is handling that approaches that of the GLA. It stays stable and largely flat when hustled around off-ramps or curvy roads. That low roof and optional AMG sport seats help here, but the seats' sporting embrace may have been a touch too tight for many GLA 250 buyers more interested in comfort than corner-carving.

Those seats were a godsend, however, in the crack-the-whip GLA 45 AMG, the performance-oriented champ of the GLA lineup. Boasting 355 hp from only two litres of displacement, the same figures it achieves in the CLA 45 AMG, it is the most powerful four-cylinder engine in any production car in the world.

And it's in Mercedes-Benz's baby SUV – that looks and handles like a hatchback. Shhh, don't tell the Americans.

Charging up a mountain road in southern Spain, the GLA 45 AMG went in as a fast mini-SUV, but came out as the hottest five-door hatch to hit North America this year. I could no longer consider such a fine-handling machine an SUV, no matter what Mercedes-Benz calls it. Using this car's launch control system, this engine and fast-reacting version of 4Matic will catapult the GLA 45 to 100km/h from rest in 4.8 seconds, though its eight-step process is more complicated than Porsche's system in the Macan SUV, which will be a size larger, heavier and significantly pricier.

And even though the Macan Turbo will be more powerful than the GLA 45, both boast the same 4.8-second 0-100 km/h acceleration benchmark – for about $30,000 more in the Porsche.

A hot hatch indeed, super caliente in AMG guise – and even the regular GLA seems more sport wagon than SUV.

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Tech Specs

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 and GLA 45 AMG

Type: Compact luxury SUV; compact luxury performance SUV

Base price: MSRP (est.) $37,500; (est. GLA 45 AMG) $55,000

Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 208 hp/258 lb-ft; 355 hp/332 lb-ft

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Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic with shift paddles

Drive: All-wheel drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.8/5.1 (city/hwy); 9.0/6.5; premium gas for both

Alternatives: Audi Q3, BMW X1, Infiniti QX50, Range Rover Evoque

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