The 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class "is not a poser. This is a real SUV." Thomas Weber, Benz's head of Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development, made that very clear while speaking to journalists sampling the new GLA in southern Spain. It's a bold statement considering the GLA will share showroom space with the iconic G-Class, which solidified its reputation as a legit off-roader long before becoming a Beverly Hills staple. So what makes for a real SUV, anyway?

According to Weber, a real SUV combines style, a higher seating position, more space to haul stuff, and off-road capability. The GLA checks all those boxes, especially when compared to its platform-mate the Mercedes-Benz CLA four-door sedan. The CLA was America's first taste of Benz's new front-wheel-drive platform, and the automaker has been very happy with the CLA's sales performance since it first rolled into dealership last September. That said, Benz's bean counters must get dizzy with visions of dollar signs when thinking about the GLA, because as much as Americans love the CLA, they're expected to love the crossover version even more.

The GLA250 4Matic and GLA45 AMG are slated to arrive this fall, while the front-drive GLA250 should come in early 2015. The GLA looks much smaller in person than in pictures, and is surprisingly low. At 60 inches tall, it's 1.5 inches shorter than a Mini Cooper Countryman and 4.4 inches shorter than the sexy Range Rover Evoque four-door. It looks less like a crossover and more like a big-boned twin to the A-Class hot hatch. It's slightly less chiseled, but still handsome nonetheless, especially when fitted with 19-inch rims, which are optional on the GLA250 but standard on the GLA45 AMG. Inside, premium materials are used where it counts. The gauges wouldn't be out of place in an SLS AMG, and our tester's large and curvy aluminum dash piece appeared to be undulating around the round air vents. Visibility is quite good and folks of average stature should have plenty of headroom in the back.

Our drive started with the GLA250 4Matic equipped with the familiar 2.0-liter turbo-four powering the CLA. The engine, which puts out 208 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, is a bit timid off the line before really coming to life around 2200 rpm. This powertrain is focused on saving fuel. The seven-speed dual-clutch auto, while smooth and quick, is eager to upshift for maximum efficiency at the expense of performance. Switch the gearbox's mode from Controlled Efficiency to either Sport or Manual if you're in a hurry or want to have fun. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive system will spin the front wheels most of the time, but divvies power to the rear multi-clutch differential when needed. Benz says the GLA250 4Matic will run to 60 mph in about 7.1 seconds. That sounds about right.

Most of our time with the 2015 GLA250 4Matic was spent on curvy local roads and highways that were as smooth as the neighboring Mediterranean Sea, which meant our tester, fitted with large 19-inch wheels, didn't have to work too hard to keep things smooth and quiet. The suspension did a good job of masking the few road imperfections we did encounter, though the rear end – and its multi-link setup -- did a better job of soaking up bumps than the McPherson struts in front. The real test will come later, on the punishing streets of L.A. Mercedes notes that the U.S.-spec ride height is 1.2 inches higher than the Euro-spec version we drove, which should help eliminate ride harshness, while providing a bit more ground clearance for those light off-road excursions. Additionally, the transmission features a few off-road-specific functions, and an off-road package is reportedly in the works.

That said, the G-Wagen still holds the title as Benz's off-road champ. Put it on a racetrack, however, and things get as sketchy as a night in hotel in Sochi. Not so with the GLA45 AMG. The real treat here is the 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 stuffed under the hood that produces an astonishing 355 hp and 332 lb-ft. Unlike the linear power delivery from the V-8-powered AMGs, the GLA45 hits you like a jack-in-the-box when most of its torque kicks in at 2000 rpm. Benz says 0-60 mph will come in an estimated 4.8 seconds, but we expect it to be a bit faster when we test it.

The bigger AMGs occasionally get knocked for being too quiet, but not so with the GLA45 AMG. This runt of a powertrain might have the best exhaust note in the entire AMG lineup, including the mighty SLS AMG. It's a mature take on the Fiat 500 Abarth's rowdy burble, and the pops that accompany the seven-speed dual-clutch auto's shift points are an added bonus.

Speaking of which, the AMG-tuned gearbox is quite good, though it could be more aggressive with the downshifts in Sport mode. The AMG-tuned 4Matic system is still biased to the front wheels, though it's apparent when the rear wheels are helping out around corners. With a lower ride height and beefier suspension bits, the GLA45 AMG was an absolute blast through the stretches of mountain switchbacks just outside of Malaga, Spain.

The new GLA could be a real problem for a handful of premium compact utes. Mercedes says the BMW X1 and upcoming Audi Q3 are the GLA's most obvious competitors, though it could also pull in would-be Range Rover Evoque buyers willing to sacrifice a bit of style. We also wouldn't be surprised if the Porsche Macan is cross-shopped with the GLA, especially the 45. Those who choose the GLA likely won't care what makes an SUV real or not. The GLA's prestigious badge and its expected low price of entry will be reason enough, especially for the younger buyers. Eventually, most will trade in a small Benz for a bigger one. And for Mercedes, that's the real deal right there.


2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class
BASE PRICE $33,000-$50,000 (MT est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 2.0L/208-hp /258-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 2.0L/355-hp /332-lb-ft turbocharged, DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION 7-speed twin-clutch auto
CURB WEIGHT 3500-3800 lb (MT est)
WHEELBASE 106.3 in (MT est)
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 173.9 x 71 x 60 in
0-60 MPH 4.8-7.1 sec (mfr est)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON Not yet rated
ON SALE IN U.S. Fall 2014 (GLA250 4Matic, GLA45 AMG); Early 2015 (GLA250)