Clash of the Crossovers | Mercedes GLA vs Audi Q3

Clash of the Crossovers | Mercedes GLA vs Audi Q3

By BOB GRITZINGER, Contributing Editor | @bobgritzinger

We pit MB’s GLA against Audi’s Q3

Welterweights fight it out in the entry luxury class

One of the fiercest battles for automotive supremacy rages between the 2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA and 2015 Audi Q3—two of the latest entries in the industry’s hottest segment of entry-level luxury crossovers. Other players in this top-notch arena include the Acura RDX, BMW X1, Infiniti QX50 (formerly EX37), Lexus NX , Lincoln MKC, Porsche Macan and the Range Rover Evoque. Suffice it to say, your options are plentiful if you’re buying in the $40,000-plus small lux-crossover market.

2015 Audi Q3 strikes an imposing stance.

2015 Audi Q3 strikes an imposing stance.

Both the GLA and Q3, introduced in the third quarter of 2014, represent all-new U.S. models for their respective German companies, and both offer all the technological wonders, luxurious interiors and strong powertrains one might find in their larger siblings. Each offers very similar 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engines (208 hp, 258-lb-ft of torque in the GLA, 200 hp and 207-lb-ft in the Q3), similar automatic transmissions (7-speed dual-clutch in the GLA, 6-speed Tiptronic for the Q3), and front-wheel drive or the optional all-wheel drive found on our test cars. The Benz rides on a 106-inch wheelbase, making it four inches longer than the Audi, but the Benz weighs in lighter at 3,457 pounds vs 3,682 for the Q3 (both in AWD dress). The GLA and Q3 each ride on a car-based, front-drive chassis–the CLA for the Benz, and the sixth-generation Volkswagen Golf for the Q3.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA250 is a low-slung road hugger.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA250 is a low-slung road hugger.

Q3 and GLA: Freunde oder Feind?

Similarities between the Q3 and GLA end from the moment one opens the door and settles into the driver’s seat. The Q3’s more upright stance and 2.5-inch height advantage are evident in easing entry and egress, even for taller passengers. There’s no ducking to clear the roofline and there’s plenty of leg and shoulder room once inside. The taller theme provides a commanding driver’s position, seemingly abetted by the steering column’s limited downward adjustment angle that forces a more active, straight-backed driving posture. If you prefer a relaxed seating position, the Q3 might not be your cup of tea.

In contrast, the GLA250’s sharply angled windshield and clipped roofline make this small crossover feel vertically cramped, even for average-sized drivers—unless you keep the seat slung low. With the seat properly lowered for clearance, one tends to drop into the driver’s seat. While this runs contrary to the Q3 (and the oft-favored “commanding” high seating position in SUVs and crossovers), the lower placement in the GLA does put the driver within easy reach of all controls, contributing to a sense of safety, and belting the driver into a supportive leather-trimmed bucket protected by high sills and thick window pillars.

All GLA250’s issues disappear in the GLA45 AMG–the pavement blistering version fitted with an AMG-massaged 2.0-liter turbo four pushing out 355 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque. This $68,000 road rocket isn’t for the weak-of-knee; it is strictly for those who enjoy being actively engaged in every moment of the driving experience. You’ve been warned.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA45 AMG

Driving closer to the road is appropriate given the GLA’s sporting intentions. There’s a fairly feral Mercedes CLA small sports sedan under this sheet metal—evident from the first stab at the accelerator, which is accompanied by an ever-so-brief delay as the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox takes a moment to engage. (We noted the car’s low-speed launch performance improves by defeating the fuel-saving engine stop-start system.)

Out on the road, the GLA250’s four-cylinder turbo is snappy, with ample power for cruising and overtaking. The chassis is in direct communication with the road; the short wheelbase and tight suspension tuning contribute to responsive cornering, creating a rigid ride on all but the smoothest road surfaces. The suspension does no favors for the GLA’s steering, which lacks on-center feel at typical two-lane speeds (45 mph and below), requiring enough correction to become tedious.

If your driving skews to sports cars, you’ll love the GLA250; if you’re looking for a creamy luxury cruiser, this probably isn’t your carriage.

2015 Audi Q3 stands tall from any angle.

2015 Audi Q3 stands tall from any angle.

With its shorter wheelbase, the Q3’s ride seems stiffer than the GLA, with more noticeable bucking on the bumpy stuff. But like the GLA, the taut suspension setup pays off when one’s drive turn twisty. Though the Q3’s engine packs a bit less punch than the GLA250, the smoothness of the 6-speed torque-converter transmission makes the most of the available power. In both around-town and highway travels, we never felt at a loss for acceleration when needed. The Q3’s steering feels centered and precise, and handling is good despite the car’s overall height and weight.

If fuel economy plays in your car-buying decision, the GLA250 and Q3 are both admirable performers, with the GLA having the edge at 24 mpg city/32 highway/27 combined vs the Q3 at 20 city/28 highway/23 combined. No doubt the GLA’s lighter weight, swoopy profile and idle stop-start help its numbers; we noted the hyper GLA45 AMG also posts good numbers at 23 city/29 highway/25 combined. Not bad for a street racer masquerading as a luxury crossover.

Our GLA250 tester carried a base price of $33,300 but nearly hit $47,000 laden with options. Our Q3’s base price of $34,800 grew to just $38,600, but with far fewer add-ons.

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Bob Gritzinger got his first taste of grease and oil as a kid tearing down small engines and repairing go-karts, mini-bikes, motorcycles and cars in the backyard. That eventually led to his first real job as an auto mechanic while still in high school, but Bob’s career took a sharp turn into journalism when he joined the high school newspaper staff. Read more about Bob here.