The paddle shift clicks and the 355 hp/332 lb-ft 2.0L turbo fires unburnt fuel into the exhaust header with a mighty crack. The explosion echoes through the valley, startling a flock of Subarus grazing at the Bed and Breakfast. The two of us in the car cackle as the exhaust crackles.

We’re whipping through the countryside of Vermont, it’s autumn (no, it’s not fall, that’s something that happens if you misjudge a step), the leaves are falling from the trees, the roadside awash with colour.

Before we know it, we’re back behind another long queue of Subarus – this time with a Highlander out the front slowing it down, and we’re back to Vermont speed.

The GLA 45 AMG, with its garish optional body kit, is easily as beautiful as the scenery, yet it still seems out of place here. The roads are a little too bumpy for its ultra-stiff suspension and tight chassis; the ride is harsh when the potholes and bumps appear.

But then, the trains of grey nomads part before us just as we encounter a ribbon of freshly laid, smooth-as-glass tarmac carving its way towards the top of a hill, and the GLA 45 AMG comes alive. The steering is precise and communicative, the wheel is perfectly weighted and the paddle shifters call gears with lightning-quick efficiency. There’s not a hint of brake fade, and the high-performance tires stick to the road like the proverbial to a blanket. This might be the hottest hatch on the market. It’s wildly entertaining, and I find myself longing for a racetrack.

As a hero car, the GLA 45 has the lot; looks, power, handling, fun factor. It’s an instant favourite. Driving it first though, helps me see just how good the GLA 250 is.

See, we’re not here just for Jacob to muck about in a sexy hot hatch, we’re here to experience the entire breadth of Mercedes-Benz’s foray into the compact SUV/crossover segment.

The largest-growing segment in the world right now is compact SUVs and crossovers. Ground clearance, available AWD and a high, confidence-inspiring seating position are all much-desired virtues in cars these days, and the influx of smaller, affordable options is helping fuel the fire. Little surprise then that luxury manufacturers are carving out their own piece of this ever-growing pie. Audi has the Q3, BMW the X1, and Buick nipping at their heels with the Encore.

Now, Mercedes-Benz is in play. And by, “in play”, I mean “Mercedes-Benz just dropped an all-star player into the game.” This GLA 250 is a very, very good car.

With 208 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, there is plenty of juice to get the 1,505 kg chassis moving (the the AMG is 80 kg heavier). Even stepping into it straight from the AMG beast, I couldn’t fault the power delivery or capability. It was, as they say, sufficient.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG dashboard2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250 dashboard2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA 250
2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG, GLA 45 AMG dashboard, GLA 250 dashboard, GLA 250. Click image to enlarge

With more suspension travel and a more forgiving setup, the 250 soaked up the bumps that had the 45 bordering on airborne, the result a much more fluid ride through the rough and tumble of rural Vermont. In fact, because the AMG is slammed to the deck so much, it could easily be classified as a car, while the 250 is tall enough to fit into crossover/SUV territory. It’s a lot of difference between the two. Especially when you add in the extra-stiff upgraded suspension available as an option on the AMG edition – phew.

The steering is lighter, but still direct. Settling into a gentle rhythm is easy with the well-damped suspension keeping the body composed and settled. This car straddles a strange line between hatch, wagon and SUV, but here on these semi-rural roads it feels very much the hatch. The seats are not as supportive as those in the AMG – those wraparound beauties coddle you snugly – but are more forgiving on one’s rump over the course of a few hours.

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