The Germans have finally nailed the small SUV brief.
The BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class are both late bloomers. The first-generation X1 was hampered by an awkward appearance, a drab interior, and it was neither as fun as a 1 Series nor as luxurious as a 3 Series. As for the first-gen GLA, it couldn't decide whether it wanted to be a crossover or a hatchback and ended up not being a convincing example of either.
But the subcompact SUV segment has grown in importance. This is a chance for younger buyers to drive off in a premium crossover with a desirable badge on its nose without breaking the bank. The all-new, third-generation BMW X1 has arrived for battle with the still-fresh second-gen Mercedes GLA. Far removed from their disappointing predecessors in terms of style and quality, let's see how they compare to each other.
Both the new BMW X1 and the Mercedes GLA-Class are far more attractive than the first-gen versions of each. In the case of the 2023 X1, we're happy to report that it's one of BMW's most successful new designs of late. It has a tauter appearance than its predecessor, a squarer grille that has grown but is not obscene in size, and some vibrant color choices like Utah Orange and San Remo Green. This is BMW's junior SUV and it fulfills the brief perfectly, allowing the X3 and X5 to cater to a more mature clientele.
The GLA-Class is a curvier, more feminine prospect with its rounded front fascia, large Three-pointed star on the grille, and sophisticated rear end. It's not as bold as the X1, but in black, it has a classy aura that you expect of a Mercedes-Benz. The GLA is smaller than the new X1 in all major dimensions, although its wheelbase is slightly longer.
We think both SUVs look good but the new X1 stands out more.
Upon entering the subcompact segments a few years ago, both BMW and Mercedes-Benz let their reputation for quality slip a bit with some shoddy interiors. That's no longer the case as both the X1 and GLA mimic their larger siblings.
The second-gen X1's cabin was built from quality materials but it was disappointingly plain. Thankfully, BMW has injected some personality into the new X1's cabin with details like a floating armrest with an integral control panel, sleek ventilation outlets, and of course, the expansive new curved display that runs iDrive 8 software. BMW promises more interior space - already a strong point for the second-gen X1 - and a raised driving position. Perforated SensaTec 2.0 upholstery covers the seats, and an optional panoramic glass roof bathes the cabin in natural light.
The GLA also has a lovely interior, although we suggest paying extra for the larger dual displays. MBUX software is fast and feature-packed, and Mercedes has its own synthetic leather called MB-Tex. The GLA doesn't have the biggest trunk in this segment, but it's still a reasonably practical small crossover.
When fully decked out with the best available materials, these small SUVs will make you wonder if you need that X3 or GLC.
Turbocharged four-cylinder engines are the order of the day. The X1's revised 2.0-liter TwinPower turbocharged four-pot delivers 241 horsepower and a much better 295 lb-ft of torque, and it's paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. In the all-wheel-drive xDrive28i, the 0-60 mph sprint takes 6.2 seconds. With the M Sport Package, the X1 gains paddle shifters and a Sport Boost function that temporarily provides a boost of maximum acceleration.
The GLA 250 also has a 2.0-liter turbo-four but only delivers 221 hp and 258 lb-ft, so its 0-60 mph sprint is 6.6 seconds with AWD. The FWD GLA is a little slower at 6.8 seconds, but both have the same eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
As long as you don't resort to much bigger wheels, the GLA is a smooth operator with a plush ride and steady, although not overly exciting, handling. Until we drive the new X1, we can't comment on its dynamics, but new axle kinematics, upgraded damping systems, and wider tracks should endow the little BMW with a slightly more sporting edge.
For buyers venturing into premium territory for the first time, there are far worse ways to do it than with the BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class. They're both available with most of the latest technologies that you'll find in their larger siblings, they look classy, and there is enough space for couples or families. The turbocharged four-cylinder engines won't blow you away, but they provide the mix of power and efficiency that this segment demands.
So, should you head straight to your Mercedes showroom or wait for the all-new X1? The GLA starts at $36,400 in FWD guise, making it Merc's most affordable crossover. You can also upgrade to AWD or the potent GLA 35 and GLA 45 variants. At this stage, we don't know what the new X1 will cost or what other derivatives are on the way besides the xDrive28i.
Comparing apples with apples, the xDrive28i will compete with the GLA 250 4Matic. The BMW is more powerful and quicker, and its standard Curved Display is nicer than the GLA's standard infotainment setup. We also find the X1 to be more sharply styled, but that's a matter of personal taste. We'd wait for the X1 to arrive, but the GLA is a solid crossover that is far from embarrassed by its newer rival.