The Germans have finally hammered out the letters for the small SUV.
The BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class are late bloomers. The first-gen X1 was hampered by a clunky exterior and drab interior, and it wasn’t as fun as the 1-Series, nor as luxurious as the 3-Series. As for the first-generation GLA, it couldn’t decide whether it was going to be a crossover or a hatchback, and neither ended up being a convincing example.
But the small car SUV segment is also becoming increasingly important. It’s an opportunity for younger buyers to drive a premium crossover with the coveted badge without breaking the bank. The all-new third-generation BMW X1 goes head-to-head with the still-fresh second-generation Mercedes GLA. A far cry from their disappointing predecessors in style and quality, let’s see how they compare.
Appearance: Playful and Elegant
Both the new BMW X1 and Mercedes GLA-Class are more attractive than their respective first-generation versions. As far as the 2023 X1 is concerned, we’re happy to report that it’s one of BMW’s most successful new designs in recent times. It has a more streamlined look than its predecessor, a square grille that grows but isn’t obscene in size, and some vibrant color options like Utah Orange and Sanremo Green. It’s BMW’s entry-level SUV that does the job perfectly, allowing the X3 and X5 to appeal to more sophisticated customers.
With a rounded front apron, a large three-pointed star on the radiator grille and an elegant rear end, the GLA-Class has a curvier, more feminine look. It’s not as flashy as the X1, but in black it has the classy look you’d expect from a Mercedes-Benz. The GLA is smaller than the new X1 in all key dimensions, despite its slightly longer wheelbase.
We think both SUVs look good, but the new X1 stands out more.
Interior: Minimal luxury
Entering the small car space a few years ago, both BMW and Mercedes-Benz have had their quality reputations sunk by some shabby interiors. That’s no longer the case, as both the X1 and GLA mimic their bigger siblings.
The cabin of the second-generation X1 was built with premium materials, but was disappointingly bland. Thankfully, BMW has injected some personality into the new X1’s cabin, such as floating armrests with integrated control panels, stylish air vents, and of course, a large new curved display running iDrive 8 software. BMW promises more interior space — already a strength of the second-generation X1 — and a higher driving position. Perforated SensaTec 2.0 upholstery covers the seats, and an optional panoramic glass roof bathes the cabin in natural light.
The GLA’s interior is also beautiful, though we recommend paying extra for the larger dual monitor. MBUX software is fast and feature-rich, 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 fairly practical small crossover.
When outfitted with the finest materials, these small SUVs will make you wonder if you need this X3 or GLC.
Performance and drive: High-torque BMW crawls forward
Supercharged four-cylinder engines have become a priority. The X1’s revamped 2.0-liter TwinPower turbocharged four-cylinder makes 241 horsepower and a better 295 pound-feet of torque, mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. With the all-wheel drive xDrive28i, the sprint from 0 to 100 km/h takes 6.2 seconds. With the M Sport package, the X1 gets paddle shifters and Sport Boost for maximum acceleration in short bursts.
The GLA 250 also has a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, but it only makes 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, so its 0-60 mph sprint with all-wheel drive takes 6.6 seconds. The FWD GLA is slightly slower at 6.8 seconds, but the two share the same eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
As long as you’re not using bigger wheels, the GLA is a smooth drive with a comfortable ride and stable (if not overly exciting) handling. We can’t comment on the power of the new X1 until we drive it, but the new axle kinematics, revised damping system and wider track should give the little BMW a bit of a sporty feel.
Awards and Verdict: Polished German Starter Pack
For buyers who are first-timers into the premium segment, there are worse options than the BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class. They’re all equipped with most of the latest tech you’ll find in their larger siblings, they look classy and offer plenty of room for a couple or family. Turbocharged four-cylinder engines won’t blow your mind, but they offer the combination of power and efficiency that the segment demands.
So should you head straight to a Mercedes showroom or wait for the all-new X1? The GLA’s FWD starts at $36,400, making it Merc’s most affordable crossover. You can also upgrade to AWD or the powerful GLA 35 and GLA 45 variants. At the time of writing, we don’t know the price of the new X1 or the imminent launch of other derivatives other than the xDrive28i.
Comparing apples to apples, the xDrive28i will compete with the GLA 250 4Matic. The BMW is more powerful and faster, and its standard curved display is better than the GLA’s standard infotainment setup. We also found the X1 to have a more distinct style, but that’s a matter of personal preference. We’ll wait for the X1 to arrive, but the GLA is a solid crossover that’s far from being embarrassed by its new rival.
Connor Mason is a passionate automotive journalist and the author behind the popular website motonews.info. With years of experience in the automotive industry, Connor is well-versed in all things related to cars and motorcycles.