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Budget Buy: BMW X1 vs Mercedes GLA

Stephen Rivers

Shopping for a quality and capable subcompact SUV? A used Mercedes-Benz GLA or a used BMW X1 are both great options, but one stands out as better.

Used Luxury Subcompact SUVs for Under $20,000

press.bmwgroup.com | media.mbusa.com
press.bmwgroup.com | media.mbusa.com

The BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA began as gap fillers that served a small slice of the market that has only grown. Some 20 years ago these types of cars would’ve been considered wildly innovative and possibly unpopular, but today they’re highly advantageous. Both cars are well built, small enough to drive in any busy city, and also large enough to carry 5 adults and their cargo.

What’s perhaps the hook of these vehicles is the layers of luxury lavished on each platform. Both have experienced a depreciation hit and today they can be had for $20,000 or less depending on the features and options you’d prefer. To that end we’ve selected two 2015 models with similar mileage to find out which is the better subcompact luxury SUV buy today – a used BMW X1 or a used Mercedes-Benz GLA?

Specs of a Used BMW X1 vs a Used Mercedes-Benz GLA

2015 BMW X1 2.0L I4 Turbo - carsforsale.com
2015 BMW X1 2.0L I4 Turbo - carsforsale.com

At a maximum budget of $20,000, there’s a plethora of each marquee available on the used car market today. There’s one large noticeable difference right off the bat though: pricing. Want a used Mercedes-Benz GLA with somewhere around 50,000 miles? Customers should expect to pay right at the top of our $20,000 budget. Those after a used BMW X1 with similar mileage can get it for around 75% of that budget number. Beyond pricing though these vehicles seem incredibly similar on paper.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA 2.0L I4 - carsforsale.com
2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA 2.0L I4 - carsforsale.com

Both come with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged engine. Both send power to all four wheels. Both get 32 mpg on the highway, but the Mercedes-Benz‘s 24 mpg city edges out the BMW’s 22 mpg city. They even make nearly an identical amount of torque, 258 lb-ft in the GLA and 260 lb-ft in the X1. Things change a bit when it comes to weight and horsepower, so let’s talk about the effect of that.

Driving the BMW X1 and the Mercedes-Benz GLA

2015 BMW X1 - press.bmwgroup.com
2015 BMW X1 - press.bmwgroup.com

When the X1 originally released, BMW gave it 240 horsepower. Despite the fact that Mercedes-Benz released the GLA after the X1, they only imbued it with 208 horsepower. That’s mitigated in part by its excellent dual-clutch 8-speed and the fact that the GLA is a lighter vehicle by some 350lbs. Where most Mercedes-Benz are a bit soft in terms of suspension, the GLA is incredibly well balanced. On the other hand, where most BMW’s are exceptionally sharp, the X1 is a bit like using a hammer as a flyswatter. It works, but it might be overkill in this particular situation.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA - carsforsale.com
2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA - carsforsale.com

That’s not to say that either drive poorly. For those who want the most engaging driving experience, the BMW X1 is indeed more communicative. Its larger 13-inch brake discs (both front and rear) are excellent. Its 8-speed ZF transmission is nearly as snappy as a dual-clutch when in manual mode. Overall, the X1 is highly sporty compared to the GLA. Here’s the issue with that. We imagine most buyers in this segment want a luxury subcompact SUV in part because it’s less verbose. The Mercedes-Benz GLA can’t carve corners or shoot out of them as handily as the BMW but if that’s the type of driving you’re after then you’re looking at the wrong kind of car. Owners of the GLA will love how comfortable the ride quality is regardless of the road. It’s the kind of car that you want to shuttle passengers around in, and that’s because of how comfortable it is. It really is in its element.

How Comfortable is a Used BMW X1 or a Used Mercedes-Benz GLA?

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We believe that you could blindfold almost anyone, put them in these cars back to back, and they could easily tell which was which. That’s how dramatically different they ride. The used BMW X1 is clearly set up to be athletic. Again, it does that well, but it trades overall ride comfort to achieve it. One clear point in its favor is the climate control system. Very few cars can warm a cabin as quickly as the X1 can. The automatic climate control is really subtle and adept too. The ability to set it and forget it reminds us of a great home thermostat that just knows its owners and handles everything automatically.

The used Mercedes-Benz GLA really feels better in almost every way as a passenger. The suspension is far more compliant and dynamic. It’s ever so slightly smaller inside, but for the vast majority of people the difference is so infinitesimal that they’d never notice. Body roll is kept to a minimum and allows passengers to settle into a long road trip easily. Perhaps the most impressive part of the interior is that, regardless of seating position, the seating itself feels special. If we had to ding the GLA for anything in particular when it comes to ride quality, it would be the low-profile tires that could soak up bumps a bit better if they weren’t so sidewall stingy.

Trims and Features of the BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA

2015 BMW X1 - press.bmwgroup.com
2015 BMW X1 - press.bmwgroup.com

The gap in luxury continues to grow when comparing these two in terms of technology. The used BMW X1 has a larger center screen at 8.8 inches vs 7 inches, but beyond that the used GLA takes the cake. Not only does it come with all-wheel-drive standard, but it also has more safety features. Those include adaptive cruise control, a larger and easier to read gauge cluster, and an automated parking system. Both can be had with an excellent Harmon and Kardon premium audio system.

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA - carsforsale.com
2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA - carsforsale.com

Both vehicles were available at the time with more potent powertrains too. The GLA AMG line adds more boost to the engine and develops 355 horsepower. The BMW X1 could be had with a 6-cylinder that made 308 horsepower. It’s hard to find one of these more raucous variants in our $20,000 budget though. A rarer version of the GLA is available with front-wheel-drive only as well.

Which Used German Subcompact SUV Wins?

2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA - carsforsale.com
2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA - carsforsale.com

BMW and Mercedes have been locked in a war that will likely continue on for decades, but it’s clear that in this particular battle, the used GLA is the better bargain. Yes, you could spend a bit less for a used BMW X1, but you’ll get less too. Yes, it handles a bit better, but that’s not what most want from a car in this form. The used Mercedes-Benz GLA offers luxury, space, excellent ride quality, and enough punch to get around town without feeling underpowered. Thanks to the outstanding technology it’ll remain the better buy for some time to come we think. The GLA offers an excellent combination of features that the X1 simply can’t keep up with.

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Stephen Rivers
Stephen Rivers

Stephen is a car enthusiast who loves all things built with passion. In his free time, he’s usually at a hockey rink, walking his dogs, or on a road bike. His automotive tastes lean towards cars that oftentimes seem to take a pound of flesh for the ethereal pleasure they provide: things like the Lamborghini Diablo, TVR Cerbera, and a C4 Corvette turned into a street-legal go-kart. He drives his Bugeye Subaru WRX in Autocross, Rallycross, and track day competitions throughout the year and daily drives a twin-turbo BMW 535i.

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