There is credit due. The men and women that are responsible for the works of beauty we find on our roads are mostly forgotten as the unsung heroes. Gorden Wagener has been the head of design at Mercedes-Benz for quite some time now. He has been responsible for cars like the S Class, the new C Class, and the stunning A Class.
You remember the A Class, of course. That piece of tarmac marvel so many of us have come to adore in our driveway and in other’s. The car’s platform is the best thing to have happened to Mercedes-Benz in recent years. It gave them a chance to compete with the likes of Audi and BMW in the entry luxury car segment, a segment Mercedes was quite clueless about.
The A and B Class have left Mercedes showrooms faster than any other new Mercedes here in India. Clearly then, beauty has mattered more than brawn here. Why else would you cough up 30 odd lakhs for a 108 bhp Mercedes unless it turned every single head on the road?
As the smug faces at Mercedes-Benz reveled over the sales figures of the A & B globally, somebody had an idea. What if they could now add brawn to beauty? A telephone call promptly ran across the Atlantic and rang over the desk of Gorden Wagener once again, who along with his team, delivered the stunning GLA Class concept to the Shanghai motor show early last year.
I have been ambling around in the production version of the GLA for quite sometime now. It has consumed highways and valleys with equal panache while maintaining a relatively small foot print for an SUV. Can it carry forward the success march for Mercedes-Benz in India?
Design & Engineering
The GLA looks deceptively large in pictures. So don’t trust them. Your mind settles on the stunning stance portrayed by the car that masks your judgement on its size. Since the GLA’s roots have been derived from the A Class, it looks fantastic from practically any angle. You would be hard pressed to find an ugly one. It is definitely longer, wider, and taller than the A Class, but not by a mile. You will know as you walk up to it and notice it is as compact as compact SUVs can get. The A Class’ big brother, if you may. More power, higher stance, better space, and even more appealing.
At 183 mm of ground clearance, Mercedes has eliminated any nervousness you might have over Indian roads. It rides 3 mm higher than a Scorpio, which means you never have to worry about the mountains we in India define many speed breakers by. The 235/50 18 inch alloys do a fine job in visual appeal and transmit road undulations onto McPherson struts on the front, and the top prescription in multi link suspension at the rear.
Two engine options will be available - petrol and diesel. The 2.0 turbocharged petrol unit will deliver 181 bhp of power and 300 Nm of torque. The 2.1 diesel on the other hand will make 134 bhp of power and 300 Nm of turning force. Both engines will come mated to a 7-speed dual clutch gearbox that will send power to the front wheels alone. A future with 4MATIC (4x4) is not certain, though a more powerful and mental version developed by AMG, Mercedes’ in-house group of untamed engineers, will arrive in October powered by the infant scaring 360 hp 2.0 turbo petrol engine. More on that later if Mercedes allows us to go mad with one.
Interior & Ergonomics
If you have been in the A Class, you have been in the GLA too. The interiors emulate the A Class closely and that’s a good thing. The choice of materials and overall workmanship is top notch albeit a few niggles here and there. Everything feels nice to touch and operate. Those air-conditioning vents are something you want to rip out and take home so you could put them on your mantle and admire over dinner. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said of the air-conditioning controls, which lack quality and tactile feel.
The front seats are comfortable, powered, and well bolstered. Life at the rear is not bad too. More internal volume on the GLA (compared to the A) has helped open up room around you. I am 6 feet 1 inch tall. Head room is still constrained but wouldn’t bother you unless you had the sudden urge to jump around. There is enough space for you, your better half, your first child and your second. The rear seats do come with a central arm rest that integrates two cup holders, both of which are properly complicated to use.
The story in the luggage compartment is similar too. You have just enough space, just. Your king size suitcase isn’t going to make it in there. The ironically termed ‘space-saver’ tyre sits smack in the middle of the luggage compartment. The space will still eat up two medium suitcases and a couple of back packs at most. These are circumstances akin to what you see in the A and B Class as well. For most part, buyers haven’t minded it and so it remains a subjective outlook.
Technology & Safety
Mercedes-Benz has decked the GLA with most of the tech they could find in their engineering arsenal. You get 7 airbags for occupant safety one of which takes care of the driver’s knees. Anti-lock braking, electronic stability program, traction control, engine start-stop system, hill start assist, reverse camera with active guides, tyre pressure monitoring system, day time LEDs, projector headlamps, headlamp washers, attention assist and a panoramic sunroof, all come standard.
For audio duties, Mercedes turned to a 61-year old company in Harmon Kardon who positioned 12 speakers inside each GLA Class that deliver impeccable surround sound. However, Mercedes did miss out on rear air-conditioning vents and an auto function on the climate control up front.
The GLA drives and rides better than the A or B Class chiefly because Mercedes has injected more power into the powertrain. The 181 bhp petrol motor revs up nice and neat. Mercedes claims it will clear the 100 km/h mark comfortably under 8 seconds. The driver’s seat is of course the best place to be in the GLA. Body roll around corners is noticeable but the ESP does a commendable job of keeping everything in check and properly composed. While the motor wants to rev and dart around corners happily, the disappointment comes from the gearbox. The dual clutch 7-speed unit does not want to shift down. Blame it on the ECU, which is programmed more for fuel economy perhaps, but it takes a bit of time to downshift even when on manual mode.
You can of course use the paddle shifts mounted behind the steering wheel to select gears. If you use the paddles on economy or sport mode, the gearbox shifts, but after a few moments returns to the E or S mode. If you want the box to remain in ‘manual’, you need to select it using the centre console button.
On the diesel, the motor produces 134 horses and 300 Nm of torque. It will take you past the 100 km/h mark in just under 10 seconds, which is 2 seconds slower than the petrol. This also means it isn’t as fun off the line. There isn’t any noticeable turbo lag on the diesel, but it still doesn’t feel as free spirited as the petrol motor. This is more to do with the inherent characteristics of a diesel engine rather than the engineering caliber of the maker. The gearbox niggle carries forward here too with the car refusing to downshift on demand. As a direct result, overtaking demands your attention.
Both the engines take the GLA past the 200 km/h mark without complaint. The petrol reaches 225 km/h while the diesel maxes out at 205 km/h. The suspension dispatches Indian roads comfortably and without much complaint. The setup sits somewhere in the mid comfort to dynamic range such that you don’t need to run away from the throttle every time you lean into that corner.
The GLA is a thoroughly engaging car to drive.
Does it make sense?
The A Class carries with it a couple of challenges. One of them being ride height, the other being power, and a third being space. All of these are attended to in the GLA. With 183 mm of breathing space under the car, the GLA will deliver you to Leh & Ladakh without complaint, and comfortably on front wheel drive. It will cross streams and eat up valleys. The 181 bhp petrol motor attends to your whims and fancies but the 134 bhp diesel disappoints. It ought to have come with more power at this price point. Mercedes compromised here to deliver a class leading fuel economy of 17+ kmpl. So the diesel GLA is more beauty, less brawn.
The A Class has seen more success than the B, though both have registered good numbers across the country. While the B has been raked up by first time luxury car buyers, the A has deposited itself as another car in numerous Golf Course road homes. So where does the GLA fit in?
The GLA mark itself in the 32.75 lakh ex-showroom, and at this price point, the GLA stands in the light of the BMW X1 and the Audi Q3. The fight between these three German giants has gotten meaner, and when the GLA's deliveries begin, Mercedes will hold the edge.
Audi & BMW, to worry.
a. 19 inch alloys will be optional. Graduating to them from the standard 18’s would increase secondary glances but decrease ride comfort, considerably.
b. The ambient lights popping out of numerous places inside the car look great at night.
c. There will be 4 colour options on launch: White, Red, Silver, and Brown. The brown and red shades will come with beige-black interiors, while the white and silver will arrive with an all-black set up. The beige-black set up gives the GLA a roomier and richer appeal.
d. The driver arm rest slides forward to cover one of the two cup holders. Ergonomic flaw.
e. The COMAND control dial is positioned too close to the cup holders, which invites any spillage from the cups to enter it directly. It is also placed too far back making it quite a task to operate it with your left hand. Ergonomic flaw.
f. The infotainment screen size weirdly is smaller here than in the A Class.
g. The reverse camera comes with sensors and a warning speaker. The speaker is located inside the first-aid panel in the boot section. This makes it difficult to hear it while you reverse. It really should have been located somewhere in the front of the car.
h. The fuel economy figures are displayed in 'l/100km’ while in India we are used to the ‘km/l’ measurement. Get ready for some 4th grade math.
i. Mercedes claims a fuel efficiency figure of 13.8 km/l on the petrol and 17.9 km/l on the diesel.
j. Both, the GLA and the A Class have the exact same wheelbase length at 2,699 mm.
k. Mercedes skimped on the provision of a sunglass holder inside the GLA.
l. The climate control is quite powerful. Absence of a rear aircon vent will not be regretted.