As I sat in the product presentation before the regular cocktail-and-dinner affair began, absorbing the details of the latest Mercedes-Benz product - the GLA - being shared with us, I couldn't help but develop a few strong concerns. I overused the virtual keyboard of my phone to make notes of that, and even publicised my apprehensions on Twitter. As I was to find out the following day after driving the GLA, I was wrong. Thank God, I was!
The GLA is based on the A-Class hatchback - a car I already like very much. You'd agree that the A-Class is a very good looking product. If you don't, you perhaps have a house as lavish and stylish as a prison in Sierra Leone, and you should, at this point, stop reading this article any further because I think the GLA manages to look even better than the 'A' in its overall design.
The GLA does, however, look like someone blew a whole lot of air into the A-Class. It may not look like a proper SUV or a Crossover, but it does manage to look extremely aggressive and muscular - in a good way, that is. The front is marked by very conspicuous ridges on the bonnet which lend a fair amount of manliness to the GLA. The rear is what I particularly like though - of the GLA, I mean. The tail-lamps are unmistakably large and also, possibly, the main element to give a defined boldness to the car.
Inside, it's typical Merc stuff. Most of the bits in the cabin are top on quality - customarily so. However, there are a few irksome things. While the rear seats are great to hold your torso in great comfort, the under-thigh support is lacking and that can be a bit discomforting on long journeys. The rear door is designed in a strange way. Slightly taller guys would need to give their necks a bit of a workout to get in and out. I banged my head twice while getting out. I am exactly 6-feet tall. While on-topic, the space at the rear is at a premium too. There was barely enough knee room left for me if I adjusted the driving seat to my driving position. And the protruding arm-rest in the centre, and the transmission tunnel running parallel on the floor, means it's strictly a four-seater. If you have to fit a fifth person, make sure his vital sensory organs aren't working. The luggage compartment is hilariously inadequate for a car that plans to sit in the 'crossover' segment - the spare wheel (which is a space-saver) takes away most of the flat base and you'd be able to fit two medium-sized suitcases with only enough space left to accommodate some small biscuit packets.
Then there's the more driver-oriented stuff. The steering, I felt, was rather big in size. For a cabin that's otherwise shaped beautifully, the steering wheel comes across as an unusually large decoration. A smaller-radius wheel would not only look good, but also feel better when driving. That said, the dash is quite smart and the seats are great to hold you well in place when you're being a hooligan around the bends. The GLA also comes with a lot of equipment. You get the usual array of safety features that include airbags (7 of them!), ASR, ABS, BAS, ESP and the works. There's also an iPad-type of an infotainment screen - it looks somewhat of an afterthought though. 18-inch wheels are standard across the model range and 19-inchers will be on the options-list.
The A-Class is a fine performer. The GLA, even more so. I didn't expect much funnily foolhardy stuff from this car, but it does go around in a very keen way. We were driving around some windy bits of Himachal and I was being a bit aggressive on the throttle. The GLA turns in very confidently and sticks to its line. Only when you start being a blockhead does it exhibit a tendency to wash away but just lift off the throttle and it'll come back in check - it's very predictable, this thing. There's very little body-roll, but there is. That can partly be due to the 183mm of ground clearance the GLA flaunts. It's actually not a bad thing, but I'll come to that in a bit. There's hardly any feel in the steering system, however. Don't get me wrong - it's fairly direct and prepared, but there's just no communication from it to your senses.
The GLA is 183mm from the ground - which, Mercedes says, is the most in its segment, and it's true. What it affords is wading through small streams (like the picture suggests) and going over regular ridge set in the road at speed without worrying about the underbelly getting tortured. Even the suspension is set up in a way that's mostly comfortable and manages to handle potholes and undulations without much of a worry. It's only the largish dug-up portions that filter through the cabin. In the 'S' mode, things stiffen up a bit and the engine shifts much later. I'd advise using it only if you're sure that the tarmac quality is top-notch, else, Comfort is what you should be using most of the time. Definitely a fun car though.
The GLA comes with two engine options - 2.0 litre turbo petrol, and a 2.1 litre turbocharged diesel. The petrol engine makes about 183 horsepower and churns out 300Nm between 1200-1400rpm. It feels fairly potent and the mid-range is very strong, but it's when you're stringing the life out of it that the sound of pain starts making you back off the throttle. The diesel then - there's 134bhp and 300Nm available in comparison to the petrol, and though it makes for inferior reading, it translates into decent poke in real-world application. I'll investigate whether the Merc engineers worked on tuning the gearbox a bit, but the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission felt and behaved slightly better in the GLA than it does in the A-Class.
The GLA will initially only come with the front-wheel drive layout, but the 4MATIC (all-wheel drive) is said to be coming in later, too. There will also be the mental-power generating GLA 45 AMG coming in October. I've got a strange feeling that it'll be super awesome!