An SUV getting derailed? If like me, you too see the irony in that, you should read on because this is a very important car for the German luxury marque in India.
Showcased at the 2020 Auto Expo and scheduled for launch later that year, here we are, almost a year after its C-section, finally getting our hands on the baby Merc. The GLA has found success in India, but this all-new generation is considerably more grown up in its character and dimensions. With a longer wheelbase, wider track and taller overall, it still looks like a hatch with an eating disorder but the designers have stuck to the brand’s design philosophy which means it looks clean and sporty at the same time.
Our test car is the GLA220d 4Matic which also gets the AMG-line add-ons like a more aggressive front bumper, 19in AMG wheels and sporty touches on the insides as well as Alcantara door pads and seat inlays. It still doesn’t look butch or imposing but wears the sporty urban style quite well.
Interestingly, putting up a few teaser pics of the interior on our social media page garnered a surprising amount of wrong guesses! The GLA’s interior was confused with the GLE, G-Wagon and in one case, even the Maybach! Considering that all these are much pricier than the GLA, it’s safe to say that Mercedes has knocked it out of the park with the new design and quality levels.
Although the instrumentation with its seamless twin-screen MBUX system is similar to the A-Class, the overall fit and touchpoints have been upgraded to handle rougher terrain and look like it too. The chunky, aluminium-clad grab handles on the doors, the large swathe of brushed aluminium on the dash and the rock-solid build quality makes you feel like you’re getting into something that will outlast you.
Ambient lighting with ample customisation and colour options ensure that the cabin looks even funkier when the sun goes down. In terms of features, it has a pretty long list. Since this is the top-end variant of the non-AMG models, you get a panoramic sunroof, front powered seats with memory function, radar-based active braking system, seat kinetics to gently move your wobbly bits around on long journeys, the latest version of the MBUX system that allows you to link it to your Alexa or Google Home accounts and shout commands or get info on the vitals, 4x USB-C ports, wireless charging that accommodates even the largest smartphone and wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Now that is no doubt a comprehensive feature list, but it’s also stark in its omission of a branded hi-fi system, lack of ventilated seats or the absence of parking sensors front or back! You do get a brilliant rear-view camera with HD resolution and wide-angle view, but should that be covered in muck, you have no audible warning of what you’re about to drive over. At this price, quite shocking really.
Where the money has been well spent is under the skin though. In this guise, the potent 188bhp engine with an almost “power on demand” responsiveness is the most fun diesel engine I’ve driven in a long time. You get shoved back into your seat the moment you even gently goad the throttle, and the punch of 400Nm is felt without any real lag.
The 8-speed dual-clutch gearbox is mated so well to this engine that I never felt the need to even resort to the paddle shifters, especially in Sport mode. You’ll be finding and hoping for tiny gaps in traffic to be able to enjoy this powerful propulsion every chance you get and it always puts a smile on your face!
The 4Matic provides tenacious traction even around corners so you can really push harder than you normally would’ve or could’ve. The sporty steering is direct like all modern Mercs and inspires confidence even while driving hard. So is this a driver’s car? Absolutely! As long as you don’t expect the nimbleness of a Dachshund in a minefield. In fact, it even has a sporty rasp when revved hard that belies its oil-burning heart under the sculpted bonnet.
What makes it all even more practical and livable on an everyday basis is the ride, which never gets jarring even on the big 19in AMG wheels. You don’t get adjustable dampers, but you do get Merc’s Agility Control toggle to alter engine, transmission and steering characteristics and regardless of which mode you’re in, things are always smooth and refined with hardly any indication of a diesel motor a couple of feet away from you. What could be improved though is the sound quality from the stock hi-fi system, which is audibly inferior to even those offered by entry-level Korean SUVs these days.
Back seat space is improved, thanks to the longer wheelbase and carved back of the front seats. The boot is average size, though with the space saver, it might be a tight squeeze for airport pick-ups.
It’s best to think of the GLA as a hot hatch instead of an accomplished SUV. Its ultra-compact dimensions, punchy engine and superb road manners mean that you’ll find more open highways to enjoy it rather than dirt tracks that might challenge its not-so-generous ground clearance. It never scraped its belly on any of Mumbai’s underbelly roads though, mind you.
Thanks to the constantly updated MBUX system, it manages to give you lots of entertainment even while being stuck at red lights. The only real chink in its armour is the astronomical price tag (on-road), which is only a few lacs shy of the proper GLA35 AMG model. That’s the only reason what keeps this brilliant lil baby Merc from getting a full 5-star rating from us!