After more than 745,000 testing miles over two years, and torturous time spent in the freezing cold of Sweden and the melting heat of Dubai, a new Mercedes-Benz is approved and almost ready for production.
The GLA, Mercedes’ freshest new car and intended to steal sales from Range Rover’s Evoque, Audi’s Q3 and BMW’s X1, was recently signed off by the heads of the company’s compact car division in Sitges, a Mediterranean coastal town not far from Barcelona.
It’s a brilliant location for car testing. The near-deserted roads that twist and turn up from the coast into the mountains are heaven sent for chassis engineers. Rainfall is negligible, so testing hours can be maximised all year round. Then up among the vines and olive trees is the Idiada test track, a venue many manufacturers use to carry out extensive honing of their new vehicles.
Final sign-off for the new compact SUV is completed the day before Autocar takes up Mercedes’ invitation to have an early taste from the passenger seat. That’s not to say that the car is ready to be handed over to eager first-in-the-queue buyers just yet. Even at this late stage, some minor issues were thrown up that will be ironed out back at base before the first GLAs destined for the showrooms are produced.
However, a significant milestone has been passed on the way from prototype under test to production-ready vehicle.
The car we ride in, a red GLA250 with 22,370 miles already on the clock, is a reference model for the final production machine, which means it is about two iterations away from being the finished article. Test cars such as this aren’t constructed on the standard A-class’s production line, despite sharing a common architecture with the hatchback. This is because building a comparatively small number of GLAs — 110 prototypes have been put together during the two-year gestation period — would slow down assembly of the in-demand A-class.
Those shared underpinnings, based on the MFA platform, have enabled Mercedes to develop the GLA in a remarkably short time frame. However, rather than regard the GLA as a stand-alone model, Mercedes chiefs emphasise the importance of regarding it as the fourth in five chapters of the MFA story, following on from the B-class, A-class and CLA.
Rüdiger Rutz, senior manager for overall vehicle testing on the MFA platform, says: “The hardest task was to bring out the first car in this family, the B-class, because then everything was new: the platform, engines, drivetrain. We knew nothing about it. It wouldn’t have been possible to develop the GLA in only two years if it wasn’t family based.”
This way of working means the engineers can home in on areas of development that are specific to the GLA. However, there is still a degree of fluidity in the car’s emergence.
Axel Andorff, project leader for the GLA, says: “We start by making a specification book for the car. We say, ‘These are the competitors, so what is the positioning of our own car?’ Then we decide where we would like to be better than or as good as our competitors.
“During the development process, you have clear, defined targets on the one hand, but on the other you find some opportunities to do something special, where you discover it’s possible to get better in one area or another. Usually it costs money, so you have to think, ‘Will it be feasible and will the customer like it?’