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?’
“A good example is the CLA, where we had clear definition for the drag coefficient. In the specification book, we came up with 0.23Cd. This would have been a production car record, but then our aerodynamics specialist, Teddy Woll, said, ‘We see with the simulation tools that 0.22Cd is possible.’ So we developed the car in that direction.
“Other issues come up if one of your direct competitors launches a new model. Most likely they will have some surprises for us. The targets we had from the start were also very challenging, but if you then see that the competitor has good ideas, it’s motivation for us to say, ‘Okay, we will achieve this and we will be better.’ It’s like in sports. Usually you do not attend the race to finish fourth or third; you like to win.”
As the head of the project, Andorff’s role involves balancing the needs and ideas of the departments involved in development and ensuring the GLA remains on track in terms of deadlines and budget.
“There are intensive discussions because each party has its own interests,” he says. “For example, if a designer would like to have a car with a fancy sculptural body, colleagues from production might say, ‘You will not be able to get the metal sheets into this design form.’ Most of the guys would like to have some even greater features in the car, but these are compacts and we already put lots of stuff into them.
“You need a good team because otherwise you have no chance of finding the necessary compromises. In the end, the car has to look as one piece, and not a compilation of 1000 different pieces put together with some glue.”
The development team doesn’t have to wait too long to discover if they have spent their company’s money in the right places, because the GLA will go on sale in the UK in December, with deliveries starting early next year.
First, though, there is still one final piece of intense scrutiny that the GLA will come under before it is ready for public consumption. In November the team and several examples of the GLA will return to Sitges for one last sign-off by the members of the Mercedes executive board.
If the men from head office approve, another chapter in the lives of the compact car development team will come to a close and they’ll move on to the final car that’s planned to come off the MFA platform: a shooting brake version of the CLA.