The right side of the road: Driving a Mercedes-Benz compact car in Budapest
A three-pointed star experience
It's an old joke. The whole driving on the 'right' slash 'wrong' side of the road but it certainly won't make for a funny story to retell should any mishaps happen. The invitation for an international press drive in Budapest with Mercedes-Benz's full range of compact cars (the A-Class, B-Class, CLA, CLA Shooting Brake and GLA) gave me mixed feelings: Excitement (the chance to test out cars that aren't in Malaysia yet such is the case of the GLA with a new facelift) and anxiety (driving on the right side of the road). Well, I'm back, I survived and here's my story.
It's one of the most beautiful cities in Europe where architecture of old stands tall looking new, dashing and charming. She's photogenic in every way and when the sunlight touches any nook or tip of a building, it looks like a scene out of a fairytale book. But what does Budapest have to do with Mercedes-Benz? Well, not Budapest but Hungary. Our journey begins from the city to two key locations for our trip, giving us roughly one to two hours plus to give the compact cars a good test drive.
Driving to the Hungaroring race track
For the Malaysians, the highlight is the GLA facelift which has yet to make its debut in the local market. So of course, my driving partner and I chose the GLA 45 AMG 4MATIC immediately and of course, being a newbie at driving on the right, I decided to let him do the work (that sounds bad, I know) and experience the car as a passenger first - one word: comfortable. I must say the matte grey finish on its exterior is quite attractive.
Driving ON the Hungaroring race track
Starring the fierce Mercedes-AMG A45 4MATIC. Driving on a real Formula One circuit? The one where Mercedes World Champion Lewis Hamilton had driven across the line in pole position five times? Achievement unlocked. It was three people per round. We got our helmets (so heavy, so tight, so uncomfortable), a head sock (goodbye hair that I blowdried that morning) and went to our respective vehicles. The Hungaroring race track and its (never-ending) winding curves (a total of 14) were a good way to test out the vehicle's performance and handling.
While the AMG A45 can accelerate from 0-100km/h in 4.2 seconds and is capable of a top speed of 270km/h, I managed to press it to 140 km/h before hitting the brake slightly for that sharp turn. That might have slowed things down a little - like a browser lagging for two seconds because I clicked on a link then hit the back button - but the AMG A45 was quick to pick up the pace again as I stepped back on the accelerator, proving the vehicle's responsiveness to the driver and trust me when I say the car convinced me to trust it. By the second lap, I made through all the sharp turns without touching much of the brake pedal and the car glided through each one so fluidly with a reassuring grip of the track. The only downside is that the cabin space personally felt a bit cramped but then again, I was wearing a huge helmet.
A short stint with the B250e (battery-electric drive)
The B250e is Mercedes-Benz's first all-electric vehicle and it's also not available in Malaysia (read what Mark Raine, Vice President, Sales & Marketing Passenger Cars of Mercedes-Benz Malaysia has to say about hybrid and electric cars in the local market here). When else would I be able to give it a test drive, right? With a range of 200km, it's capable of delivering a maximum output of 132 kW and can sprint from 0-100km/h in 7.9 seconds. My take on it: A smooth, quiet drive with zero local emissions. Personally, a dream car for everyday use.
Off the road with the GLA 220 4MATIC
It means going through a rollercoaster ride of rough terrains. There were mirrors at some corners to show us exactly how capable the GLA as a premium compact SUV is: Driving through a slanted track where we could see one tyre floating above the ground, testing the 360-degree camera to gauge the distance between vehicle and obstruction (including giving a virtual top view of the car), and letting the car slowly move downhill on a very rocky path. All these are made possible with the off-road comfort suspension which raises the height of the body by 30 millimetres and giving a higher seating position.
What else you need to know about the 2017 GLA facelift
• Since its facelift, the GLA is the only model in its market segment to feature a 360° camera
• You can open and close the GLA's tailgate by moving a foot thanks to a feature called Hands-Free Access
• The interior has been given an upgrade! You'll see chromed controls, new trim elements and new seat covers and colours ("canyon beige")
• Some of its other features include Apple CarPlay, Lane Keeping Assist, LED high performance headlamps and Adaptive Brake
• The GLA 220 4MATIC is new in the engine lineup with an output of 134 kW/ 184 hp and 300 Nm of torque
• The GLA 45 4MATIC sports a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbo engine with an output of 280 kW (381 hp)
On the road with the CLA 250 Sport 4MATIC
The last day called for a longer drive - approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes - to the heart of Hungary that is Kecskemet Plant. It is Mercedes-Benz's first European passenger car plant outside of Germany which exclusively manufactures the CLA and CLA Shooting Brake for 180 markets worldwide, and is the largest employer in the region. Unfortunately all the GLA models had been snapped up by the other media (I blame the amazing breakfast spread at The Ritz-Carlton) so my driving partner and I went for the CLA 250 Sport 4MATIC. It marked my fifth test drive model (I had also tried the A 250 SPORT 4MATIC the day before on the trip back to the hotel) and a true joyride.
I'm told that most drivers who are used to manoeuvring the left side of the road will somehow find it hard to keep to the centre of their respective lanes. True enough, on the way to Kecskemet, I found myself frequently slowly inching to the right and risk hitting a car or a curb. Besides the sharp eye of my driving partner, it was also handy to have the Active Blind Spot Assist and Active Lane Keeping Assist features to beep and buzz me when I'm astray from my lane. I didn't really need it as much in KL since I'm used to the roads. Performance-wise, it's sportier than it looks. With a maximum output of 160 kW (218 hp), the CLA 250 Sport could cruise smoothly from 0-100km/h in 6.5 seconds.
After an almost non-stop thrilling drive of 140 km/h on the highway, we arrived at Kecskemet for a tour of the plant and an up-close view of its visible assembly process. Then, it was time to head to the airport for our flight home and sadly, we needn't take the wheel.