Sporty and agile like a coupe, robust and powerful in the SUV mould, the new model from Mercedes-Benz has an eye for any adventure.

Of all the compliments – great or small – you could pay an automobile designer, being speechless is quite possibly the most honest. For example, here, on a sweltering Saturday afternoon in a photo studio outside Stuttgart, we have no words for what we’re looking at. The GLA is a car like no other before it, and for once, in our world of throwaway superlatives, that is no exaggeration. This is the first time the GLA has broken cover, several months ahead of its official unveiling at the International Auto Show in Frankfurt. However, this is still a very exclusive photocall, shrouded in secrecy. The security man covers the car again whenever so much as a studio window, let alone a door, is opened – no part of the car must be glimpsed by the outside world. The two designers responsible for the GLA, unsurprisingly, have a different mindset. Robert Lesnik and Hans-Peter Wunderlich are straining at the leash to introduce the premium compact SUV to the public. Wunderlich, who heads up Interior Design at Mercedes-Benz, is delighted to hear the GLA has left us confused and struggling to know what to say. “The X156,” he says, using the internal code name, “is a special car for us because it doesn’t have a predecessor as such. And that meant we enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom in developing it.” Robert Lesnik, Senior Manager for Exterior Design, agrees: “This is not something that happens every day at a company like Mercedes-Benz, which has such a rich heritage. We had a licence to give this car a distinctive character all its own.”

Ready for anything, anytime

In purely functional terms, this character distinguishes a car in which coupe and SUV-like attributes converge – the GLA definitely shares certain key genes with the sleek CLA. The combination has left quite an impression: In initial testing, it was clear that the GLA stirred some strong emotions among those present. And now the car is ready for its first major appearance. Immediately you are struck by its stance, infused with a sportiness we are unaccustomed to in an SUV and generally only expect of coupes. The hood is longer than that of other SUVs and the greenhouse lower, which, together with the high extension of the underbody panelling, gives the GLA a sportier, lighter look. Indeed, it almost appears to be floating over the ground. Foremost among the eye-catching elements of the front end are the two bulges – known as “power domes” – that spread out wide across the hood and are picked up again on the roof. The long wheelbase, the “dropping line” that swoops down along the flanks and the counter-crease below it ensure that the GLA cuts a far more radical yet also more elegant figure than any other compact SUV.

Robert Lesnik spent months refining these exact details for the finished car, tweaking them by a few millimetres here, a few millimetres there. However, his main priority is the bigger picture: the impression the GLA leaves behind when it passes other cars. “The overall impression has to be right,” he says. “What you often notice about a new car on the road is not something like the dropping line but simply its proportions – you can see how well the GLA sits on its wheels.”

In initial tests of the vehicle, the GLA stirred strong emotions among those present.

Lesnik pauses briefly before floating an idea that sounds a little quirky, but is actually rather apt: “The GLA is like a stylish trekking shoe.” By that he means that its SUV elements, sporty as they are, don’t strike you at first glance. But they do give drivers the feeling that the car would be ready to take them on any trip beyond the reaches of the urban jungle at any time.

It is a feeling backed up directly by various elements of the car: the two-piece front bumper and the two slats on either side of the three-pointed star (as on the GLK), the roof rails and the rugged underbody, which could be seen as the sole of the trekking shoe.

However, this go-anywhere promise is delivered most prominently at the raised rear end; only when seen from behind does the GLA roll out its full, adrenalin-charged SUV repertoire. The back end flows down elegantly in three curves. A spoiler frames the rear window at its top edge, while the bipartite rear lights reinforce the width-enhancing effect of the underbody panelling. The crossover feeling continues in the interior. Rear passengers sit comfortably in a slightly raised position, and the rear seats can be moved into a cargo position to increase trunk capacity from 421 litres to 1,235 litres (with rear seats folded down). The driver and front passenger can relax into the integral seats – featuring dramatic cut-outs in the head restraints – and settle down at a pleasant, coupe-like level.

Thus ensconced, we find ourselves once again searching for the right words. The freestanding display and classy, minimalist head unit hint at the armada of technological assistance systems ready to come to the driver’s aid – from DISTRONIC PLUS, PARKTRONIC with Active Parking Assist and COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST to ATTENTION ASSIST and Blind Spot Assist.

Adding a rather different flavour are the circular, butterfly-wing-design air vents, which recall a time when flying was still glamorous and the roads were graced with icons of the car-building art like the Mercedes-Benz SL.

The GLA is a car for people who want to stand apart from the crowd and who enjoy the freedom of go-anywhere driving.

Hans-Peter Wunderlich is proud to claim both as deliberate styling cues: “We decided to give the technical wizardry a clear showcase,” he says. The display, for example, sits atop the centre console like a flatscreen TV on the cabinet at home, while the hand-control-only air vents – which, like all the plastic surfaces inside the car, have a smooth galvanized finish – bring technology to your fingertips.

The greater design challenge surrounded the sense of space on board the 4.42-metre-long car, as Wunderlich explains: “The high-set instrument panel is true to my philosophy that, in a sporty car, you should sit in front of it, not above it. At the same time, you shouldn’t get the feeling you’re in too small a car.”

The arrangement of the instruments reflects the view of the world the GLA driver will enjoy: a sporty view, there is little doubt. This is an ideal car for people who want to stand apart from the crowd day in and day out, and who crave the freedom to tackle any rough track. These are people who are looking for fun and expect their car to help them find it, whatever it takes.

But they also want their car to display good sense. They are people like Robert Lesnik – a father as well as a designer, who cites the GLA’s integrated pedestrian protection system as its most successful feature – and Hans-Peter Wunderlich, who says he would not hesitate to buy a GLA himself. Right there is perhaps the greatest, most honest compliment a designer could pay himself… or receive from others.

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