This year, our annual pilgrimage into the snow is undertaken with a dynamic duo that's about as different as chalk and cheese. So, is the X5 really as good as we think, and can you actually take an AMG off road?
Every year, around this time, we plan an annual trip into the mountains with a couple of SUV’s in search of the white stuff. Fortunately, over the past two years, Mother Nature has been happy to comply and we’ve been awoken by the swirling winds of a snowstorm. And so capturing pretty pictures amidst a whiteout has actually been quite straightforward.
In the past, we’ve taken everything from compact SUV’s – ranging from the Audi Q5 to the Ford EcoSport – all the way to the mighty Range Rover Sport, which did a brilliant impression of a mountain goat last year and effortlessly clambered up and down ice covered slopes.
The two machines that we subjected to this pilgrimage this year were as different as chalk and cheese. We know the new X5 well – it proved itself on multiple occasions last year. First, we raced it against a Desert Storm winning Polaris RZR 900 and a race-ready Gypsy on a special rally stage. Then, we pitted it against the all-aluminium Range Rover Sport at the BIC. On both occasions, it sailed through with flying colours. And it excels not just when the chips are down, but also during the daily grind – it certainly appears to be all the car you’ll ever need. So, what better way for it to prove itself once and for all than during an excursion into the mountains – and hopefully, even a squirt up the odd snow covered slope or two if the weather gods listen to our prayers.
The GLA, on the other hand, has left us a little confused. When we first drove it a few months ago, one thing was immediately clear – it certainly catches the eye! Even in standard trim, it draws a great deal of attention to itself. So, it’s a looker – but is it practical? Well, what better way to find out than to bring the most extreme variant in the line-up along for the ride? The kicker is that the AMG version – the most democratic hyper car from Affalterbach on the market – is also the only variant of the GLA that has the Mercedes 4Matic all-wheel drive system. So, if we’re actually fortunate enough to encounter snow once again, it comes reasonably equipped. Of course, seeing that 100km/h comes up in just 4.8 seconds, I’d say that the 2.0 litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine that it shares with the CLA 45 is more than reasonably adequate at propelling it down the road.
And so we had our dynamic duo. We’ve also had a cold winter in the north this year, with a fair amount of snow in the mountains. In fact, I saw an amateur video on YouTube recently of a Pajero Sport, fitted with snow chains, clearing the way for a snowplough in about three feet of snow. So, when we heard of the latest snow storm – which left Kufri blanketed in snow – we packed our blankets and set off.
The plan was simple. It would be a quick trip. An early morning departure, a short stop at Gianni da Dhaba in Dharampur to refuel (as tradition dictates), a quick detour off Himachal State Highway 22, to hurl these machines at one of the most engaging driving roads in the country, and then on to Mashobra for the night.
So, let’s start with how these machines handled the twisties. After all, the snow is just an excuse to thrash these machines about on some properly entertaining roads – isn’t it? As we headed out of Gianni’s, I was in the X5 – following Ishan in the GLA. I had driven up in the X5, and was convinced that it had sufficient power – after all, its TwinPower turbo 3.0 litre in-line six produces 255 horses and a massive 560Nm on torque – powering it to 100km/h in just under 7 seconds. But, as the curves got tighter, I began to notice just what the GLA’s two-second advantage to 100km/h meant out on the open road. Ishan was powering out of corners and leaving me in a trail of sub-Himalayan dust and Affalterbach exhaust note. The sound from the quad pipes of the GLA was nothing short of exquisite. While BMW has struggled to make their forced induction engines sound pure and alluring, the folks at Mercedes – AMG specifically – have managed to tune their exhaust notes to near perfection.
That said, whether it was to stay tuned into the pipe music created by the AMG, or whether it was because the X5 can actually dance to its own tune on these roads, Ishan couldn’t quite lose the nostrils that were looming large in his rear view mirrors. The X5 can shed its sensible image quite easily, and is quite a willing partner on tight mountain roads. The only time you notice its weight is on the brakes, but that’s merely because they have extremely effective stopping power. The engine delivers dollops of torque no matter what the revs, and the eight-speed ZF transmission is always in the right gear. The suspension could be a little firmer to aid body control, but then it would lose some of its suppleness on broken surfaces. The X5 simply displays incredible composure and poise in any and all conditions. The fact that it was the first SUV to demonstrate that a crossover could actually handle winding tarmac is quite apparent.
The trouble came when we came to the end of this section of road – at which point a large cloud of smoke worryingly emanated from the engine compartment. As we popped the hood to investigate, we found that the cam cover – which was fashioned out of plastic, as is the trend nowadays to save weight – actually had a gaping hole in it. Under lateral load, whilst cornering eagerly, some oil had spilled out and was now going up in smoke as it burned off some of the hotter sections of the engine.
The good news was that the oil level hadn’t dropped much, and the car was still performing perfectly. The cam cover had obviously been damaged during installation or transit, and gone unnoticed on this brand new car. We informed BMW, who placed an order for a new part right away. The car would be fine – as long as we stopped hurling it at sharp bends that is.
So, I did the sensible thing and handed the car over to Ishan to look after while I took off in the GLA. It would prove to be an inspired decision, because it immediately led to the drive of a lifetime! I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the GLA to be honest. I love the CLA 45 – it’s brilliant on the track, and it looks incredible. The GLA, though, isn’t quite as imposing an AMG as, say, the ML 63, and it’s not quite as svelte as the CLA. But all that was immediately forgotten as soon as I applied moderate pressure with my right foot. What a machine...
Before I knew it, I was following the racing line in and out of corners – thankfully the complete absence of traffic on this stretch of road allows one to indulge in such (mis)behaviour. The GLA and I quickly got into a rhythm. It was powering out of corners with all four tyres scrambling for grip – not to mention the exhaust note screaming as the rev counter approached the 6,000rpm mark with each successive shift. The GLA is a little like a spoiled child – it’s loud, it jets from one corner to the other at light speed, and it snorts and farts at will. The thing is, though, it’s quite a loveable little thing. As I write this, it’s been a fortnight since that drive and I still can’t get that exhaust note out of my ears – the constant crackle and pop just made it that much more alluring. Add to that the fact the chassis is beautifully balanced – not once was I able to get it out of shape, even with the traction control turned off. Sure, the engine has a little turbo lag, but the steering is sharp, the brake feel is perfect, and the steering is immediate!
Surprisingly, the GLA truly came into its own when we finally encountered some snow – at which point it became even more of a hoot. The 4Matic system was kind enough to transmit sufficient power to the rear wheels to allow adequate hooning on the ice and snow. The inherent chassis balance, meanwhile, meant that it never felt hairy in the least bit – even when the conditions were pretty tricky.
So, yes, we did encounter some snow. No, we didn’t get quite as lucky as the years past as we weren’t greeted by a snowstorm. So, we had to make do with snow that was a couple of days old – but, at least, we found one hill in Kufri that was adequately blanketed in the stuff. The X5, of course, took it all in its stride. It doesn’t have any true off-road settings – with the exception of Hill Descent Control – but then it doesn’t really need it. It won’t quite scamper up and down frozen trails like the Range Rover Sport, but it’ll still take you anywhere you want to go 95% of the time. I, honestly, can’t say enough for its breath of capability – it’s a luxury car, a grand tourer, and an off-roader all in one. It’s happy to entertain on occasion as well.
The cam cover was a quick fix, once we returned it to BMW. It just so happened that I drove it one week later at the BIC – at which point it cemented the favourable impression that I have of the new X5. The best part, for me, is that it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. It simply goes about its business of pampering its occupants without shouting about it. For me, its versatility means that it would be the perfect everyday machine.
The GLA, meanwhile, would be the perfect weekend warrior. This is one car that, completely unexpectedly, got under my skin – in a good way! And now it has me considering what colour it would look best in if I could put one in my garage – certainly not the white accented with the look-at-me graphics of our test car. If it’s attention you want, however, this combination has you covered. The fact that the GLA has greater ride height than your typical AMG also means that it’s quite a bit more usable than the average sports sedan – a point proven by this expedition. Sure, the GLA is quite firm on the highway, but it isn’t exactly back breaking either – especially considering the extreme level of performance it serves up. And it even manages some ‘mild’ off-roading if you feel adventurous.
In an ideal world, I would have the X5 for everyday use while the GLA would be fuelled up and waiting in the foothills – ever ready for an invigorating blast up and down the mountains. What can I say, my greed has no boundaries...