One day: 700 kilometres, Yamuna Expressway, Buddh International Circuit, GT Road, Himalayan Expressway, and the best driving road in the country! Which machine would you choose? Well, the CLA 45 AMG of course...
The alarm buzzed at a quarter-to-five in the morning. I heard it because I was already up – gazing with gratefulness at the overcast Agra sky. After a couple of scorching weeks, with no sign of the monsoon, the conditions finally promised a great road trip. I drew the curtains to steal a glance at the Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG in the hotel parking lot. This four-door coupe is not just another fire breathing AMG. Yes, it is stunning – but the CLA is also a practical car. But just how practical? And just how good to drive? Read our detailed Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG to know.
Well, to find out, we devised this cunning plan. We would start out in the plains early one morning and head for the hills, with the sole intention of covering ground on some of the best roads in the country – leading up to a ‘hidden’ gem that we believe is the best of them all! And what better car to do it in than the CLA 45?
And so the itinerary of our Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG had us starting off from the historic city of Agra, in dusty Uttar Pradesh, and reaching our destination at the popular cantonment town of Kasauli, which sits lofty at a height of 6,322 feet in Himachal Pradesh – but not before covering 700 kilometres and unearthing the best driving road in the country. A tall order, no doubt! But with the CLA at our service, we would be up to the task.
With our bags packed, and the camera gear, as well as three big umbrellas, comfortably tucked inside the spacious 470-litre boot we were all set for this voyage of discovery, as well as for our Benz CLA 45 AMG. A quick twist of the key, and the 1,991cc engine startled the drowsy hotel security guard with its heavy growl. Here’s my interpretation of what this beauty with its beastly powerplant must have said to the sleepy guard: “Be a good man and open the gate, would you please?”
Now, most of us have heard tales of unruly rickshawallas making their own traffic rules in Agra. And yes, traffic can be chaotic in the city of the Taj – but all we came across were flat and level roads that hid no potholed surprises. However, we had to keep an eye out for unmarked speed breakers, which seemed to be common enough in the city. The evening before, we drove to the gargantuan Agra Fort with its 6-kilometer long perimeter walls. Resembling Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s Red Fort in Delhi, and also developed by the same royal, the fort is a magnificent icon of Mughal splendour. But, as we soaked in the history, the tourist guides killed the moment with their pestering and their strange attempts at trying to sound more English then the English tourists around. Being in Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal is inconceivable. We wanted to find a spot where we could get the best view of this famous mausoleum. And, to our surprise, we found that it was not from the Taj complex itself – but from a garden, the Mehtab Bagh, set on the banks of Yamuna opposite the marble monument.
The CLA AMG, during our Benz CLA 45 AMG, meandered around the city at ease, dodging the two-wheelers, moody cows and wayward pedestrians. The dimensions of the car perfectly suited the narrow roads, as we made our way from one part of the town to the Bagh. Situated to the north of the Taj, this Mughal garden provides a breath-taking view of the riverside wonder. But avoid venturing there during the monsoons, because the area is usually flooded by the waters of the Yamuna. We snooped around and busted one of the popular myths related to the mausoleum. Legend has it that after the architects constructed the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan ordered their hands to be chopped off. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, the Mughal emperor paid them so lavishly that the next two-three generations of their progeny were well taken care off. Being a history buff, I could go on-and-on about this, but that was the evening before...
Today, a gorgeous 175-kilometre stretch of the Yamuna Expressway awaited – and I was itching to let the world’s most powerful 4-cylinder engine run free on this six-lane expressway. With signboards everywhere to ease your progress through the city, exiting Agra was a piece of cake. The freeway welcomed us with perfectly flat tarmac, which, of course, was a signal for this AMG to go for it. The plan of action was simple – make a quick stopover at the Buddh International Circuit (how could we not?), then clear Delhi traffic as quickly as possible and hit Grand Trunk Road – one of the most historic highways in history – before traffic really has the chance to stall our progress. With clear, uninterrupted tarmac for as far as the eye could see on the Yamuna Expressway, we were confident that we would be able to stick to our tight schedule.
I opted for Manual mode, because then I could ensure that the rev needle flirts with the redline whenever I wish. I stepped on the gas, and felt myself being pushed back in the sport seat. My instant reaction was: “Now, we’re talking.” The car was impressive, as it nonchalantly crossed the 6,000rpm mark with absolutely no protest from the drivetrain. The growl of the engine was heightened during gear changes in Sport and Manual, whereas everything was a lot calmer if you left it in Comfort. With a four cylinder pumping out 355bhp under the hood, the CLA 45 doesn’t sound as fierce as its V8 cousins, but it still manages to capture the alluring aura of the machines from Affalterbach.
On the Yamuna Expressway, you do have to be careful when going over sections that have underpasses below – since the undulations can be tricky. However, we didn’t face any problems whatsoever. Yes, the suspension setup is firm – but it’s also quite compliant. Moreover, the ride height is adequate – despite having an ornate front splitter that appears to be perilously close to the ground.
We reached the Buddh International Circuit after just two hours, and we couldn’t just zoom past – now could we? After all, last month we lapped the BIC in the CLA 45 AMG in just 2:27.34 – which is under a second slower than the much bigger engined E63 AMG! And that’s because the CLA feels just as surefooted on the track as it does on the highway. It’s truly a versatile machine. But, we couldn’t stay for long – after all, Asia’s oldest road, the Grand Trunk Road, was waiting.
Contrary to our planning, we reached the capital right at rush hour. That left us with no choice but to trot with the rest in nose-to-tail traffic. In Comfort mode, the CLA adapted perfectly to slow start-stop movements, and never once tried to break free of the crawl. After patiently coasting across the city for an hour-and-a-half, the CLA had a quick refuel – preparing it to breathe freely once again, and hit three-digit speeds with ease on NH1, as the noble Grand Trunk Road has been designated in modern times.
Till not so long ago, NH 1 was a nightmare – as the entire highway was one diversion after the other. Now, thankfully, the diversions have yielded to large stretches of three-lane highway – although there are still small stretches that are under construction. And while the CLA tempts you to bury your foot deep into the footwell, you do have to be careful of the highway patrol and their speed guns.
Battling with hunger, we thought it best to stop for a bite after crossing Panipat. The on-board GPS, integrated with Mercedes-Benz’s infotainment Comand system, revealed that we still had a long way to go. With the CLA averaging over 100km/h, the music system’s incredible surround sound drowned out any aero drag and road noise. And, for long distance drives like this one, the 4-way lumbar support proved quite handy.
So, after a quick race with a train, we started looking for a place to stop for a late breakfast. We came across an interesting food court called Daana Paani on NH1. After a continuous run, the CLA got some rest while the human elements of this expedition refuelled themselves.
Back on the road, we had just 130 kilometres to cover before we hit the hills. The CLA had been blisteringly quick on the straights, but I wanted to find out how it would behave on the winding uphill sections. As we zipped by Zirakpur and Panchkula, our next stop was a toll-booth leading to the Himalayan Expressway. This 27 kilometre, four-lane stretch cuts straight through the Shivalik mountains – not only saving time, but also providing a picturesque drive-through.
Cruising at 120km/h, the CLA felt at home around sweeping corners. Equipped with AMG’s 4MATIC all-wheel drive system, it holds a tenacious grip on the tarmac. And with a fairly firm setup, it has no bodyroll whatsoever. If the breakneck speed was the highlight of the drive till then, the CLA’s razor sharp handling on the winding stretches of the Himalayan Expressway only served to double the fun quotient. Even F1 star Lewis Hamilton would have sworn by the car’s capabilities. And my smile only got wider once the toll road ended, and the roads started to get steeper and the turns sharper still. Whatever challenges were thrown at the CLA, it happily took them head on.
But the real test of the CLA was still ahead. As we hit Kumarhatti, we turned off the main Shimla highway towards the small town of Nahan – which led to a 75-kilometre stretch of road from your favourite fantasy. This section of Himachal State Highway consists of impeccable tarmac that flows from one S-bend to the next for as long as you can imagine. And the best part is the fact that it’s very lightly trafficked, so you can even indulge in taking the racing line in many cases as you carve through this endless ribbon of corners. The only trouble with visiting the hills at this time of the year, though, is that you do come across the odd landslide every now and then – so you do have to be careful. But it was here that the CLA truly came alive – attacking corners, clipping apexes, and powering out of bends. Even though the weather was threatening rain and the tarmac was greasy in some instances, the CLA remained as planted as ever. As the twists in the tarmac increased, the car played to the natural symphony of the road and danced to the tune of the mountains. The CLA proved so good that you knew you were in total control, even when you urged it to slice through corners like a wild cat in the woods.
Unfortunately, with the rain really coming down and the fog setting in, it seemed as though the weather gods were telling us to finally head back to Kasauli – our destination for the night. And we didn’t need Spiderman to tell us that “with great power comes great responsibility.” It would have been stupid to push the limits of the CLA in such trying conditions – even though it hadn’t missed a beat all day.
And what a day it had been! 700 kilometres in total. 175 of them on the best highway in the country. A stopover at the best racetrack this side of the Nurburgring. 224 kilometres on one of the oldest trade routes in the world. A quick blast though a four lane highway that carves though the Shivaliks, leading to a secret road that we uncovered as the finale – one that we consider to be the best driving road in the country at the moment. Yes, that’s a tall claim. And yes, there are some incredible driving roads in the upper reaches of the Himalayas that are as smooth as glass – but try getting there in a CLA! This Merc had taken everything in its stride all day, and it proved to be so much more than a willing companion on an epic road trip such as this. Sure, it can be stiff on bad roads, but it more than successfully broke the myth that AMG’s shine brightest under the city lights. The CLA 45 tore through large swathes of highway, battled through rush-hour traffic, and carved through twisting mountain roads. And through this mini cross-country run in North India, it never once scraped its underbody or felt compromised by the conditions.
On reaching the hotel in Kasauli, a gentleman assiduously cleaning his hatchback in the parking lot gave us the thumbs up and asked that dreaded question: “Bhaiya, kitna deti hai?” Of course, some things never change...