Stretching my vision as far and wide across the Danube River, the view is nothing short of staggering. With the Danube Promenade behind me, the panorama brings into view the mighty Buda Castle, which has stood as a symbol of power and wealth for Hungarian monarchs since 1265. Here, the awe-inspiring Castle Hill funicular train provides entry as it climbs near vertical tracks up Castle Hill.
The mixture of Neo-Gothic and Baroque style architecture along the Danube is set amidst more modern innovations like the Metro, the European mainland’s first mass transit system, first completed in 1896. The Metro’s Number 1 line is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A short walk takes you towards the Chain Bridge, another marvel of engineering which first connected the districts of Buda and Pest (pronounced Pesht). The sprawling Hungarian capital meanders majestically, along both sides of the Danube.
To appreciate the beauty and heritage of this eastern European city is to understand its affinity for architecture, engineering, art and religion. It also means to understand the many forces that have played its part through the passage of time. Of how conquest, dynasty, communism, war and modern democracy tells of the ebb and flow through the ages; and how this paints a parallel picture of the creativity, resilience, and passion of its people.
Today, this appreciation for innovation has galvanised Hungary as a modern hub for automotive engineering – everyone from Skoda, Audi and Mercedes-Benz, have etched their mark on the vast industrial landscape of the country.
Mercedes-Benz’s Keskemet Plant is the company's first European-based passenger car plant outside of Germany and has been producing the company’s compact models – namely the B-Class (since 2012), and every single CLA (since 2013) and CLA Shooting Brake (since 2015) ever sold.
The plant has produced over 600,000 cars to date; or one around every two minutes – over three (daily) eight hour shifts, five days a week. Keskemet is also the biggest employer in the region, commanding a workforce of 4000; another 2500 new jobs will be added once the second plant is operational in a few years – consisting a highly flexible body shop, paint shop, assembly line and industrial park.
The production speed and consistency, and the reciprocal vehicle build quality – are a testament to the design and layout of Keskemet itself. The plant is the first location where Mercedes have introduced the Automated Guided Vehicle System (AGV), which is an autonomous shopping cart system that delivers components from a holding facility to the production line, using the “just-in-time” principle.
The AGV eliminates the needs for storage racks along the line, which in turn frees up space for worker movement and more ergonomic working spaces. The AGV also allows a larger variation of parts and components to be delivered to the line, corresponding to build orders from around the world.
The Keskemet plant is a vital link in Mercedes’ global production chain, responsible for the company’s New Generation Compact Car (NGCC) line-up. Or, as Mercedes-Benz now calls them: The Glorious Five.
A decisive part of the global success of Mercedes-Benz is attributed to its compact car range – which was founded on the basis of the Modular Front Architecture (MFA) platform, back in 2011. What started with the A- and B-Class has steadily grown into the wider GLA, CLA and CLA Shooting Brake models.
Since 2012, MFA models are responsible for a total of 2.0 million units sold worldwide, and more importantly galvanised an entirely new generation of buyers towards the Mercedes-Benz family, who are on average, 13 years younger than they used to be.
With regard to the global sales, that age is now 48, the Malaysian market’s average first time Mercedes buyer is even lower, at 43 years old.
The Mercedes-Benz junior cars also have a 70 percent conquest rate, meaning Mercedes-Benz are peeling these buyers away from other offerings such as the BMW 1 Series, Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Golf.
Needless, Mercedes-Benz take their MFA cars, very seriously. No other premium manufacturer offers five body styles, manual or automatic transmissions, front or all-wheel drive chassis and a plethora of engine choices, from 1.6-litre diesels to the most powerful series-produced 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine in the world. Certain markets can even opt for natural gas or electric driven models.
And if the current five models don’t already fit all niche market and mainstream buyers – Mercedes-Benz plans another three models by 2020, with the earliest of those models arriving in 2018.
But for the most part, the major highlight of this here Budapest excursion, isn’t the A-, B- or CLA-Class cars, after all, even the Malaysian market has received these facelifted models. The main reason we’re here is to sample the facelifted Mercedes-Benz GLA compact crossover.
This drive then would leave me with three distinct experiences, as the Mercedes Compact cars take on the best Budapest has to offer.
Driving the Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 4Matic Shooting Brake on a tight back road.
The CLA Shooting Brake models have had a limited presence here in Malaysia. Only some 20 odd units were imported, and they have all since been sold out. On a pre-planned route which takes us from the Budapest Airport to the Hungaroring F1 Circuit through some twisty back roads, I get behind the wheel of the designer piece of the compact car family.
12 model variants are on offer for the European market, from the 1.6-litre turbodiesel CLA 180d all the way to the fire breathing, 381hp CLA 45 AMG super wagon.
I drove the CLA 250 Shooting Brake 4Matic, which is equipped with the same 2.0-litre four-cylinder as the sedan model we get locally. The engine generates a healthy 211hp and 350Nm of torque between 1200rpm and 4000rpm. Power is put to the road through a seven-speed double-clutch transmission, sending power to all four wheels. Top speed is rated at 240km/h.
On the twists and turns of Budapest, as I would suspect on roads of Kuala Lumpur – the Sporting Brake is a truly able car. Regardless if you’re pulling off from a standing start or when overtaking, the power is always at your beck and call.
The seven-speed transmission cycles through the gears almost imperceptibly when you’re hard on the throttle, accelerating from 0-100km/h in just 6.6 seconds, according to its claimed figures. Even when creeping in traffic, the car gently hustles along once you release the brakes – with little hesitation.
After a small stint on the highway, which the Shooting Brake dispatched with ease. Our contingent from Malaysia consisting three cars, peel off into a small town which is followed by short distance through some tight twisty back roads during a heavy downpour – it was in these conditions that CLA 250 4Matic Shooting Brake came into its own.
The ride was supple yet sharp on turn in and mid corner, owing to the extra bit of heft on the rear axle - the shooting brake feels quantifiably more planted than the sedan in the bends.
I have been rather critical of the CLA in the past, specifically the sedan model, and mostly because of the rigid suspension setup and jarring ride quality.
In the Shooting Brake, fitted with 17-inch wheels and thicker tyres, seemed to cure the car’s foibles and reduce its tendency for bump steering. It’s comfortable, sharp enough to be enjoyed on a twisty road and very potent at the corner exits.
The other two cars ahead of me are AMG powered 45s, one GLA another a CLA-sedan, but, on a tight twisty road such as this, it made no difference. While the other had to be cautious when handling their vast reserves of power – I loved winding out the throttle at corner exits and leaning hard on the brakes during entry.
The steering has reasonably good feedback over smooth surfaces and does enough to let you know when you’re going through a rough or bumpy patch of roads. The brakes are superb too – both in modulation and stopping force, they inspire a great sense of a confidence in very quick order.
Upon reaching the paddock car park of the legendary Hungaroring, the first thing I said to the friendly Mercedes chap who waited for the keys was, “It’s really comfortable, I wasn’t expecting that.” To which, in typical Germanic conciseness, he replied, “It’s still a Mercedes after all.”
But what waited across the pit building was anything but calm and composed…
Driving a Mercedes-AMG A45 4Matic On The Hungaroring F1 Circuit
It’s best we get the superlatives out of the way. The A45 AMG 4Matic is after all already on sale in Malaysia, and by now, if we weren’t fortunate enough to own one, we would’ve at least noticed one passing in anger, snorting air through its massive turbos and spitting it out to the tune of loud exhaust barks.
This black-on-black version of the Mercedes-AMG A45 4Matic will be making its Malaysian debut soon...
With both hands clutching the steering wheel, I pan left as the instructor, who would be driving a Mercedes-AMG GTS up front gives me the thumbs up. Further to my left is that hallowed sign, spanning the width of the track that reads Hungaroring – the site of many thrilling displays of driving excellence, by some of the biggest names in motorsport.
We roll out the pits to a slow cruise heading down Turn 1, a long hairpin that curves around 180 degrees leading up to a short straight – this, much like the rest of the circuit is a tight technical complex of bends that test one’s race craft, accuracy and vision. I especially love Turns 5 to 7 – a long ascending right that leads across a bump into a tight right-left chicane which opens up at the end.
Likewise, the circuit puts immense stress on the car brakes and tests the body rigidity, drivetrain, traction and tyres to its limit. Thanks to the AMG Dynamic Select toggle, now drivers can cycle between five driving modes including one aptly called Race. Given that I've never driven here before, I leave proceedings in Sports mode.
The A 45 takes them on with aplomb. As we pick up the pace on the second lap, I instantly appreciate the intuitive gearbox, AMG has conducted some tweaking of the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, which, even in Auto mode, dispatches its shifts confidently, keeping the tacho needle planted within the power range. Needless to say, changes while using the paddle shifters are rifle quick, with one explosion of pace, after another.
The mechanical grip of the thing is immense – pinning me into the side bolsters at every turn. The 235/40 R18 tyres, wrap 18-inch wheels AMG 10-spoke light-alloy wheels transmit good amounts of feedback from the front end, which allows me to carve up a good line across this very technical circuit.
But for the most part – the most astounding feature of the A 45 is how it simply explodes out of corners. Where the full surge of 380hp and 475Nm of torque from the 2.0-litre turbocharged four is channeled to all four wheels.
On the last sweeping hairpin corner of the Hungaroring, the entry and mid-corner speeds of the A 45 AMG and the lead AMG GTS are mostly similar – on the corner exit though, the A 45 AMG is able to accelerate out onto the main straight almost as violently as the AMG GTS – and will keep up with it until around 4th gear.
The suspension hunkers down, allowing the wheels to surge forward in anger. Whilst the A 45 suspension setup might be somewhat stiff on normal roads, out here, it’s a master stroke of control and precision. Even during quick direction changes, it keeps the car planted and flat, allowing one to fully exploit the grip of the tyres and performance of the brakes.
I rarely glanced down to look at my speed, except for one lap when reached just under 195km/h on the main straight, before anchoring up for Turn 1, this, to the tune of loud barks, exploding out of the exhaust pipes, as you hunt downwards within the gearbox.
The A 45 isn’t just a fast car, it makes just about anyone fast on road or track. If there was ever a book series on “Trackday Cars for Dummies”, the A 45 would top that list.
Whizzing Around Town In the All-Electric B250e
The B-Class was the first member of the completely new generation of the Mercedes-Benz compact cars. In essence, the B-Class paved the way for every succeeding model of the NGCC range.
Mercedes' little champion of practicality, comfort, and safety is offered globally in five diesel models, six efficient petrol variants and two alternative drive systems – the (natural gas drive) B200c and B 250e all-electric which was simply too interesting to pass up.
In Malaysia, response towards the B-Class has been lukewarm at best – the B200 retails for RM218,888 and truth be told, there are a plethora of larger people movers for that money. The Honda BR-V springs to mind, for a third of that sum.
But that doesn’t subtract from the B-Class intrinsic talent – a true superstar of the compact car range. All of this is down to useable space, courtesy of the B-Class’ Easy-Vario-Plus system which allows the interior to be flexibly re-arranged in just a few moves, even allowing fore/aft adjustment of the rear seats by up to 140mm.
The B 250e relies on an electric motor which produces 177hp and a maximum torque of 340 Nm – available from the start. Mercedes claims the B250e takes just 7.9 seconds to sprint from 0 to 100 km/h, and will return a range of around 200km on the NEDC cycle.
On the road, this translates into some very stealthy acceleration, as the wave of torque hits from a standstill. My time in the B250e involved a short 30km stint over highway roads back into Budapest. For the most part, the B250e gets up to highway speeds effortlessly and handles the traffic crawl with sublime efficiency.
With a full charge, there was hardly a whisker of movement of the battery charge needle after 30km of driving as the B250e handily utilizes a downhill stint re-entering the city, to charge up a good chunk of the battery that was used up.
The B250e is comfortable, very practical and when coupled to seamless and quiet torque - a holistic package not only ideal for urban travel and short distances but for longer journeys, too. Alas, the chances of the B250e making its way here are slim, to say the least, but, here’s to hoping.