For our first post: a quick THANK YOU to all of our listeners. As pandemic has turned the world upside down, podcast listenership has decreased for a lot of creators. (No more work-commutes.) But in our case, listenership for The Thing About Cars has stayed largely the same. And we’re grateful we get to be a part of your day. Thank you for being a part of our TTAC family. Please drop us a line and let us know how you’re doing, even if you have no car story to share. In the meantime, we hope you and yours are safe and well. We’ll see you on the road!
It was another one of those hectic travel days. As I lay there trying to fall back asleep, my wife Jennifer nudged me and asked me what time I was supposed to get up. Then she told me that it was almost 45 minutes past that time. Panic, expletives, the most impressively-efficient shower I’ve ever taken, dress, grab my bag, hit the road for the train station. Made my usual train instead of an earlier one I’d intended. The reason for all this is that it was the Monday after Thanksgiving and I knew that the airport would be busier than usual. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to avoid having to fly that day to see a customer in northern New Jersey, via Philadelphia’s airport because flight choices at Newark weren’t very good. On top of that, bad winter weather was in the forecast for the northeast. I managed to get to the gate on time since the crowds were not as bad as I expected, and in a bit of luck, there was a short flight delay so I even got a bite of breakfast. The snow-dump that Philadelphia was expecting didn’t show up, so it all went smoothly. And as I stepped off the rental car shuttle, I wondered as usual if there was anything interesting available.
I did briefly spot this one car that I had written most of a review for and was waiting to rent one again so I could complete that review, but quickly forgot about it when I saw a shiny little black Mercedes-Benz crossover. Could a Mercedes really be available in the non-upgrade section? Yes, and I focused on it so quickly that I didn’t see the bigger black Mercedes SUV a few spaces down, which, as I was exiting later, pulled out in front of me suddenly-enough to find out that the brakes in the car I got were A-OK. That bigger model looked nice, but what I got was a GLA 250 4Matic, which was just fine for me and my gear. Small and nimble is usually better in my book. But I’m getting ahead of the story here. Once I decided to go for the cute little GLA, I noticed that whoever backed it into the parking space had backed it within inches of the guard-rail which meant that I would have to move it forward to load my gear.
Before climbing in, I did notice that the interiour looked very comfy and inviting and tastefully appointed. One visual thing that made an impression was that the floor mats were edged in the same colour as the seats. It’s a little thing for sure, but it screams NICE. The seats looked really comfy too, but I have yet to get into a rental car that didn’t need its seats adjusted to fit my tall frame, so I took note of the adjustment multi-button on the side of the seat and gave it good long pushes in both back and down. Then I sat down and found my head touching the ceiling! This didn’t seem right. Push the button in the downward direction again, and hold it for a good few seconds. Nothing. Hmmmmmmmm. I wondered if there was some seat-memory issue that was keeping me from adjusting the position, so I looked over to the door where most manufacturers put the memory buttons…and right there next to the memory buttons, was a set of buttons shaped like a side-view of a car seat. It makes sense on one level, but not on the obvious level since most manufacturers put those buttons on the side of the seat. I adjusted the seat for comfort and noted that it could go back REALLY far, much farther than even I need. Remember the 1970s TV-ad in which Wilt Chamberlain drove a Volkswagen Rabbit? He would have done even better in this car. What, then, did the button on the side of the seat do? Turns out that it controls the lumbar-support, which has no fewer than THREE different adjustable segments. If you’re a control-freak with a sensitive back, YOU NEED THIS CAR.
Not to be out-done by the seat, the transmission then gave me its own challenge. No shift lever in the center console, no knob to select a gear, nothing obvious. Another Hmmmmmmmmm, then after a moment I spotted it. The stalk on the right side of the column, not very big or obtrusive, had some letters and arrows on it that suggested that it might be what I needed. Sure enough, move it up or down to get into reverse or drive respectively, and a little button on the end puts it in park. Finally, I was able to pull the car forward to load my gear. Remember the gear? With that and everything else done that needs doing when I get into a rental car, I was under way, but noticed before leaving the lot that I wasn’t done with confusing controls. The headlight switch isn’t visible from where my eyes are in this car, obscured by the steering wheel. It’s in the position on the left end of the dashboard that is familiar to other cars, but I still had to look around the wheel to see what the positions of the switch were. And as I got into the line for the check-out, it hit me that I didn’t see cruise control-controls anywhere. Really? I know that this isn’t an inexpensive car. How on earth can you sell a luxury car without cruise control? I did remember that a BMW X3 I’d had on a trip a while back was surprisingly spartan in its features, so maybe this was more of the same. But just by chance when I turned the steering wheel at one point, I saw a second stalk on the left side of the column, smaller than the one for the turn signals, and farther down…right where the wheel completely obscures it most of the time! And to add to the frustration, you have to give the wheel a good turn to see the markings that indicate which way to move the stalk to make the cruise control do which function. If I owned this car and drove it on the highway a lot, I’m sure that I would eventually remember which direction to push the stalk to do what, but during my time with it I did require some trial-and-error to get it right.
So, finally out on the road, my first impression was that this car felt like pretty much every car these days. Yes, we have reached the point where, the carmakers scared by the economies of scale in today’s gigantic market that give so little room for error, every car drives about the same. With more time behind the wheel, I formed the impression that the steering was light but precise. This combination can be good if you’re paying attention or bad if you’re not. Power from the turbocharged 2-litre 4-cyliner engine is okay but not spectacular, at a claimed 208 hp moving a 3340-lb curb weight via a 7-speed Dual-clutch automatic transmission and an automatic all-wheel-drive system. It’ll move when it needs to, but won’t leave you breathless. But This is a luxury car, not a sports car. The GLA 250 handled well on the wet pavement, and after about 45 minutes it began to snow- but at no point did the car show any sign that I should lose confidence, at least until once near my destination, I pulled into a parking lot and gave it a sharp turn to see how it did in the fluffier fresh snow…and it did very poorly, taking the steering input as a mere suggestion. I daresay that my six-year-old FWD Mazda 3 would have handled that moment better.
Shortly after that snowy skid I parked the car for the night, and the next morning it was covered with a 4-inch layer of snow with an icy base. I was pleased with how quickly the front and rear defrosters did their job, but this does bring me to the temperature controls. Thankfully they’re not as difficult to initially figure-out as the systems mentioned above, although I did notice one odd quirk. With many cars, instead of having a button for every possible way to aim the air, there is one or two buttons that allow you to toggle through the possibilities. In the case of my Mazda, it’s a button with a left and right arrow that you press either end of to scroll through the choices. This Merc has a pair of MODE buttons, one above the display and bearing an up-arrow, and one below the display and bearing a down-arrow. Not having the buttons immediately adjacent to each other is a little awkward, and that awkwardness is driven home by the fact that unlike cars such as my Mazda, you cannot use one button to scroll through a loop of the choices- press one MODE button enough times and you’ll reach the end, and must use the other button to go back through the choices.
The location of the climate controls down low near the console made them seem a bit far away, especially since the dashboard as a whole feels very tall and wall-like. Even as tall as I am, I did feel much of the time like I was down in a hole whenever I looked at the dashboard. The tallish band of textured silver plastic (poplar-wood can be had for $325, which I’d gladly pay to save me from staring at that too-coldly teutonic silver plastic all the time) that contains nothing except the upper vents only encourages this effect, as does the ledge of black that slightly protrudes above it, as does putting the audio and climate controls fairly low, and as does putting the tablet-like display screen way up high. And if that wasn’t enough, the lower edge of the windscreen is higher still. Forward visibility still isn’t bad though, but it does seem to clash with all that verticality inside the car.
Over the next few days I did note that once you get used to everything enough to relax, the GLA is very comfortable. The seats have plenty of support and adjustability, including the length of the thigh-support. The steering wheel feels good in hand, the climate control kept me cozy. The driving itself pleasant, the ride being smooth without feeling disconnected, and it was easy to put the car where I wanted to put it without thinking about it too much. I did find a twisty two-lane through the forest nearby, and gave the GLA a good thrashing there. I was impressed by the car’s abilities in that regard, especially since because the road was unfamiliar to me, I changed speeds a lot. The handling somewhat reminded me of a VW Mk IV GTI I once had, with its combination of sure grip, rubbery smoothness, and just enough sensory feedback. Ergonomics were good for my tallness, and I had no problems with ingress or egress. Cargo space is quite decent too, and will certainly meet the needs of anybody buying a compact SUV.
The GLA 250 4Matic has a starting MSRP of $36,250, which is $2000 more than the FWD version, and whether that difference is worth it to you is quite subjective- some people think that AWD is a MUST in a family-car these days, and I think that that is by far more true in marketing than it is in the real world. Mercedes-Benz’s website didn’t make it clear whether some features were package-only or could be had as standalone options, but I was really surprised that keyless entry is not a standard feature. There are plenty of features though, too many to go into much detail about, and there are several connected technology features that are free to use at first, for example one called ‘Mercedes me connect’ for which three years of use are included at no charge. There are of course many option-packages for everything from maintenance-plans to AMG exteriours. Smartphone integration requires a package rather than being a standard feature, but at least you get the option of the $350 Smartphone Integration Package (Android Auto, Apple Car Play) rather than being forced to swallow the $2300 Multimedia Package, which includes the same integrations plus several other features. If you check all the most expensive boxes in the options and packages on the website, you’ll arrive at a maximum price of $56,745. I seriously doubt that very many GLA 250s get sold at that level, and when I ran the version that I would prefer -moderate equipment, tasteful aesthetics, not fully tech-loaded and no AMG- it came to a much more sensible $41,600, not a bad stretch from the base MSRP when you consider how extremely you can raise the price of cars in the luxury market-segment by adding options. If I run my version again in the FWD version, I can get it under $40,000.
Overall, I liked the GLA 250 4Matic. It did take a little getting used to, and regular readers may recall that I mentioned quirky controls in a review of a Volvo XC60 too- but the Volvo’s quirky controls were much easier to get the hang of in a short time. But if everything else about the GLA appeals to you, don’t let the quirks hold you back. Compact luxury cars are a good thing, and this one definitely felt good. I can see living easily with this car. The luxury wasn’t so far over the top that it constantly reminded me that I was driving an up-market vehicle, and for that I give it much credit. If a compact luxury SUV sounds like your kind of easy living, check out the GLA 250.
Our friends at Motorbooks have been letting us learn more about what they do with a first-hand look at the kinds of excellent books they publish. Perhaps you missed the episode where Mickey & Ben take a quick look at the first stack of books we’ve gotten from Motorbooks? Well, we’re giving those books away.
It doesn’t matter what you drive, or where you live. All you have to do is give us your name and a valid email address via this form, also seen below. (And while you’re at it, we always value your feedback about the show.) Choose the book you’d like to call your own. Winners will be chosen at random.
The winner will be contacted via email. So yes, we will be collecting emails. I give you my personal assurance that The Thing About Cars will never use your email address for anything other than contacting you for TTAC purposes. We will never sell your email address to anyone. Entries will be collected until Thursday, December 5, 2019. The winner will be announced during the episode we anticipate publishing the following week. Thank you, and good luck!
I’ve said it before: sometimes you get lucky.
The company sent me to Colorado for a few days. That was already a nice break from the usual, as Colorado is one of my favourite places to visit. It has great scenery, lots of great twisty roads, and I have dear friends there who I don’t get to see near often enough. Would my rental car be on par with the other things in Colorado to which I was looking forward? Or would the question of the day be, which Dodge Caravan would you like? Don’t laugh, that’s pretty close to the situation the last time I visited Chicago.
There were only three of us on the rental car shuttle. One disappeared to another row, the other zeroed-in quickly on a red Camaro. I was in last place due to the amount of stuff I had to carry, and I strode the row with some trepidation, noting all the chunky SUVs and vans and dull sedans. Then, miracle of miracles, I spotted a Mustang! It was a beautiful dark metallic grey convertible and I knew that it needed me. After loading my gear I started the engine to get the aircon going and tune the radio and adjust everything, and a moment after starting I noticed that something didn’t sound quite right, a bit noisier than it should be. Was the exhaust system broken? I tickled the pedal to check- was that a rumbly burble? Oh my. Look on the side in front of the door, and sure enough, it says 5.0! And a GT badge on the back end! A Five-O Ford right here in the regular section, not over there in the special upgrade section. How could it be? I decided to take my chances and drove away with it. The gate attendant assured me that all was well, that the car was where it was due to some administrata that I won’t bore you with except to say that the upshot was that I got this V-8 Mustang for the price of the turbo-four Mustangs I’ve driven in the past. So there I was, in Colorado with a Mustang GT convertible, and nowhere to be until the next morning. What would you do? Naturally, I took it to Pike’s Peak.
Pike’s Peak is famous for having an annual hill-climb racing event that lasts a week and features every class from Lightweight Motorcycle to Unlimited Car. The road up the mountain is a 28-mile, two-lane ribbon of asphalt that starts out pretty tame but once above a certain altitude it has a lot of steep grades and tight turns, as in chasing-your-own-tail-light-tight hairpins.
There are also very few guardrails and only limited shoulders, and many places where going off the pavement will result in a long and steep tumble, which is of course combined with scenery that will make you want to watch anything BUT the road. The summit is at 14115 feet above sea level, one of only three places in the United States where you can drive your car to above 14000 feet. Speed limits are low, and higher up in the thin air neither your engine nor your brakes will be able to cool themselves as effectively as at lower altitude. Add in the usual tourist traffic, and the reality is that most of the time you can’t go very fast- but it doesn’t take much speed to screw up on this kind of mountain road. Unless you go to some really unusual places, this is probably the most dangerous road you’ll ever drive.
The cruise down the interstate to Colorado Springs was effortless. Colorado has some 75 MPH speed limits on I-25 and the Mustang’s cruise control handled them easily. The forecast for the day predicted a high of 100F, so I left the top up and kept the aircon working hard. The vented seat kept cool air at my back, and that’s a very nice thing. Once off the Interstate it’s a few more miles to the Pike’s Peak Highway toll-gate, and the road curves through some canyons and passes interesting places like Garden of the Gods and Manitou Cliff Dwelling. A few miles shy of the toll-gate I pulled over and dropped the top. I figured the adventure ahead was worth some sweat, although it really wasn’t bad since the Mustang’s vents allow the air to be directed almost anywhere you want it, better than in most cars, and keeping the side windows raised helps create a ‘bubble’ of more comfortable air. But it didn’t take long for things to get more comfortable anyway, since the temperature falls as you climb, and I would later observe about 30 degrees difference at the summit.
So how did the Mustang do on Pike’s Peak? It did just fine, and it didn’t miss a beat at all. The miracle of modern electronic engine management kept it accelerating eagerly at every altitude, and I had no issues with brake fade. In fact, there’s a mandatory brake temperature checkpoint on the way down, where a park ranger takes a second to aim an infrared thermometer at your left front brake. “You’re good, you’re doing it right,” the ranger said with a smile as he waved me away. That brings up technique. One thing I did do during both the climb and the descent was use the manual-shift capability of the Mustang’s automatic transmission. I’m not generally a fan of so-called ‘flappy paddle’ shifting, but combine it with the sort of throttle-technique that you’d use shifting a real manual transmission and I was able to get very precise shift-responses in either direction. I mostly used second and third gears on the way up, with first now and then in the tighter turns. The descent was mostly just second and first, since gravity’s pull is strong on the 3825-pound Mustang.
But if you get away from the numbers and the details, how was the experience? The best single-word answer is FUN! I’ve been up Pike’s Peak a couple of times in the past, once on a motorcycle and once in a VW Mk IV GTI 1.8T, and this time was as fun as those. A powerful convertible is a really great way to experience high-mountain driving, probably beating the motorcycle by a narrow margin since I didn’t have to wear a helmet and therefore had the wind in my hair at all times. Whatever conveyance you use on the Peak, horsepower is your friend because in most places you don’t have much distance to change speeds, so whenever you can steal a little speed it’s good to be able to take it. Of course you want great handling too, so if your car is optimized for drag-racing, it’s probably not the ideal choice. But get yourself in that curve-handling state of mind, start twisting the wheel, and you’ll have a great time. It may be a dangerous road, but don’t do anything stupid and you’ll be just fine. I find that there’s a certain rhythm to the hairpins, not in how one comes after another, but in the very similar way that each hairpin is constructed. They have a similar radius and a similar grade, so the right timing of throttle and steering will work over and over again.
Relax at the summit. Find a place to park up there and take the time to walk around, enjoy the views, and by all means, go into the gift-shop and get yourself some liquid refreshment and definitely get some of the donuts they make there. They can’t be replicated at low altitude and they’re delicious, so enjoy this special treat. The calories plus some hydration will recharge you for the drive down, which can be every bit as enjoyable as the drive up. On the way down it can be tempting to put the car or bike into neutral and let it coast, but this is probably not the best idea due to how fast brakes can get hot in the thin air. Use low gears to keep your vehicle from runaway speeds and still allow you to use some throttle on the less-steep parts between turns. At some point you’ll pass the tree-line, and I find that I notice the trees coming back on the way down more than I notice them going away on the way up. Stop where it’s safe and take plenty of pictures- the views are spectacular!
Of course I had other fun too with the Mustang while I was in Colorado, like picking up my friend Craig from his office to go have a bite and a beer before returning him to finish the evening part of his shift. We made sure to leave some tire-marks in a distant parking lot before we parted. I was also able to visit my fried Ross and go for a spin in a couple of Lotus Elans he owns, and the contrast between their light, zippy quickness and the Mustang’s heavy powerfulness was really something to behold: great fun at two very different extremes. But eventually all things must come to an end, and so it was with a bit of sadness that I bid the Mustang farewell at the airport. I couldn’t have had a better rental-car for driving a fun, challenging, performance-intensive road. I really, truly enjoyed my high-altitude adventures with this ponycar and if you get the chance, you will too!
Remember the Special Conversation we had with Warren Jobs, CEO of Seal Skin Covers? Well guess what? The Thing About Cars is going to give away a Seal Skin Cover to one lucky listener!
It doesn’t matter what you drive, or where you live. All you have to do is give us your name and a valid email address via this form. (And while you’re at it, we always value your feedback about the show.) One lucky listener will be selected to win their very own Seal Skin Cover, courtesy of Warren Jobs and the Seal Skin Covers company.
The winner will be contacted via email. So yes, we will be collecting emails. I give you my personal assurance that The Thing About Cars will never use your email address for anything other than contacting you for TTAC purposes. We will never sell your email address to anyone.
Entries will be collected until August 31, 2019. The winner will be announced during the episode we anticipate publishing on September 23. Thank you, and good luck!