Our plan was pleasingly uncomplicated, just like the people and the surroundings. And things generally are simpler when you head out of the big cities to the smaller towns. Our night halt, halfway between Jaipur and Bikaner, was one such town called Fatehpur. Our hotel, accurately and unimaginatively, was named Hotel Haveli. It was, after all, a mansion in the typical Rajasthani vein. The Rajasthan Tourism staff at the hotel swapped roles as receptionist, cook, concierge and guide, smiling and unhesitant. Their gobi parathas were lovely, breakfast was peppered with the history of local havelis and talk of good roads ahead.
So it was in a fairly upbeat mood that I stepped out of the chilly shade of the verandah and into the warmth of the sun. However, it was the sight of the red CLA 45 AMG standing outside that warmed me quicker still, inside out. The plan, our uncomplicated plan, was to soak in the warbling music of the Afflaterbach-bred 355bhp four-pot motor as we aimed the three-pointed star towards Bikaner, 173km away.
Haveli. These abodes of the rich and powerful require, no, demand, the flourish of an italicised and swoopy ‘H’ to get the message across. Even from the outside, I could appreciate the delicate and intricate frescoes in the inner courtyard. The lattice work in the verandahs outside also bore testimony to the care, craftsmanship and taste that was called upon to create these imposing residences. The decades have dulled some of the colours, but even today, the havelis of Fatehpur impose their stature upon visitors with a weighty silence. If buildings could frown, the haveli would have done so at my casual garb. However, I am certain that it accepted the CLA 45 AMG as a worthy guest. Its bright red colour, slinky swoops and powerful lines would have struck a chord with the thakurs and memsahibs that once dwelled here.
On the road out of Fatehpur, I wondered what the thakurs would have called it? “Ram Singh, sheher jaana hai, Laal Aandhi ko turant bahar laao!” And why not? The CLA 45 AMG was raising a storm as we shot towards Bikaner. I kept my eyes fastened on the road ahead, smiling to myself, picturing the sand swirling in the CLA’s wake, the rough shrub swaying, and the sheep scattering in the distance as the CLA 45 AMG boomed past. Mostly though, I was glad we hadn’t started the drive from Jaipur, as the road till Fatehpur had proved, alternatingly, to be ravaged or in a state of slow repair. However, this section of the NH11 was living up to the tag of Great Road perfectly. I know, given this car’s size, a tight-winding mountain road springs to mind as the natural stomping ground for the CLA. However, as this Mercedes is primarily a front-wheel-drive machine with a small turbocharged motor, tight corners would rob some of the fun.
Instead, treat the CLA 45 AMG to wide, fast and sweeping roads like I did, and it will be delightful company. With its mere two litres of displacement, the big turbo needs to spool up and pump air at an increasingly furious rate into the four cylinders to deliver that 355bhp punch and 45.9kgm of torque. Perfectly timed explosions merged into one giant wallop of torque as the rev needle crossed 3000rpm and sent us tearing down the largely smooth and arrow-straight road. At times, the road stretched ahead endlessly, undulating in giant arcs as it streamed towards the horizon. With smooth tarmac for company and kilometres of visibility, you can get down to using what this baby AMG has to offer with a big grin slapped on your face.
The desert is mostly flat, and the highway we were on has little to dodge as it connects villages and towns. So the road glided placidly through the landscape with corners that were long and smoothly radiused. As a result, I barely needed to shed any speed to tackle them. On these bends, the CLA 45 AMG with its on-demand four-wheel-drive system hunkered down with crushing resolve. When I challenged it with going faster around these sweeping corners, the Merc’s composure outgrew its tight dimensions and the relatively ordinary 235/45 R18 tyre size. Trust the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system to split the torque, put the power down and let the Merc blast through. The alcantara-wrapped steering feels meaty, if a bit distant. The sculpted race-style seats keep you anchored and are comfortable for long stints too.
But our journey did get uncomfortable at times as the dreamy tarmac was interspersed with the harsh reality of Indian roads. There were stretches where roadwork necessitated the roads to vanish altogether. At those moments, I wished for the GLA 45 AMG and the comfort of its added ground clearance. But with a bit of tiptoeing, the CLA made it through the ruts, the dust and the muck unscathed. Pleasantly enough, on tarmac that was less than perfect, the CLA didn’t feel unyielding. The firm suspension felt sporting without being jarring.
The CLA’s companionability proved to multiply manifold when I decided to simply cruise along and take in the scenery. The Merc purred pleasantly along at 1500rpm, as the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox selected top gear and whisked us forward at a brisk 100kph. A change of pace was never out of reach as a quick prod of the throttle or a tug at the steering-mounted paddle would prompt the gearbox to pick a low gear and send us zooming into the horizon.
All too soon, milestones for Bikaner spouted numbers that signalled the end of our pleasure trip. The Mercedes CLA 45 AMG marched into Bikaner cool and collected. It hadn’t missed a beat and it was very civil as we navigated through the melee of the city. We didn’t risk our way into the narrower lanes and more bloodthirsty traffic, instead marking the completion of our trip at the Junagarh Fort. As I drove past the regal structure, I felt certain, if the thakurs of the havelis would let it go, the masters of the forts would have swung the vast armoured doors open to welcome the storm-raising Mercedes CLA 45 AMG into their fold, double quick.
The NH11 stretches between Agra and Bikaner; however, we hopped onto it from Jaipur, in a cab. This proved to be the wise option — the two-lane highway outside Jaipur is in a poor state of repair. Our actual drive began from Fatehpur in Rajasthan (not to be mistaken for Fatehpur Sikri, UP), from which point the road improves dramatically. Although it remains a two-laner for most of the 173km to Bikaner, it varies in width and, at some places, even splits into a four-lane highway. There are a few small towns on the way, but only a couple of them sit right on the highway and slow the pace down.
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