Mercedes-Benz A-Class review
by John MacEwan (2 July 2012)
With the all-new A-Class, Mercedes has unceremoniously ditched the mini-MPV shape in favour of a much sleeker and trendier car that can compete on a level pegging with the Audi A3 and BMW 1-Series.
It's a remarkable transformation. The old car was a bit of an ugly duckling: this is exactly the opposite. Lower, longer and wider, it has aggressive styling that makes the A3 look a bit dull and the 1-Series downright ugly.
Mercedes launched the A-Class in Slovenia. First impressions were of a car that was marvellously quiet and smooth-riding. It turned out this effect was exaggerated by the fact Slovenian motorways are much smoother than British ones: once we got into the mountains and hit rougher roads a few chinks appeared in the armour.
The Sports suspension-equipped car I drove didn't soak up bumps and potholes as well as the A3 does, but a car with Comfort suspension I drove later handled similar surfaces with much more aplomb.
On decent quality roads, all A-Classes make fine tourers. Wind and road noise insulation is terrific – you don't need to raise your voice above conversational level to be heard.
Apart from its ultra-expensive AMG versions, most Mercedes models have something of a staid reputation. So with the A-Class Mercedes is unashamedly gunning for a much more youthful market. It's got the sporty looks, and the Mercedes star is neatly integrated into the grille rather than mounted on the bonnet.
There are also Sport and AMG Sport and the clunkily-named Engineered by AMG versions, clearly aimed at young but well-heeled buyers who can afford something classier than a hot hatch.
So confident is Mercedes in the quality of its new chassis, we were let loose on an airfield track in the range-topping A 250 AMG. This proved to be a masterstroke. The A-Class is a terrific handler, gripping the road like a limpet, and it's easy for even an untalented driver (me) to make adjustments in mid-corner. We switched the traction control off for the last half dozen laps and – despite the A-Class being front-wheel drive – it wasn't difficult to get the rear end sliding out of line. Another good thing: even after 30 or 40 laps, there wasn't any brake fade.
But back to reality. What's more important is what the A-Class like to own and live with. One of the its best qualities is its interior - very well laid-out, with the easy-to-use COMAND system, large clear buttons and a neat full-colour display screen.
More than that, there are touches that mark it out from more humdrum cars. Details such as contrasting stitching on the dashboard trim and metallic, cool-touch handles and vents make the A-Class's interior feel special.
An A-Class with black trim and no sunroof can feel quite dark, so if you're not going for the optional panoramic sunroof then at least choose a light-coloured trim.
The A-Class also integrates with the iPhone more closely than any other car, Mercedes says, to the point where drivers can use the Siri voice-command function to choose music and send texts or emails. I can't comment on this function though – Siri doesn't understand my Scottish accent.
The A-Class goes on sale in the UK in December with prices starting from £18,495. All versions get six-speed manual gearbox, 5.8" colour display, USB port and Bluetooth. SE models, which start from £20,125 add 16" 10-spoke alloy wheels, sports seats, leather steering wheel, and fabric trim with contrast stitching.
Sport models cost from £21,420 and bring to the party twin exhausts, 17" bi-colour twin five-spoke alloy wheels, and some chrome detailing. AMG Sport versions, from £23,445, have Dynamic Handling with sports suspension, perforated brake discs, cruise control with Speedtronic and AMG body styling.
Topping the range is the Engineered by AMG model which is only available in A250 guise at launch and has red brake calipers, AMG sports suspension, 18" alloy wheels, bi-xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights, privacy glass and so on. Top whack for an A-Class is £28,775.
Only Volvo rivals Mercedes when it comes to safety and the A-Class comes as standard with Collision Prevention Assistance. Unlike similar systems from Volvo and Mazda, the car won't brake by itself. Instead a red light and then a loud buzz alert you to impending trouble, and if you don't brake hard enough the car will throw extra pressure on the pedal to prevent or minimise an accident.
The base A 180 gets a 1.6-litre petrol four-cylinder with 120bhp. The A 200 ups the same engine to 154bhp, while the petrol range-topper is the A 250, packing a 208bhp punch from its two-litre petrol engine and available only with a seven-speed auto transmission.
The diesel engines are good - the A 180 CDI being the first Mercedes to dip below 100g/km of CO2, emitting just 98g/km - but it was the petrols that really impressed. They're powerful and whisper-quiet. Thanks to standard BlueEfficiency technology across the range, they're frugal too.
Just about the only big drawback is visibility. Taller drivers have to slouch or lower the seat to see clearly the windscreen. The rear window is like a letterbox. And passengers in the back might wish they had bigger windows to enjoy the view.
The boot's far from class-leading either. Dropping from the unloved people carrier shape of the previous model sacrifices more than 90 litres of space, making the A-Class smaller than the 1 Series and A3 in this respect.
As far as niggles go, that's it. Some buyers might find Sport suspension models a bit firm, but the Comfort models are more forgiving. If I were an Audi or BMW dealer I'd be seriously worried. Mercedes has finally got its act together with the new A-Class. And it's a very good act indeed.