First drive review: Mercedes A-class
What is it?
The Mercedes A-class represents a revolution for its maker and its plans for premium small car leadership. Having largely misjudged the direction the market was heading with the previous A-class, it has been forced to follow its rivals’ lead in producing a conventional front-wheel drive hatchback.
Making the radical change in direction possible is the flexible front-wheel drive platform structure that goes under the name MFA (modular front architecture). It is already used underneath the B-class, and will form the basis of three new Mercedes-Benz models by the end of 2014.
It’s easy to see why Mercedes is projecting confidence. The new A-class is, if nothing else, is highly contemporary. On first impressions, it seems exactly what younger car buyers now seek – a compact but high-quality car with plenty of badge recognition. To ensure it appeals to everyone, Mercedes is offering a wider range of engines. Buyers will have the choice of three diesel and three petrol engines, along with a standard six-speed manual and optional seven-speed dual clutch transmission (DTC).
What is it like?
The model designation of the A200 CDI driven here is representative of much of the range, in the fact that it uses a 1.8-litre common rail injection unit – the same engine already available in the B200 CDI. Likely to be among the UK’s best sellers, it produces a good, but far from class leading, 134bhp and 221lb ft of torque. By comparison, the new Audi A3 2.0 TDI offers 148bhp and 236lb ft while the BMW 118d has 143bhp and 235lb ft.
But it is not the figures that come to mind on first acquaintance. It is the styling. The heavily structured design gives the new A-class an instantly recognisable appearance. It’s far more expressive than that of the 1-series and A3. However, glaring shut line unevenness, especially within the front end where the bonnet meets the fenders and around the top end of the grille, left us wondering if Mercedes had suddenly taken leave of its usual attention to quality. For a car described as being premium, the panel fit is very ordinary.
Inside, there’s a vastly different driving position to previous A-class models. It’s considerably lower, less upright and generally more comfortable. The high mounted dashboard shares its look with the current B-class; high on perceived quality, stylish and ergonomically sound. Close inspection reveals many carry over parts from other models, meaning it lacks the individuality of some rivals. It is still appealing, giving a classier feel than just about every rival.
High spec models feature the very best in navigation and connectivity options, helping to raise appreciation of the advances Mercedes has made. Even the basic versions receive nice touches, such as a free standing colour monitor perched above the centre console.
With a shallow glasshouse, raked rear hatch and substantial B-pillars, overall visibility is fairly poor as is in-cabin storage. The optional DCT transmission gives a column-mounted shift stalk, freeing up space between the front seats for an additional holder.
With the mechanically identical B-class catering to customers seeking generous rear seat accommodation, the A-class is considerably smaller. Entry up is restricted owing to small door apertures and a prominent sill that forms an integral part of the car’s structure. There is sufficient legroom to make longer journeys comfortable. At 341-litres its boot is smaller than the A3 and BMW 1-series. Loading is compromised by the design of the tail lamps which make for a narrow aperture.
The A200 CDI provides peppy performance and is refined. With 1370kg to haul, the engine is never challenged, proving punchy and smooth. It feels quicker than the 9.3sec 0-62mph time suggests owing to a good spread of low end torque, which gives it a strong turn of acceleration following an initial period of tardiness. It is even more impressive at motorway cruising speeds, where its flexible nature and long gearing combine for a relaxed feel.
The DTC gearbox, offers eco, sport and manual modes and the car comes with stop-start as standard. Paddle shifters will appeal to the target market, but the ‘box isn’t perfect. A sudden application of throttle can catch it out as the electrics ponder which gear to choose, leaving you wondering if the manual ‘box might be a better choice.
The dynamics are far improved over from the old A-class. There’s a new-found fluency and eagerness to the driving experience, with light but accurate electro-mechanical steering. The chassis features a combination of MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link arrangement at the rear and provides more agility than any entry-level Mercedes before. It’s not quite as engaging as the 1-series, but the A-class has a deep handling competency.
Our test car featured optional sports suspension and 18-inch wheels with 225/40 R18 Continental ContiSport Contact SSR tyres. So configured, there is loads of grip and the front end resists understeer and the onset of the ESP extremely well. Body control is excellent, and the A-class feels planted during hard cornering.
The price to be paid for this is the ride. It’s not harsh to the point of discomfort, but the sports suspension’s tauter spring and damper make the A-class feel unsettled. Mercedes is keen to project a sporting image but we can’t help feeling the tautness could quickly become tiresome. We’ll reserve full judgement until we drive it on standard 16-inch wheels with 205/55 rubber, but it seems the Mercedes’ engineers may have gone a little too far.
Should I buy one?
Although the new A-class offers a radically different driving experience from its predecessor, it doesn’t set new class standards. It is well rounded and highly competent in areas that matter most, and will appeal to a much broader – and younger – audience than ever.
On first experience it doesn’t appear to offer the same heightened dynamic appeal of the BMW 1-series, nor does it ride with quite the same authority as the latest Audi A3 – at least on the optional sports suspension Mercedes-Benz fitted to our test cars.
Mercedes-Benz A200 CDI BlueEfficiency
Price: £tbc; 0-62mph: 9.3sec; Top speed: 131mph; Economy: 65.7mpg; CO2: 111g/km; Kerbweight: 1370kg; Engine: 4 cyls, 1796cc, turbodiesel; Installation: front, transverse; Power: 134bhp at 3600rpm; Torque: 221lb ft at 1600rpm; Gearbox: seven-speed dual clutch
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First drive review: Mercedes A-class