Published on Sunday 8 December 2013 23:34
Ten Second Review
Some might feel a pang of regret that Mercedes has returned to a more conventional shape with this latest A-Class, but be in no doubt that it's a massively improved car compared to its innovative but rarely exciting predecessors. It looks great, it drives well and it's chock-full of smart ideas. Even in this entry-level A180 petrol guise, you'll love it.
The Mercedes A-Class was always a clever and innovative car. MK1 and MK2 models had a neat sandwich floor whereby in the event of a violent frontal impact, the engine and transmission would slide underneath the floor below the pedals rather than entering the passenger compartment. Plus an 'A' has always been economical, spacious and good looking. It never drove very well though. Pushing one hard along a B-road always felt as if you were being a bit cruel. The second generation car that appeared in 2004 was a bit better but by then, the BMW 1 Series had appeared and showed how things should be done.
Fast forward to the present day and buyers at the most affordable end of the recedes range are treated to this, the third generation A-Class. Here, the script has changed. Radically. Where the previous models were tall, boxy and frumpy, this one is cool and sporty. Yes, just like a rival Audi A3 or BMW 1 Series.
So what are we saying here? That after fifteen years of building the A-Class, Mercedes has realised that Audi and BMW probably had the formula right all along? That's a harsh assessment of the facts at hand, but from here it does look like a case of Mercedes instead trying to beat its two biggest rivals at their own game. And you know what? We reckon they're in with a shout. Let's take the entry-level petrol A180 variant for a drive.
And on the road? Well, if you were expecting something soft and friendly, you're in for a shock. The A-Class feels like a sports hatch. The ride, even in comfort-oriented SE spec, is extremely firm and this may put a few people off. On a badly-surfaced British B-road, it feels constantly busy, reminding you to stay on top of your game, demanding attention like a spoilt kid. Get it on tarmac not quite so scarred and it's just got the mightiest front end. This is a car you can really lean on as you enter a corner, confident in the knowledge that it's not going to wash out until you've got some really silly numbers on the clock and even then the ESP stability control intervenes and gathers things up.
We tried the entry-level petrol 1.6-litre A180 with 122PS getting it to 62mph in 9.2s on the way to 126mph. If that's not enough, there's a 156PS version of this same engine fitted to the pricier A200 variant that knocks a second off that and takes you up to 139mph. I'd guess though that most potential buyers won't need to go that fast. More popular perhaps, might be the option of specifying the 7-speed dual clutch auto gearbox.
Underpinning the baby Benz is a fairly conventional suspension system found beneath the B-class, featuring MacPherson struts up front and a four-link design at the back. Anything else? Brakes good, gearchange a bit lightweight but accurate, all-round visibility out of the car just about acceptable, driving position excellent. When was the last time Mercedes made a small car you really wanted to drive? It's been a while but the three-pointed star is back in the game.
Design and Build
Outside, this MK3 A-Class delivers a riot of swage lines on the flanks that really serve to give a tautness and dynamism to the shape. The front grille and air intakes look as if they mean business as does the neat integrated roof spoiler.
The cabin is perhaps even bolder than the exterior treatment. It feels modern and owes nothing to any of its key rivals. All trim elements have been given an electroplated finish, resulting in real metal surfaces with a "cool touch" effect. The instrument panel is divided into a wing profile-type upper section and an solid lower section. Perhaps the most interesting design touch is what looks like an iPad sitting on the upper part of the centre console but which is in fact an integrated infotainment system.
You might expect a car in this class to be a bit mean when it comes to space in the back but the A-Class is surprisingly roomy. The front seats have an arched cut-out in the back which means that even six-footers will be able to get in. Headroom's not too bad either, despite that swooping roofline. Out back, the 60/40 split-fold seats will extend the rear luggage bay from a wholly reasonable 341 litres up to 1157 litres of total load space.
Market and Model
Pricing for this A180 theoretically starts at about £19,000, but that's for an entry-level version with steel wheels that few potential buyers will want, though you do get air conditioning, an eco start/stop function and a CD stereo. Better though, to look at a starting point for ownership as being the SE version, priced from just over the £20,000 mark. At this level, you get 16-inch alloy wheels, some body-colour and chrome finishing, lovely chromed air vents, and ARTICO faux-leather sports seats.
Where this A-Class really pulls out the stops in this sector is by being the only vehicle in its class to feature as standard a radar-based collision warning set-up. Working with adaptive Brake Assist, which lowers the risk of rear-end collisions, the Collision Prevention Assist system gives a visual and acoustic warning to alert a distracted driver to identified obstacles, and prepares Brake Assist for the most precise braking response possible. This is initiated as soon as the driver steps firmly on the brake pedal. It's all very clever but like the best technology, doesn't impose itself until it's actually needed.
Other features fitted as standard include Attention Assist, which monitors the duration and style of your driving and makes recommendations when you may well be driving in a fatigued state, Brake Hold function and Hill Start Assist. Options include Blind Spot Assist, Lane Keeping Assist, Speed Limit Assist, Active Parking Assist and a reversing camera.
Cost of Ownership
Mercedes has pulled out all the stops to make the A-Class one of the cheapest cars to run in its class, hence the BlueEFFICIENCY tag applied to models across the range. It has some redoubtable opposition of course, not only from the likes of BMW and Audi but also from a resurgent Volvo but the A-Class makes all the right numbers, with all its engines featuring direct injection and turbocharging, plus an ECO start/stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights.
Further efficiency measures include an economy setting for the automatic gearbox, intelligent management of engine ancillaries like the alternator, the oil feed and the water pump, a display to encourage more economical driving, low rolling resistance tyres, an adjustable radiator shutter and a CAMTRONIC load management system for the petrol 1.6 that reduces throttling loses under partial load, this alone improving fuel consumption by up to 10%.
You'd expect the result of all this to be a frugal set of running cost figures - and you'd be right. The A180 manages 51.4mpg on the combined cycle and 129g/km of CO2 - in manual form.
What else? Well, as you'd expect, the Mercedes after-care package is comprehensive, with a three-year unlimited mileage warranty and a Service Care package that spreads the cost of routine servicing, guaranteeing the price of parts and labour for up to four services and covering the cost of all recommended service items such as brake fluid, spark plugs, air filters, fuel filters and screen wash.
The Mercedes-Benz A-Class isn't going to be for everyone. Some will find the styling too strident, others will baulk at the firm ride or the fact that it's not got the biggest boot. If Mercedes was planning on broadening the appeal of its baby, it might not get the results it was expecting. If, on the other hand, Mercedes wanted to distil all that's exciting fresh and modern about the company into one small package, I don't think it could have done much better.
Mercedes is a company that's often portrayed as deeply conservative but no other manufacturer has such a record of innovation. It's a bold, forward-looking car maker and while the A-Class seems as if it's become more derivative in philosophy, the execution is anything but. If you like your hatches sporty, self-assured and with a big feel-good factor, you'll probably want to book a test drive. Even in entry-level A180 form, we reckon this car is a little bit special.