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MERCEDES BRINGS THE 'A' GAME


Forget what you thought you knew about the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. The game has changed as Andy Enright reports.

Ten Second Review

The Mercedes-Benz A-Class was for so long the oddity at the base of the range; a car that never seemed to communicate all that Mercedes did best in a small car. That has changed with the latest A-Class, which seems a stunning return to form from the Stuttgart company.

Background

"A is for Attack... The A-Class is completely new, down to the last detail. In automotive development, it's not often you get the chance to start with a clean sheet of paper. Our engineers and designers have made the very most of that opportunity." Dr Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars.
While I'd be the last to contradict the good doctor, I don't know whether he'd appreciate us pointing to the fact that the first A-Class was also a clean sheet design and that car almost brought the company to its knees thanks to the safety blow its failure to negotiate the infamous elk test dealt. This time round, it appears that Mercedes has adopted a more mainstream approach for its entry-level model, the then-radical engineering of the original A-Class being ditched for a more conventional silhouette. It's only upon closer inspection that you begin to appreciate quite what a big step forward this model is.

Driving Experience

Although there was a fairly racy 190PS A200 Turbo model, not to mention the twin-engined A38 AMG specials presented to F1 drivers David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen, the old A-Class was never any great shakes to drive. The latest car is cut from very different cloth. The petrol engines range between 1.6 and 2.0 litre capacities and generate between 122bhp in the A180 and 156bhp in the A200 through to 211bhp in the A250 and on to 360bhp in the A45 AMG hot hatch. Common to all is the combination of direct injection and exhaust gas turbocharging, a more advanced combustion process and an efficient lean-burn system.
The diesel engines also feature sophisticated injection technology and turbocharging. The A180 CDI offers an output of 109bhp and a maximum torque of up to 250Nm, while the A200 CDI has a maximum output of 136bhp and torque that rises to 300Nm. There's also a 170bhp A220CDI variant. The engines can be combined either with the new six-speed manual transmission or, as an option, with the 7G-DCT dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Underpinning the baby Benz is the suspension system found beneath the B-class, featuring MacPherson struts up front and a four-link design at the back. The quicker A250 model runs on a specially tuned front suspension that gets 180inch alloy wheels with the optional AMG sport styling package. The steering is an electro-mechanical system that has been tuned to offer improved feel and response when cornering.

Design and Build

The A-Class has abandoned the 'one-box' shape of its predecessor for a more conventional two-box hatchback design, but it's packed with interesting styling features. The eye is immediately drawn to the upsweeping feature lines on the car's flanks which gives shape and tension to the profile. Even the entry-level models have a stance and attitude that looks sporting, and the upper specification cars look seriously purposeful. There's a decent amount of space inside although the focus has clearly been on improving perceived quality and offering a sportier feel.
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 touch-screen system. It'll sync seamlessly with an iPhone and expect Android connectivity to follow in due course. The instrument cluster comprises two large round instruments, each of them with a small round instrument set within it. When at rest, the dial needles stand at 6 o'clock. The pointer inlays are generally white, although with the sportier design and equipment lines they are finished in red. The 3-spoke steering wheel comes with twelve function buttons and an electroplated bezel. It all feels beautifully built, in stark contrast to the first A-Class.

Market and Model

Prices sit in the £20,000 to £30,000 bracket and there's a choice of four main trim levels - standard, SE, Sport and 'AMG Sport' - with wider availability of the more potent engines as you progress up the ownership ladder. Whichever A-Class variant you choose - 1.6 or 2.0-litre petrol or the 1.8-litre diesel - all models come the basic equipment features you'd expect, which in the case of the standard trim level runs to an Audio 20 CD/radio with 5.8" colour display. It's a set-up that's MP3, WMA and AAC-compatible and has a useful aux-in socket, plus a USB port within the centre armrest. There's also Bluetooth and Becker Map Pilot pre-wiring.
As they progress up the range, customers can choose between various suspension settings, among them the optional sports suspension with Direct-Steer system. The A-Class differentiates itself in this sector by being the only vehicle in its class to feature as standard a radar-based collision warning system . 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.
The Pre-Safe preventive occupant protection system is now available for the first time in the A-Class. This first appeared in the S-Class luxury saloon back in 2002 and it's taken a decade to filter down to the entry-level car. This suite of technological features comprises reversible belt tensioning, the closing of side windows and sliding sunroof and adjustment of the fully electric front passenger seat. 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. It's a small car. How much assistance do you need?

Cost of Ownership

All mainstream A-Class models carry 'BLueEFFICIENCY' badging, meaning that they come equipped with all the brand's latest eco-tweaks. As a result, returns are frugal, with the A180CDI ECO variant managing 78.5mpg on the combined cycle and putting out just 92g/km of CO2. The A200 CDI manages 62.8mpg and 121g/km.
The A-Class wasn't a bad performer when it came to retained values, with more mature buyers snapping up clean, low-mileage cars. This model is going to be a very different proposition and one that Mercedes will need to be careful about. The amount of options available for this model could push prices very high and damage residuals, but I'd still be prepared to bet that it'll better an Audi A3 after three years.
A lot of work has been devoted to offering competitive economy and emissions figures, despite the sportier bias. All engines in the new A Class feature the ECO start/stop function as standard. What's more, the engines can be combined either with either a six-speed manual transmission or, as an option, with a 7G-DCT dual-clutch automatic transmission, which will prove the more fuel efficient option.

Summary

As perverse as it might seem, returning to a more mainstream position with this A-Class might be a bolder step for Mercedes than the original design of its radical predecessor. Is it an admission of failure? A recognition that the brand values should really only be extended down so far? Perhaps. Mercedes, however, is nothing if not a froward looking company and once again it hasn't done things by halves. Of all the high-profile launches at the 2012 Geneva Show, the A-Class was the one that most industry observers identified as the big one.
There's real substance here and a focus that's rare in such a huge project. All too often the initial vision gets watered down and diffuses as it nears production, but the A-Class seems to have all of Mercedes's current brand values sublimated into an economically packaged and wholly desirable hatchback. Today's Mercedes has its swagger back and no car better typifies that than the A-Class. Who'd have thought it?

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