Sam Philip27 June 2012

First drive: the new Mercedes A-Class

The new A-Class may be better looking than its predecessor, but how does it drive?

What's this, then?
 
It's the new Mercedes A-Class.
 
That's not an A-Class. The A-Class is a tall, boxy thing.
 
You're right. The last A-Class was an oddity - a mini-MPV big on practicality but short on desirability or driveability. Don't think of this car as a descendent of the old A: it's an entirely different concept, for Mercedes at least. Lower, wider and far sleeker than its predecessor, you're looking at a conventional five-door, front-wheel drive hatchback, an on-the-nose rival for the Audi A3 Sportback.
 
It looks a bit more exciting than an A3.
 
It does indeed. There's a LOT going on with this design: rising swage lines, bonnet creases, LED clusters, gun turrets...
 
Gun turrets?
 
OK, I lied about the gun turrets. But in the metal it looks good, especially with the optional big wheels, black gloss bits, pointy ‘Sport' grille and giganto-sunroof. Merc dealers will be rubbing their hands in glee as potential customers peruse the options list.
 
So what's it like to drive?
 
Mercedes-ish. In a good way. If you're after a lithe, snappy rival to the BMW 1-Series, look elsewhere: Mercedes has taken quite a different tack. The A-Class feels brilliantly solid and expensive: not bulky, just superbly built and cosseting.
 
In the cabin, you're isolated from the outside world to an astonishing degree. Road and wind noise are near non-existent, the A-Class hushing along like a far bigger, pricier machine. Bumps are absorbed expertly, miles are devoured like plankton by a big... metal whale. That metaphor sort of unravelled as it went along, didn't it?

It is very, very quiet though. We mainly drove the mid-range A200 CDI, a 1.8-litre diesel, and kept bashing it into the rev limiter. Not because the four-cylinder diesel is particularly low-revving, but because you're so insulated from its chunter that you've no idea it's reaching its redline.
 
But is the A-Class fun to drive?
 
Yes, in its own way. With multi-link rear suspension and quick, accurate steering, the A-Class is a nicely balanced thing to chuck down a country road, but the front tyres run out of grip quickly and the whole experience is a touch remote. Still - and we'd have to get them side-by-side to be sure - we'd venture it's more natural and involving than the new Audi A3.
 
Is there a flame-throwing AMG version, then?
 
Not yet, but there will be. A 330bhp ‘A45' AMG model is in the pipeline, but for now the most potent petrol you can get is the A250 BlueEfficiency, a 2.0-litre turbo making 211bhp.
 
Sounds tasty?
 
It isn't, really. Lovely and smooth, but in no way a hot hatch. We'd stick to the diesels: as well as the 136bhp A200 CDI (66bhp and 114g/km of CO2), there's the super-frugal A180 CDI, which emits just 98g/km of CO2 if you have it with the six-speed manual, and a more powerful A220 CDI. The mid-range A200 is powerful enough, in truth, and felt the sweetest.
 
Bet it's nice on the inside.
 
Yes it is. Very nice. The A-Class neatly melds the austere elegance of bigger Benzes with a gently schporty twist, with fat metal air vents inspired by the SLS, wavy surfaces and masses of soft-touch plastics and posh leather. We couldn't lay our hands on a truly base-spec A, but even the cheapest models will get nice seats, a big colour display and lots of electronic goodies.

 

So what's the catch?
 
Well, it isn't as practical as the blocky old A-Class. The rear seats are just about acceptable for six-footers - just about - and boot space is compromised by the big light clusters.
 
But there's a B-Class on the way for those who want a bit more space from their micro-Merc. Maybe the biggest criticism we can throw at the A-Class is that, for the smallest, lightest Mercedes, it doesn't offer real fingertip involvement. Put it this way: we actually preferred driving the A-Class with 16-inch wheels and ‘comfort' chassis than the version with stiffer springs and bigger alloys. This made us feel a bit odd.
 
But think of it as a mini C-Class saloon, a posh, easy-going Merc that'll fit in city parking spaces and give you change from £20,000 if you don't mind a dinky petrol and go easy on the options list, and you'll get on just fine. It's not a madcap hot hatch, the A-Class, but it's a lovely thing.
 
SCORE: 8/10
 
A200 CDI BlueEfficiency: from £23,270

 

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