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Mercedes A160 CDi Elegance SE 5dr
4/10

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Mercedes-Benz A-Class A160 CDi Elegance SE

Driven September 2008

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They're clever, those Germans. They've really got it together to make chic family hatchbacks with clever packaging, solid build quality and the low depreciation that only comes with a world-renowned, well-respected brand name. Their product is a four/five seater with very adequate interior and luggage space, and a design that looks fresh yet classy. Yup, no doubt about it, that VW Polo is one hell of a car.

So why would you spend double the money on something that has less room, drives less well, and is no better built? It's an interesting question, and one that somebody at Mercedes will one day have to answer. This A160, you see, is £16,990. It's about twice the price of the average low-end supermini, and £3,000 more than the very poshest Polo.

And what does it offer for this extra wedge? The famed Mercedes build quality, for a start. Actually, cancel that. In the first day we had this car (a year-old 15,000-miler), the clever 'clap-hands' windscreen wipers got terminally tangled, needing an emergency visit to the nearest dealership, and the rear-view mirror wobbled loose.

Then there's depreciation. Of course, Mercedes traditionally hold their value, but this isn't a traditional Mercedes. According to depreciation and running costs experts, Emmox, a 1.4-litre A140 will sting you 28.1p per mile to run over three years, while a Polo 1.4CL will cost just 22.6p.

Of course, you could be paying for the styling or the commanding driving position. Well, it certainly looks wacky, particularly the back end, but visibility is terrible as a consequence, and rear passengers, particularly children, find themselves facing a blank section of pillar instead of a window. Because of the steep bonnet, the driver can't position the car easily while parking, either. The high-up seating position can be handy in traffic, though at first you feel as though you're driving a perfectly normal car while sitting on the roof, and it does feel unstable.

Which brings in the A-Class's Achilles heel - the inescapable elk-test stigma. Despite the ABS, BAS, ASR and ESP traction control and braking systems, it still feels, to the acronymically unimpressed, in imminent danger of toppling over. It's totally unfounded, but it's definitely disconcerting.

The design is daring and everyone has blithered on about its clever packaging, but it isn't that roomy inside, and the boot is tiny. The front seat occupants sit too close together (possibly due to the thick doors); the window switches, on the floor, are hard to reach; the radio is awkward to adjust safely on the move; the driving position is awful; and the front cupholders are almost behind the seats. That's not clever design, that's failed design.

If you want a German hatchback, buy a Polo. If you want wacky design, buy a Phillipe Starck lemon squeezer and save yourself £16,951

Chris Maillard

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