This is not an A-Class. Rather, it is an A-Class, but not as we know it. The smallest Merc has always been a lumpen little oddity, a mini-MPV big on practicality but short on desirability, but the new A approaches the small-posh-car-for-small-posh-families dilemma from an entirely different angle. Problem is, if, like Merc, you're wedded to a letter-based naming system and you want to denote a car smaller than a B-Class, you're pretty much stuck with the A-prefix. Damn you, alphabet!
So, if not an A, what is this? Simple: a conventional five-door, front-wheel-drive hatch that's a square-on rival to Audi's A3 Sportback, a top-end VW Golf and the (admittedly rear-drive) BMW 1-Series.
The design is... well, let's just say there's a lot of it going on. Rising swage lines, extravagant creases, Christmas-tree LED clusters: as you wander round the car with a bemused expression on your face, squinting eyes and tilting neck, you begin to wonder if Merc designers were paid by the line rather than by the day. Overall, though, we think the A-Class works. Make up your own minds, but we will say this: it looks better in the metal than in photos, 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.
At great expense and employing the latest in audionanotechnology, Top Gear has installed a microscopic soundcard in this page, allowing you to experience how it sounds to travel in the A-Class at 70mph on a gritty motorway. To activate it, press your ear to the page - yep, like that... closer... hear it? The distinctive sound of absolutely nothing at all? That is the noise made by the A-Class travelling at speed. Glorious, soothing silence, the sense of being a long way from the outside world.
That's what this A-Class is all about: big-car refinement in a smallish package. The old A - at least every one I drove - was a grizzly, rattly old thing, but this car feels as solid and impermeable as an S-Class: not bulky, just superbly built and cosseting. The A-Class wafts along like a far bigger, pricier machine, road- and wind noise near imperceptible from within the confines of the reassuringly expensive-feeling cabin.
It's very nice in here. 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 get nice seats, a big colour display and many electronic goodies.
There's more than a hint of S-Class to the driving experience, too. Whether this is good or bad rather depends what you want from your mini-Merc. Until the 340bhp A45 AMG arrives next year, you'd assume the A-Class of choice would be the range-topping A250 petrol, with its 208bhp two-litre turbo engine. It isn't. Yes, the A250 is rapid - 0-62mph takes less than seven seconds and it'll run to 150mph - but it offers up all the fingertip involvement of a game of Operation in woollen mittens. The A200 petrol, with its 154bhp version of the same engine, is equally ponderous.
This may make it sound as if TG did not enjoy driving the A-Class. We did. The trick is to ignore the petrols and go diesel, at which point the A suddenly begins to make much sense. We mainly drove the A200 CDI, which has a 1.8-litre developing 134bhp and 221lb ft of torque. It is treaclesome and good: not as revvy and petrol-impersonating as BMW's latest diesels, but smooth and effortlessly quick.
There's a sub-100g/km-CO2 A180 diesel on the way, and a more powerful 168bhp A220 CDI. We drove the latter but - at least with the so-so seven-speed double-clutch 'box rather than the six-speed manual - it felt barely brawnier than the A200, which is potent enough for most. As a measure of the diesel A's refinement, we kept whacking into its limiter, not because it's a low-revving engine but because you're so insulated from chunter that you've no idea it's near the red line.
If you feel the need to hustle it, the little A proves to be a quick way of making progress, multi-link rear suspension soaking up bad tarmac and the steering and gearshift quick and clean. Most of the time, though, it's nicer to hush quietly along, embracing your inner Captain Slow rather than your inner Stig. This is why you should steer clear of the Sports suspension and instead stick to the standard Comfort chassis. If you can handle the ignominy of rolling on the base-spec 16-inch wheels, we'd recommend those too, sacrificing a bit of grip and bling for velvety ride quality. Diesel, comfort, little wheels: Top Gear does not know what has come over it.
Some might argue Merc has missed a trick by not imbuing its smallest, lightest car with snappier road manners, but there are enough small hatches around with Nürburgring aspirations. The bigger issue may be the new A's lack of practicality compared to its boxtastic predecessor.
The rear seats are just about acceptable for six-footers, provided they're not preserving a vertical hairstyle, while bootspace is bijou: worse, even, than the new BMW 1-Series. Having less bootspace than a 1-Series is like having fewer tax scruples than Jimmy Carr.
But this new A was never intended to out-practicalate the original A. Instead, think of it as a mini C-Class - a posh, easy-going Merc that should fit in city parking spaces and shouldn't cripple you on company car tax - and you'll get on just fine. It's no madcap hot hatch, the A-Class, but it's a classy little thing.
1796cc, 4cyl, FWD, 134bhp, 221lb ft, 65.7mpg, 111g/km CO2, 0-62 in 9.3secs, 131mph, 1370kg
Not adrenaline-charged, not very practical, but interesting to look at and a lovely place to be on a long journey. A very Merc-ish take on a conventional formula, and a successful one.