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Road Test: Mercedes-Benz A Class A140 Avantgarde 5dr Auto (1998-2001)

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Insurance Group


When Mercedes invited us to drive the revised A-class, we thought it was going to be a case of ‘don’t mention the elk’. But the German fun-time joke machine was in overdrive. A giant stuffed elk greeted us in the hotel lobby - can you imagine suggesting that one in a Daimler-Benz board meeting? - and we were plied with toy elks, elk badges and ‘elk-test’ certificates.

All jolly funny stuff of course, but the underlying current was deadly serious. Mercedes-Benz was out to prove that the revisions it had made to its baby since Swedish journalist Robert Collin had rolled it during the now famous elk-test, cured all ills.

Most of the journalists were just as serious, serious about proving that the A-class could still be rolled over that is, or at least launched up on to two wheels. This was the first opportunity most of us had to drive the car to its limits and beyond on a track in similar conditions to the Swedish test. The launch had been held in Belgium on public roads and while it hadn’t handled as tidily as a supermini it hadn’t felt dangerous, even during high-speed motorway lane changes and hard cornering with traction control off.

With the revised A-class, the Acceleration Skid Control (ASR) is standard and can’t be switched off. Neither can the standard Anti-Lock System (ABS) or the standard Electronic Stability Program (ESP). That’s an awful lot of fancy initials and an awful lot of expensive, high-tech hardware to come as standard on a supposedly small, affordable supermini rival. Lowering the car, widening its track, altering the suspension and changing the tyres has further added to the cost. The entry level A-class was to cost £13,500, now it will be £14,500.

But does it all work? Is it safe? The first three tests, high-speed cornering, brake and avoid and simulated ice-driving all passed without incident. But surely certain destruction lay between the cones of the wet and dry slalom?

I tried, I promise you I tried. I ignored the conventional tidy line and swung the thing violently from one full lock to the other. I tried keeping my foot flat on the accelerator and I tried braking hard in mid-corner, but each time the body rolled so far and then the ESP cut in, reducing individual wheelspin, cutting engine torque and restoring stability.

Only the elk test remained and we were getting desperate. The man from Autocar suggested a suicide pact: “Let’s all pile in and do it five-up.” There was no need, Mercedes had loaded the car with additional 65kg plastic passengers and although we got the ESP working hard during the high-speed swerve test, there was no hint of real trouble. Mercedes, it would seem, has cured the A-class’s physical ailments convinc-ingly, but the medicine has been both expensive and bitter.

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