It’s fair to say the A-Class didn’t exactly set the world alight when Mercedes-Benz first launched it back in 1997. It has always seemed like the odd one out in the Mercedes-Benz line up and the poor relation to its larger siblings. Matters weren’t helped by a stuffy image and poor performance compared to its competitors, not to mention a one-box, upright, mini MPV design that seemed to age quickly and head down a cul-de-sac design wise.
So much so, Mercedes-Benz has decided to throw its little baby out with the bathwater and completely start again with its new A-Class. It is so unlike the model that came before it that it really ought to have an entirely new name. At the international launch in Slovenia last week, I lost count of the amount of journalists climbing out of it, scratching their heads and declaring: “Wow, I can’t believe that’s an A-Class.”
This is all set against the backdrop of small cars getting posher. This year will see a battle commence for the title of the best new premium hatchback. Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo are all launching new cars, with their A3, A-Class and V40 models. Which means, if you’re in the market for such a car, your decision is about to get a lot harder.
The new A-Class’s fuddy-duddy image has been replaced by quite possibly the most stylish car in the small family car segment. Longer and lower than the old model, it’s elegant and sporty – it looks fantastic. Its large, bold grille and badge, muscular shoulders, arcing roof and convex and concave surfaces positively yell how dynamic the car promises to be. It makes even the Audi A3 look unadventurous. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s sexy. In design terms it’s like ditching support tights and slipping into something by Coco de Mer.
And if you think the outside looks smart, just wait until you get in it. This is easily one of the best interiors of the year and surely the best of the Mercedes-Benz range. We were driving the A200 petrol, A200 diesel and the A250 petrol versions. All of the cars were in AMG Sport trim with 7-speed dual clutch automatic transmission. The interior is simply excellent. In AMG Sport trim, the cabin is awash with metal surfaces, leather, a carbon fibre effect and leather-like dash and racy red contrast trim. The air vents are outstanding because, electroplated in silver chrome metal, when you operate them they are actually cold to the touch. Meanwhile the dials are in silver and red. The only element I disliked in the whole interior was their chequered flag effect which seems a step to far from classy to cheesy.
And if that’s come as a surprise, the driving isn’t bad either. The new A-Class is much sportier than its predecessor. Of the three models we drove, the 136bhp 1.8-litre A200 CDI was our favourite. Though it lacked the pace of the A250 petrol model, it seemed to offer the best balance between performance and economy. The AMG Sport spec includes a dynamic handling package that gives a firmer ride but makes for a car that is more agile in the corners. Though it doesn’t have the pace of the A250 petrol model, it seemed like the best all-rounder thanks to its high mpg and CO2 emissions figures of just 116g. The automatic transmission, though, could be a little indecisive. I couldn’t help thinking that sometimes when I put my foot down the gearbox was struggling to decide which gear it was going to give me, as if it was scratching its cogs and wondering what to do.
But really, if there was another failing, I didn’t find it. The new A-Class has managed to shake off its stuffy image in one fell swoop and is now possibly the best car Mercedes makes.
THE FACTS: MERCEDES A-CLASS
0-62MPH: 9.2 secs
TOP SPEED: 130mph
CO2 G/KM: 116g/km
MPG COMBINED: 65.7mpg