Proving that good
things can come in
'A' WORDS HAVE NEVER been more in the news. A-List (most sought after and desired)
and A1 (top-notch) you'll know. Joining them now is A-Class a small Mercedes-Benz that feels very much like a big one.
More sophisticated and polished than its groundbreaking predecessor and wearing a distinctly sharper and more focussed look, the latest
A-Class singles out Mercedes-Benz's lead-in models as being much, much more interesting and high-class than anything as commonplace as an entry-level range. Mercedes sold over 1.1 million of the first-generation A-Class. The new one is not only bigger and roomier but it boasts a collection of substantial improvements that have raised key features such as safety, handling, comfort and driving dynamics to a new high.
A-Class buyers have the choice of a five-door hatchback or a sporty three-door, powered by any one of six four-cylinder powerplants. These are made up of a trio of petrol engines (93bhp 1.5-litre, 114bhp 1.7-litre and 134bhp 2.0-litre) together with three brand new second-generation common-rail diesels ranging in power from 80 to 138bhp. Mercedes-Benz's own newly-developed continuously variable 'Auto-tronic' transmission is the only 'automatic' option. A 190bhp turbo-charged 2.0-litre flagship model good for 141mph will be along shortly. Until then, the fastest model is the petrol-drinking three-door A200 fitted with a five-speed manual gearbox and this is the one we've tested here.
Just like a well-tailored suit, the 3-door A-Class looks understatedly upmarket. Thanks to its well-honed one-box silhouette with a wheel at each corner, there's no chance you could mistake it for anything else. An eye-catching swage line rises along the high waistline, from the powerfully contoured front wings with flared arches to the large rear lamp units and triangular windows that are themselves sharply cut off by the vertical tailgate. There's also a sporty-looking steeply-sloped nose defined by stacked headlights under clear glass covers. Judging by the amount of double takes our test car attracted, the new A-Class is going to be a popular 'baby'.
The extra inches it's put on endows the new car with an altogether more substantial presence. During its transition from first- to second generation, the A-Class has become nine inches longer and almost two inches wider. The wheelbase is also longer and the track wider. Inside, good use has been made of the larger external dimensions. There is a liberal amount of extra space in every direction for legs, head, elbows and shoulders and tall adults will definitely feel very welcome. Access to the rear seats is easy, courtesy of an easy-entry system that folds the front backrest then slides the whole seat forwards. Naturally the seat returns to its original position afterwards.
Nor has the A-class lost any of its celebrated versatility. By retaining
a one-box design, Mercedes has kept its MPV-like virtues. The rear seat squabs can be completely removed in an instant and stored under the dual-level boot floor allowing the rear backrests to fold perfectly flat. The 60:40 split/fold rear seats themselves are light and easy to manipulate and can be removed entirely, either individually or as a unit.
Another neat trick is the ability to fold flat the front passenger seat's backrest to accommodate items up to 2.75 metres long. It, too, can
be removed completely to transform the A-Class into a one-seat compact MPV. The boot is large and well shaped, beating many larger cars for capacity with all five seats in situ the intrusion-free boot provides 395 litres of luggage space. However, it can expand to a maximum of 1,485 litres. Specify the optional Easy-Vario system (just £120) and maximum load capacity increases to a huge 1,955 litres.
The combination of a flat floor and generous width mean it's comfortable for three in the back. And travelling in the rear is no hardship thanks to separate rear ventilation controls, large
glass areas and good seats.
Also worthy of praise is the luggage compartment roller cover that runs faultlessly in a dedicated track unlike those of some other brands.
It also lifts out easily when not needed. And let's not forget the extra out-of-sight storage provided by the height adjustable boot floor, which can be raised or dropped approximately 4 inches simply by pulling it towards you while it is being closed.
From the driver's seat the low-cut doors and large windscreen make
for excellent all-round visibility, enhanced by the higher than normal driving position. Adjusting generously for rake and reach, the near-vertical leather-bound three-spoke multi-function steering wheel juts out sports car-style from the cleanly-styled dash. The full-colour LCD screen for the DVD-based pan-European SatNav and 'infotainment' system, comfort controls and ancillary switchgear are all neatly integrated into a geometric centre stack, and all switches have a crisp, solid action. Instrumentation is edged in chrome and is crystal clear, with a driver's multi-function display dead centre between the speedo-meter and rev-counter.
There's plenty of fore and aft and height adjustment on the driver's seat and both front seats are supportive and as comfortable over extended journeys as those in the E-Class. Good-quality 'soft touch' trim materials, a nice blend of textures and attention to detail throughout the cabin ensure a genuine Mercedes ambience. There's a useful amount of well-sited cubby-holes and storage areas including a handy elasticated net pocket in the passenger's footwell throughout the cabin. The SatNav is the same as fitted to the rest of the Mercedes-Benz range and a cinch to use, as are the multi-function buttons on the steering wheel.
Equipment levels are comprehensive and include a powerful climate control air conditioning system, multi-function wheel and trip computer, one-touch electric windows, alloy wheels, tinted glass, electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors with integral indicators, a mass of safety kit including Electronic Traction Control, rain-sensing wipers, ABS with Brake Assist, heated windscreen washers, automatic headlights, remote locking, one-touch indicators, an Easy-Entry system for the front seats and even a first aid kit.
Attention to detail is evident throughout the cabin, such as a 'tunnel' mode for the AirCon, whereby pressing the recirculated air switch closes any open windows as well as the sliding sunroof when entering a tunnel or underground garage. There are also practical drinks holders designed for one-litre bottles integrated into the sturdy front door pockets, a chilled 8.5-litre glovebox, swivel mounted 'holder arms' that feed the belts to front seat passengers so they don't have to turn and stretch before belting up and drive-off central locking.
The highlight of the cabin is the especially pleasing and panoramic louvred sunroof made from translucent polycarbonate. Twice as large as an ordinary sunroof, it's buffet-free even at quite serious speeds and features two inner blinds that slide fore and aft so you or your rear seat passengers can block out the sun from whichever section is best. Even priced at an extra £760, it really is a 'must-have'.
But no matter how good the A-Class's ambience is and be assured that it is good what you really need to know is How does it drive? With 134bhp and 136lb ft of torque, the 2.0-litre is blessed with an eager nature, pulling strongly from not much above 1,000rpm all the way to its 6,000rpm red line. It takes a few days of wafting around before it suddenly dawns on you that it's a pretty nippy set of wheels you're driving and that the A200 is actually more than happy to be hustled.
Do so and you'll find that it sounds rather sporty at higher revs, with an 'okay, so let's get on with it then' exhaust rasp. Officially the A200 takes 9.8 seconds to hit 62mph from standstill. On the road it feels quicker. Top speed is 125mph and the reworked five-speed manual 'box is pleasant to use thanks to the short travel, well-spaced gate and positive shift action. A-Class owners are unlikely to lose any sleep over the fuel consumption either: our test car's trip-computer registered an overall combined figure of 39.7mpg. That's actually better than Mercedes' official 39.3mpg. So, given its 11.8-gallon tank, the A200 should be good for a range of close to 500 miles.
On the open road, the A-Class delivers a dynamically well-balanced drive with good levels of communication. A key ingredient in its driveability is the electro-mechanical speed-sensitive power steering. Nicely weighted and agreeably light at low speeds, it's also meaty enough at press-on speeds to inspire real confidence. A tight turning circle makes for easy three-point turns on country roads. Around town the combination of light steering with a good lock allied to compact dimensions is a definite advantage. The accurate front and rear parking distance sensors, with well-positioned visual displays on the fascia and the rear headlining, are a real boon.
Boot the A200 along a twisty B-road, accelerating hard out of low-gear corners, and you'll find a marked degree of front-end bite. Steadfast traction is helped by the grip from the standard-fit 195/55 tyres riding on 16-inch alloys. Although you can't switch off the electronic stability control the company believes it's intelligent enough to know
both when and where it's best for you Mercedes' engineers have extended the threshold at which the ESP kicks in, allowing you to savour the A-Class's performance and handling without the computer suddenly chopping engine power and applying braking force while you're enjoying making good use of its driving abilities.
Not that it matters too much anyway because as you approach the limits the predicable chassis lets you know in a controlled manner. Despite its tallish physique, body movements are well checked, endowing the A-Class with a reassuringly 'settled' nature. There's a nicely progressive feel to the brake pedal, too, with strong stopping performance always available from the all-round discs.
And while the handling is gratifying, it is the ride that impresses the most. Around the houses it cossets, the comfortably compliant suspension soaking up poor road surfaces with ease. Alongside a new and innovative parabolic rear axle, the A-Class benefits from a revolutionary selective damping system which allows it to adjust its shock absorbers automatically to suit the way you're driving. This makes for an excellent accommodation between ride and handling the A-Class reacting to hard cornering or evasive manoeuvres by stiffening up for maximum stability then softening for tremendous ride comfort when you're taking it easy. Together they give the A-Class a 'large car' feel without compromising its 'small car' agility.
The A200 is without doubt a capable all-rounder, making easy work of city roads and motorways, both with which it feels perfectly at home. Feeling remarkably refined with well-subdued wind noise, this small Mercedes also enjoys reassuring high-speed stability untroubled by side winds. At legal UK motorway speeds in fifth gear, the 2.0-litre engine
is turning over at a lazy and non-intrusive 2,800rpm.
The A-Class's cleverest aspect, however, is a well-hidden secret that has earned it a Euro NCAP 'Best in Class' five-star result and which, hopefully, you will never need. If you do, it's very likely it will save
your life. As pioneered on the previous A-Class, there's an ingenious 'sandwich' floor that sites the main mechanicals of the engine and transmission beneath a second floor. In a severe frontal impact this causes the engine and transmission to slide downwards and out of the way rather than being pushed into the car's interior and permits
a front crumple zone larger than that of other cars in its category.
In addition, the sandwich design is also advantageous in the event of a side impact because the occupants sit higher up than in a conventional compact car. Finally, if you ferry children around, you'll be reassured to know that the A-Class also comes with an outstanding four-star NCAP child protection rating.
The occupant safety package is rounded off by adaptive front airbags which deploy in two stages (depending on the severity of the accident) plus newly developed head/thorax bags and active head restraints. The former helps to protect both the head and upper torso
of those travelling in the front in the event of a lateral collision. A belt status indicator in the instrument cluster tells the driver if any of
the occupants is not wearing their seatbelt. All five seats get seatbelt pre-tensioners and belt-force limiters and a stability control system is standard across the range. Rear side and window 'bags are optional.
Not only does the A-Class have significant occupant protection but thanks to electronic safety systems it is involved in fewer road traffic accidents. Detailed analysis of over 1.5 million accidents in 2002 reveals a direct link between ESP (Electronic Stability Programme)
and the reduction in accidents. Since the introduction of ESP across the entire range, accidents involving Mercedes-Benz have fallen by
a massive 30 per cent.
Should you wish to load your A-Class with kit you'd normally expect to find on Mercedes' bigger models, you won't be disappointed. Everything from a parking assistance system, heated seats, full leather upholstery, cruise control with variable speed limiter, cornering bi-xenon headlights, SatNav, tyre pressure loss warning system, sports suspension and AMG alloy wheels is available.
A-Class isn't cheap but that isn't going to put buyers off. For those looking for a prestige-badged compact that offers big car comforts
and safety within a small car package, it's seriously worth considering. It delivers appealing driving dynamics and its class competitors can't match its cleverly-packaged versatility. Build quality and dynamic abilities are definitely worthy of the three-pointed star gracing its rakishly sharp bonnet. And for many that will be the only star-rating they need.
Mercedes-Benz A200 Avantgarde SE 3-door | £18,125
Maximum speed: 125mph | 0-62mph: 9.8 seconds
Overall test MPG: 39.7mpg | Power: 134bhp | Torque: 136lb ft