A little bit bigger, a lot cleverer and far more premium than before, the new A-Class brings a sprinkle of S-Class magic to the once-humble hatchback.
All-new, but does it still excite?
Twenty one years ago the radical first A-Class set out to conquer the bottom end of the premium segment, and failed. Through the generations it’s become more conventional and more successful. The new Mk4 continues this trend, arriving with no hybrid powertrain and no quirky packaging — but it’s more proudly premium than ever, with some aspects of the interior worthy of the S-Class. Forget about the Golf — this is built, and priced, to compete against the Audi A3 and BMW 1- and 2-series. There are plenty more variations in the pipeline, but for now there are three engines, all front-wheel drive, and one body style. The weight is down by 20 kg — impressive given that it’s wider, taller and 120 millimetres longer. That growth allows a cargo bay that can hold an extra 29 litres of luggage, while shoulder and elbow room have increased marginally, and tall front passengers no longer brush the ceiling with their scalp.
UK prices start at £25,800 (Rs 23.4 lakh) for the most basic A 180 d, while the petrols begin (for now) with the A 200 at £27,500 (Rs 24.9 lakh); the A 250 is £30,240 (Rs 27.4 lakh). There are three spec levels: SE (seveninch touchscreen, 16-inch alloys), Sport (LED lights, 17-inch wheels) and AMG Line (18-inch wheels, body-kit, sports steering wheel).
Options can be bought grouped into packages: Executive (10.25-inch touchscreen, parking assistance, heated front seats), Premium (10.25-inch instrument display to go with your 10.25-inch central touchscreen, 64-colour cabin lighting, audio upgrade, rear armrest) and Premium Plus (cleverer lights, panoramic sunroof, memory seats). Advanced Navigation, available with any of those packages, brings augmented reality into your Merc by overlaying the nav display with a camera image of the road.
We drove all three engines available at launch. Least impressive is the A 200’s 1.3-litre 163-PS petrol unit co-developed with Renault. This relatively rough powerplant becomes noisy when pushed, and the new seven-speed DCT transmission is a little vague (the UK doesn’t get the manual option).
Although it dishes up a useful 250 Nm of torque at a leisurely 1,620 rpm, the four-cylinder unit — which becomes a part-time two-cylinder unit when the driver feathers the throttle — needs to be revved to deliver. Top speed is 225 km/, 0-100 km/h takes only 8.0 seconds and average fuel consumption is claimed to be a miserly 19.6 km/l.
The 1.5-litre diesel in the A 180 d is another German-French effort. Rated at 116 PS and 260 Nm, the diesel has a punchy sweet spot between 1,500 and 3,000 rpm, although its priority is clean running rather than performance. The acceleration to 100 km/h takes a chewing-gum-slo-mo 10.5 seconds. Attempting to reach the top speed of 201 km/h requires a lot of patience, and at 24.4 km/l the diesel is only about 15 per cent more economical than the base petrol unit. So don’t bother.
Go for the A 250 instead. MB’s own 2.0-litre four musters 224 PS and 350
Nm, sounds much more like a Benz than a Renault, and takes no prisoners by flying from 0-100 km/h in 6.2 seconds and maxxing out at 250 km/h.
One day, there will be a 300-PS AMG A 35 and a 400-PS AMG A 45, both with 4MATIC all-wheel drive. Right now, though, it’s front-wheel-drive only, and this shows in the wet as the Michelins struggle to stay composed on tricky Croatian tarmac. Especially in the bottom two gears, steering fight is an issue which gets worse when lane assist is activated. Why? Because now the ESP feels compelled to intervene as soon as a white line enters the cornering equation. Another computer-controlled item that prioritizes the hunt for five-star NCAP ratings is the power-assisted electric steering. There’s nothing wrong with reducing the effort at parking speed, but in Sport mode there’s too much nipping and tucking going on without evident need or benefit. A similar artificiality applies to the brakes: capable, but lacking feel.
The base A-Class again makes do with torsion-beam rear suspension, but a multi-link arrangement is also available, and was fitted to the cars we drove — money well spent, as it makes the car track with enhanced precision and adds a tangible measure of compliance. Both versions are susceptible to a momentary lack of lateral poise when high G-force meets uneven turf. But on smooth blacktop the A 200 keeps body roll perfectly in check, turns in with the right mix of eagerness and progression, and strikes a fine handling balance. It’s fun.
Drive Select, standard across the range, lets you choose between Sport, Comfort, Eco and Individual, but it only applies to engine, gearbox and steering. Although Sport sharpens the helm, it adds a dash of nervousness to the drivetrain; Eco is an electronic sleeping pill, Comfort a happy compromise.
The new model’s interior quality is a big improvement. The dashboard in particular is a class act, and if you’re prepared to pay for it the new A-Class can be stuffed with just about every S-Class extra bar shiatsu massage seats and assisted-closing doors.
Just check out voice control. Say ‘Hey Mercedes’ and the car will understand you, talk to you and obey orders. Say ‘I’m cold’ and the temperature goes up, say ‘Open the sunroof’ and it slides back until you say stop. I like the direct-access buttons on both sides of the padded wrist rest and the Discreet mode which reduces the read-outs to the legal minimum, Saab 9000 black panel-style. But most of all I like the clean, modern simplicity of the interior.
Dislikes? The eerily passive touchpad which replaces the Comand controller. The flimsy plastic column stalks. Lane control and other features which you turn off, only to find they’ve returned whenever you restart the engine. And the sheer depth of some sub-menus.
Getting in and out is, as before, compromised by the tucked-in roofline, and the rear door openings are small, as is second-row space once you’re in. The seatbelts are no longer height-adjustable, and you must again pay extra for seats that give decent body support and the full adjustment range.
For now, the new A-Class feels far more accomplished and is available with a long, impressive list of driver assistance and infotainment features — much of it standard, and plenty more optional. Dynamically the Mercedes isn’t perfect, but it’s ready to go into battle with the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3… while making the Golf look like quite a bargain.
( Above) Longer and prettier on the outside, stunning on the inside
( Right) Clean but slow 180d engine doesn’t do the package justice
( Above) £2395 (Rs 2.2 lakh) upgrade nets you this spectacular S-Class inspired effort