Mercedes-Benz A-Class: What happens when you throw the baby out with the bathwater?
What exactly is it? An all-new, more conventional but more exciting version of Mercedes-Benz’s smallest model.
Powertrain: 1.6-litre direct-injection turbo-petrol four producing either 90kW/200Nm (A 180) or 115kW/250Nm (A 200), 1.8-litre turbo-diesel four producing 100kW/300Nm (A 200 CDI) and 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four producing 155kW/350Nm (A 250 Sport). Seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual, front-drive. Combined fuel consumption 5.8/6.1/4.6/6.6 litres per 100km (A 180/200/200 CDI/250 Sport).
Anything interesting in the equipment list? Painless personalisation is the thing in the premium segment, so Mercedes-Benz offers seven different option packages for the A-class: Vision, Comand, Night, AMG Sport, Driving Assistance, Exclusive and AMG Exclusive. Each with a different emphasis and costing a maximum of $3190, these packages cover everything from daytime running lights (Vision) to satellite navigation (Comand) to big wheels and body kits (AMG).
Price: From $46,900 (A 180) to $64,900 (A 250 Sport)
Mercedes-Benz has offered an A-Class compact model since 1997. Up to the end of last year, it had sold over two million of them globally. But that’s all over now.
Market segment aside, the new A-Class has absolutely nothing in common with the old. The original model was an engineering and design revolution. It was based on a complicated double-floor platform that put the occupants up high and tucked the engine underneath.
This strange configuration meant crash safety on a par with the contemporary E-Class and as much cabin space. It also future-proofed the car for alternative power, as the so-called “sandwich floor” provided space for batteries, fuel cells and whatever other power sources might appear.
The larger B-Class was based on the same underpinnings. The A- and B- have always been little-and-large siblings.
The sandwich platform is gone now, the victim of huge advances in the strength and safety of conventional small-car construction. And, truth be told, the need to balance the books. Because sharing more parts between different models also means sharing the cost. The old sandwich required too many unique ingredients.
The new B-Class was launched last year and kept the pretence of looking like the previous model: a high-riding pseudo people-mover. The new A-Class is based on the same underpinnings but does no such thing: it’s sleek, low to the ground and has ambitions to be thought of as sporty.
That’s one advantage of throwing out the baby with the bathwater: you get to start again. Which brings me back to my original point, that the new A-class has absolutely nothing in common with the old.
Conventional but a whole more in keeping with premium segment tastes, this car is all about conquest. Mercedes-Benz claims half of inquiries so far has come from people new to the brand.
I’m surprised it is not more. The old car was a Swiss Army knife model of versatility; this new one is more of a single-minded switchblade.
I always rather admired the previous A-Class but for reasons that had nothing to do with the driving experience. Consider this: over half of initial orders for the new A Class are for the flagship A 250 Sport, a turbocharged hot-hatch developed from the outset with help from Mercedes-Benz tuning house AMG.
It’s not a full AMG model, mind: but it sports AMG-modified steering and suspension, to go with the larger engine and lavish equipment.
On the outside, you’ll know the A 250 Sport by an extravagant diamond-effect grille, red detailing (also on the inside, with questionable taste) and muscular bumpers.
It’s not the sort of variant that would have been possible with the previous A Class – although there were a few versions produced wearing AMG accessories and badging, there was never anything that put this kind of emphasis on dynamic substance.
It’s good, too. We know the crisp engine from the B 250 Sport but the handling of this A 250 Sport is in another league. It’s aggressive but well-controlled – a delight, provided you are prepared to put up with a firm ride.
So the A 250 Sport is a surprising car. But what’s more surprising is that its talents are not all down to AMG. I’ve also driven the entry-level model in the range, the B 180, and it has that same sense of verve
The suspension, though softer than the Sport’s, is still on the firm side. You have been warned. The new A-Class means business at any level.
Conventional platform means more flexibility
In any of these new A-class variants, you sit low in the cabin, surrounded by aircraft-style vents and intricate styling detail. This purposeful ambience is even at the expense of some visibility, as the low seating position and thick pillars restrict the view out.
Buyers coming over from the command driving position of the old A-Class won’t know what hit them. Perhaps they won’t come at all. Perhaps they’re not welcome.
“We are aiming for a share of this segment, not at any particular rivals,” says David McCarthy, Mercedes-Benz senior manager of corporate communications. “If other makers happen to have models that compete, that’s their problem, not ours.”
Indeed. Mercedes-Benz’s press material boasts of the A-Class having “the most progressive design in the compact class,” of being a car that “puts an end to boredom in the segment”.
That’s fine. Many new cars come with claims of groundbreaking status as standard. You would certainly never mistake this car for anything other than a Mercedes-Benz: this company excels at reinterpreting its corporate look in different sizes and styles.
But it must be said that in concept and execution, the A-Class is remarkably similar to the rival BMW 1 Series: a low-slung hatchback with a classically long bonnet and styling that is garnished with conflicting crease lines.
The A-Class is front-drive, of course, while the BMW is rear-drive. What the former might give away in handling purity it probably gains back in packaging. Then there are those all-wheel drive AMG versions on the way.
Mercedes-Benz sold two million versions of the previous A-Class in 15 years. BMW sold the same number of 1 Series models in just eight years. Of course, it had the advantage of being able to develop many different body shapes and engine variants off the same platform. Just as Mercedes-Benz does now.
Here’s what happens next with the Mercedes-Benz A-Class: arriving simultaneously in September will be the high-performance A45 AMG version of the car, as well as a four-door coupe called the CLA.
While the mainstream A 250 Sport has benefited from a light going over by AMG, the A 45 AMG is a pure performance product, developed from the ground up by the legendary tuning house.
It is AMG’s first small car but it’s starting off with a bang: the 265kW/450Nm 2.0-litre twin-scroll-turbo powerplant is the world’s most powerful four-cylinder production engine. The A 45 AMG will come exclusively with all-wheel drive. It will be exclusive, too: expect a price tag over $80,000.
The very pretty CLA is a four-door coupe, based on the A-Class. Think of it as a smaller version of the groundbreaking CLS, which took the same svelte styling template to the conservative E Class back in 2004. Aside from its visual appeal, Mercedes-Benz claims the CLA is the world’s most aerodynamic production car, with a drag coefficient of 0.23.
And yes, there will be an AMG version of the new coupe: it will be called the CLA 45 AMG. As with the larger CLS, it’s rumoured that a “shooting brake” wagon of the CLA will follow. Such flexibility is one of the advantages of having a conventional platform.