The original Mercedes A-Class was like the clever child who produces overcomplicated solutions to basic problems. Instead of building a simple and effective small hatchback, Mercedes' boffins delivered a technical tour de force. It was small and undoubtedly clever, but it wasn't very effective. Its tiny dimensions were of little benefit and customers wondered why the cabin had been filled with plastics that would disgrace a Hyundai. It felt low rent and unworthy of the three-pointed star.
Stung by the criticisms, Mercedes has unveiled an all-new A-Class that is about to go on sale in Europe. It keeps faith with high-tech principles of the old car--including the sandwich platform--but seeks to wrap them in a larger, more grown-up package. It will cost from around $25,000 and it needs to be good--the new A-Class will face tough competition from the BMW 1 Series and Audi's new five-door A3, the Sportback.
Although the new A-Class shares its silhouette with the old model, the overall effect is much more upmarket. The larger wheels, imposing headlamps and the dramatic feature line linking the front wheel arch to the tail lamps, help to disguise the car's height and give it a much more athletic, sporting stance. And this effect is exaggerated in the three-door version, which features a dramatically angled window line. It's as if the child has reached adolescence and discovered the benefits of designer shopping.
If the exterior represents an improvement, then the cabin is a quantum leap forwards. Mercedes' quality standards plummeted during the '90s, but the new A-Class represents a welcome return to form. The doors shut with a "kerchung" instead of a "twang" and the cheap and nasty plastics have been replaced with soft-touch surfaces and child-proof switches. It's all neat, functional and even--shock, horror--desirable.
The increased dimensions--the new car is 7.9 in. longer than the old--pay huge dividends in the rear. While the BMW 1 Series offers scarcely enough room for children, the A-Class can accommodate two or even three adults in considerable comfort. The rear seats have also been much improved so that the vertically gifted no longer have to sit in an indecent posture with their knees around their ears. Even the three-door version offers good rear access, thanks to the exceptionally long doors.
One of the best features of the original A-Class was its ability to pose as a makeshift minivan, and the new car follows suit. The standard car's seats split and tumble but the optional Easy Vario Plus system takes this one stage further. All the seats, including the front passenger's, can be folded and removed in what is a remarkably simple process. Neither the A3, nor the 1 Series can boast such trendy trickery.
The A-Class retains its high-set driving position, which, Mercedes reckons, is particularly popular with the female drivers who account for 40% of sales. But while the seating position is the same, the driving experience is very different. On less than perfect surfaces, the old model used to fidget like a love-struck adolescent, but the new model is smoother than George Clooney. Long journeys are now to be enjoyed in the A-Class, which is almost as comfortable as Mercedes' larger saloons.
It's also pleasant to drive. The soggy gearchange and awkward steering have been replaced with crisp, positive controls that are a delight to use. The 1 Series is still the enthusiast's choice but the Merc is dramatically improved and almost a match for the overtly sporting A3.There'll be no fewer than seven different engine options in the initial line-up. Four petrol models, ranging from a 95-bhp 1.5L, through a 116-bhp 1.7L and a 134-bhp 2.0L to a 193 bhp 2.0L turbo, join forces with a trio of 2.0-liter turbodiesels offering 82 bhp, 109 bhp and 140 bhp, respectively. Although the high-powered models will tempt the enthusiastic, the frugal 109-bhp diesel (badged 180CDi) looks set to be Europe's most popular choice.
With the flagship turbo model costing around $36,000, the A-Class looks good value. It's only marginally more expensive than the current car and it's significantly cheaper than the 1 Series. Little wonder that Mercedes hopes to steal a high proportion of its sales from the lacklustre Volkswagen Golf.
To coin the age-old cliche, European buyers in the premium compact class have never had it so good. From the conventional but well-executed A3, to the overtly sporting 1 Series and the versatile new A-Class, the sector offers genuine choice. Where the Mercedes sits in the pecking order depends on your list of priorities but this is a practical, high-quality hatchback with a top-notch badge. The problem child has come of age.