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Mercedes-Benz A-Class review (2012 onwards)
Summary: Mercedes has morphed its dowdy A-Class from mini-MPV into a superbly striking premium small car. Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series, watch out.
We like: Exterior styling, cabin layout and quality, cheaper than main rivals
We don't like: Not as dynamically able as some, diesel engines feel lacking in torque, steering deficient in feedback
The new A-Class is Mercedes' take on the upmarket compact hatch and a vehicle that the firm believes will open up a new chapter in the Bavarian manufacturer's history. To us it smacks of the German carmaker lagging behind the curve.
The Audi A1 and BMW 1 Series have had the premium hatchback market to themselves for a while and now Mercedes wants a piece of the action. It might be a reactionary vehicle in some respects, but it's one Mercedes can't afford to get wrong, especially given the connotations of that boot badge.
Mercedes can't afford to get this wrong
The first and second generation A-Class were more mini-MPV than premium hatch and that's something Mercedes will have to overcome with the new car. But it's certainly trying hard, pushing the vehicle's innovative safety and connectivity features that it describes as catering for "a new generation."
First impressions are solid. The looks are there - whether you like them or not, you couldn't say it's bland - as is interior quality and a range of efficient petrol and diesel engines, but it's a different question whether all those factors combine in a complete and cohesive package.
Mercedes has had enough time to perfect the A-Class and benchmark it against its rivals, so the question is can the baby Benz cut it with the likes of the Audi A1 and BMW 1 Series?
We sampled both the 136hp 1.8-litre turbodiesel - badged A200 CDI - and the range-topping 211hp 2.0-litre turbocharged A250 petrol and were left with mixed reactions.
The diesel - the engine likely to be the greatest volume seller - is smooth and refined, but unlike Audi and VW's TDI motors it feels lacking in torque. With 221lb ft it's not, but it doesn't give that fat swell of urgency that you'd expect. This lack of punch can make overtaking difficult as a result.
The 211hp turbocharged petrol is predictably much better in terms of performance, hitting 62mph from rest in 6.6 seconds. It's easily as quick as a Volkswagen Golf GTI, but again, Mercedes seems to have focused on the motor's refinement - not a bad thing, but as a result it leaves you feeling a little cold.
Whereas a powerful turbocharged petrol A3 or 1 Series would have you giggling and giving it more, the A250's motor, although it spins freely and in a very linear fashion, feels as though it's been designed for usability rather than all out thrills chasing the redline.
All engines are available with Merc's new seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. It's a good unit that changes swiftly and early in Eco mode. But in Sport it's too slow to react to your inputs using the paddles and leaves you feeling a little frustrated.
Ride and handling
Underpinning the new A-Class is a modified version of the B-Class's chassis and on the whole it makes the transition to a posh hatchback boasting some sporting intent pretty well.
Even in the Sport and AMG fettled versions - using the firmer springs and dampers - the ride is taut and controlled but never crashy or overly stiff, despite large 18-inch alloys.
Allowed to percolate through the chassis
Over minor protuberances the chassis does relay some pattery wheel movement however, but the extent to which this is allowed to percolate through the chassis has been well judged and reminds you you're in a car that's meant to be driven.
Grip is good, with the A-Class moving towards a default balance of understeer when pushed - it's just a shame that the uncommunicative steering doesn't telegraph when you're approaching the limits of adhesion.
Turn-in is accurate and precise and the rate at which the steering weights up is good, but the lack of feedback is always apparent.
This is where the A-Class comes into its own. In the most expensive (although not the most snappily titled) 'Engineered by AMG' trim it's a tactile fest of surfaces, with plenty of leather on show.
The black bovine stuff covers the dash, door cards, seats, centre console (in combination with some carbon fibre effect material that's rather like a motorsport tweed) and steering wheel and is contrasted nicely by the red stitching. It gives a properly sporting ambience.
Lesser grades are still up to scratch inside and easily a match for an Audi A3 or BMW 1 Series. The A-Class's cabin is an inherently more interesting design and a nicer place to sit than either of its two rivals because of it.
Aiming at "the Facebook generation"
All the air vents and door handles are finished in a 'cool touch' surface - basically silver plastic designed to feel like metal. It actually works, too. The clocks are clear and easy to read yet remain classy and all the switchgear feels of solid Bavarian construction, just what you'd expect of a Merc.
Mercedes is going big on connectivity with the A-Class, aiming it at "the Facebook generation." It's the first production car ever to offer full iPhone integration through Mercedes-Benz's specially designed app - it gives social media options, music syncing and the ability to send messages by pre-determined voice commands.
The only real gripe we have with the interior centres on the infotainment display - it's not particularly well integrated into the dash and gives the impression it was something of an afterthought.
Economy and safety
No matter which engine in the range you scrutinise, it'll be efficient. The entry-level 109hp turbodiesel is the standout package for fuel economy and emissions though, returning 74.3mpg combined with 98g/km CO2, meaning zero road tax.
With stop-start fitted as standard across the range, even the top spec 211hp A250 records decent efficiency, emitting just 145g/km CO2.
Safety is good, too. All A-Class variants get Mercedes' Collision Prevention Assist and Attention Assist functions. With as many electronic safety systems as you'd expect on an all-new Mercedes, we'd be surprised if the A-Class didn't receive a full five-star Euro NCAP safety rating.
The MSN Cars verdict
The A-Class is definitely a competitor in the compact premium hatch market. It might not be as dynamically able as a BMW 1 Series, but it's more than competent enough which will be fine for 99% of owners in almost all scenarios.
The entry-level variant is £280 cheaper than the equivalent A3 and £615 cheaper than a similar spec 1 Series so it's fairly priced, too.
It offers an appealing blend of looks, interior quality, refined performance, and decent equipment and safety - but the Audi and BMW also offer those qualities, too. The A-Class is the latest thing on sale though, which could be good enough to steal many buyers away from its German rivals in a sector where image counts for a lot.
Need to know
Engines, petrol: 1.6 - 2.0
Engines, diesel: 1.5 - 1.8
Power, hp: 109 - 211
Torque, lb ft: 148 - 258
0-62, secs: 6.6 - 11.3
Top speed, mph: 118 - 149
MPG combined: 44.1 - 74.3
CO2, g/km: 98 - 148
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