Having just driven its replacement, Mercedes-Benz can be sure that the launch of the latest A-class won’t be the elk-related near-disaster of its predecessor, even though buyers around Europe still want the outgoing model. The new A-class is a far better car in every way.
But we will have to wait until February 2005 before the first right-hand-drive examples arrive here, leaving UK dealers with a few empty showroom spaces before then. Since left-hand-drive sales begin in the autumn, why does the UK – one of the biggest car markets in Europe – have to wait for some five months before right-hookers appear?
Seven years on, the A-class concept remains much the same – a compact car with the safety performance of a conventional Mercedes-Benz and a versatile interior layout.
This time, though, the firm has paid the kind of attention to driving dynamics that the current model should have received.
Some of the complexities of the current model have been reduced, but in some respects, others have taken their place. So the A-class remains a complex product with three Euro-IV diesel engines, four petrol engines, two body options, three trim levels and two transmission options for each engine.
It is also costly to produce because virtually all the components have been developed specifically for it and are not shared with any other model. The exception is the A150 engine, shared with the smart forfour and Mitsubishi Colt.
Even though Mercedes-Benz plans to produce up to 300,000 a year, when that total is split across seven engine variants and three trim options, the individual model volumes and high-cost componentry suggest there won’t be much room for doing deals.
Set against that is the expansion in the premium compact sector. BMW is entering the fray with the 1-series, joining the under-performing Audi A2 and more suucessful A3. All four are chasing mainstream customers of other brands, lured by the promise of a premium badge at mainstream prices.
Mercedes-Benz UK Car Group managing director Dermot Kelly wasn’t keen to talk figures at the European launch, except to say that projected A-class sales for 2005 would be about 18,000 in the UK.
Speaking about corporate sales, he said: ‘Downsizing in the corporate market, strong Euro-IV diesels, space and refinement are the competitive strengths for the A-class.’ While he felt the overall UK business sales ratio for the new car would be roughly the same as now, he thought there would be more business users and less fleet than for the current car.
This has a lot to do with easyCar’s move away from the A-class, although Kelly saw that business as a great source of information.
He said: ‘EasyCar was a great data capture opportunity. It gave us 150,000 test drives a year.’ Following up the users gave useful feedback on the car, he added.
It’s too early yet to put a price on UK models, but German prices start at E35 above current models. Similar UK treatment would point to a starting price around £15,700. Equipment will follow Mercedes-Benz established model designations: Classic, Elegance and Avantgarde.
Even the entry-level Classic specification will include a high standard of safety kit, including adaptive front airbags, head and thorax side airbags, adaptive seatbelt force limiters, emergency brake assist, crash responsive front headrests and ESP.
Other equipment includes heated electric door mirrors, air conditioning, automatic climate control, remote central locking, trip computer, split folding rear seats and tinted glass.
Among the options will be Autotronic CVT transmission, available with all engines, rain sensing wipers and light sensing headlamps, louvred sunroof, window airbags, rear side airbags and a diesel particulate filter.
Besides the on-board safety equipment, the basic design of the current model is carried over to optimise occupant protection in an impact.
A similar sandwich floor construction is used, with the engine and gearbox mounted at a steep angle, extending partially below the front floor.
In a frontal impact, the powertrain tends to be pushed downwards beneath the car, rather than backwards into the passenger compartment, which is designed to provide greater passenger protection than in the current model.
Behind the wheel
The high floor and almost horizontal steering column give the new car a very similar feel to the current model as you slide into the driving seat, but there’s a greater range of steering wheel adjustment and tilt angle for the seat cushion which makes it easier to find a comfortable driving position.
More conventional instruments in the new car may lack the design flair of the current retro dials, but information is easier to read at a glance. The car already feels better without turning the key.
The flexible interior allows the split rear seats to be folded, providing a flat floor, or removed altogether. The boot floor can even be lowered so that the loading platform is still more or less flat with the seats out. Similarly the front passenger seat back can be folded flat or the seat removed.
Since the boot is some 15% bigger, there’s more room for passengers and luggage than in the current model.
The greatest revelation comes on the move. Gone are the old car’s choppy, nervous ride, soggy steering and lacklustre driving dynamics. Instead, it’s a car that rides well, keeps the driver better informed through the steering wheel and provides impressive high-speed stability.
While there’s more power all round, the noisy diesels of the current model are also history. The new two-litre CDI engine features state-of-the art common rail injection and is considerably quieter. Both the 200 CDI and 180 CDI were available at the launch, alongside the 170 and 200 petrol engines which were smooth and provided respectable performance. The A200 turbo will appear later next year.
Mercedes-Benz is also putting a CVT automatic gearbox in the diesel engine. The high torque output from a diesel is a perfect match for the stepless transmission, which provided a very acceptable alternative to a conventional automatic. Standard transmission is a five-speed manual – six-speeds for the A180 CDI, A200CDI and A200 turbo.
This is the car the A-class should have been seven years ago. Now Mercedes-Benz has developed the chassis to provide the kind of dynamics expected of a car bearing the three-pointed star. At the same time, the excellent safety features have been developed further and the car’s clever interior packaging preserved.
The new little Merc is a highly desirable car, which is bound to appeal to image-conscious user-choosers. At last, the A-class we’ve all been waiting for.
|Model:||A160 CDI||A180 CDI||A200 CDI|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||80/4,200||107/4,200||138/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||133/2,000||184/2,000||221/2,000|
|Max speed (mph):||106||116||125|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||57.7||54.3||52.3|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||n/a||n/a||n/a|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||94/5,200||114/5,500||134/5,750||190/5,000|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||45.6||42.8||39.2||35.8|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||n/a||n/a||n/a||n/a|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||60/13.2|
|Transmission:||5sp man/6-sp man||and CVT auto|
|On sale:||Feb 2005|