Profits are down to the lowest levels for a decade and this perceived malaise – albeit a level of quality many car manufacturers would still love to attain – can be traced back to the late part of the 1990s, when the A-class first fell over.
Producing a Mercedes-Benz for poorer people is all well and good, but when it appeared it seemed to be under-developed and not up the usual standards of construction.
This is not to say that the car was unsuccessful. It sold very well. But with the second generation, Mercedes has been sure to avoid the mistakes of the past. The car feels less like Mercedes on the cheap and more of the standard expected of the brand.
Apart from the thicker atmosphere of premium quality the other major change is that this car will come in three and five door variants.
One of the reasons for this is that the old car has a rather aged buyer profile, and with two less doors it’s hoped that the average age might dip out of Saga territory. It seems marketeers the world over would love to deny the existence of anybody over 50 if they could.
While BMW and Audi’s cars in the sub-£20,000 price are aimed at ‘young executives’ embarking on the ladder of luxury for the first time, the A-class has served a role for those whose time trading up has gone and want something smaller and more economical, but still redolent with the whiff of quality.
Mercedes-Benz refers to this group with the euphemism ‘established families’, but the accompanying picture illustrated ‘retirement village’.
So as an introducer to the Mercedes-Benz brand experience (thousands of rental cars notwithstanding), the old A-class has noticeably failed.
As a result, for this assault on the younger market, there is a more sporty three door version, improved handling as well as increased power outputs for the engines, better fuel consumption and prices comparable with the car when it was launched.
The new version will come with four petrol engines and three diesel. The petrol engines and their designations are fairly self-evident: A150, A170, A200 and A200 Turbo reflect their size in litres, although the 193bhp A200 Turbo will not be available until the autumn.
The diesels are not as clear, as seems increasingly to be the wont of premium manufacturers. All are 2.0-litre engines tuned to varying levels, the 82bhp A160, 109bhp A180 and 140bhp A200 CDI.
Further muddying the waters is the choice of gearboxes. The A150, 170, 200 and 160 CDI get five speed boxes, while the A180 CDI and A200 CDI have six speeds. All cars also have a £1,160 option of the new Autotronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), the first time it’s been offered by the firm.
This gearbox has been developed in house by Mercedes-Benz, rather than being bought in from a parts supplier such as ZF as other CVTs are.
It’s deliberately compact to fit into the sandwich floor, and allows the engine revs to be used in the most fuel-efficient way. Mindful of the fact that the A-class has to be seen to have stepped upmarket, Mercedes is offering many of the expensive toys and trinkets that adorn its stately saloons and flashy sports cars.
That means AMG alloy wheels, parking sensors, COMAND satellite navigation, heated leather seats, luxury climate control and a rather fancy panoramic glass sunroof that folds back electrically in stacked rectangular leafs.
The A-class comes in trim levels Classic, Classic SE, Elegance SE and Avantgarde SE. Classic is not generously specified – a CD players costs an £180 and air conditioning a whopping £790.
At least it gets electric front windows.
The Classic SE is a much more sensible option because for £300 more this equipment – a pretty basic requirement for any modern car worth its salt – comes as standard. 16 inch alloy wheels are still a £570 option though.
Elegance SE has more of the equipment expected of the luxury end of Mercedes-Benz motoring such as a multi-function steering wheel and automatic windscreen wipers.
That the Avantgarde SE model is the only one with even part-leather seats, and none come with climate control, satellite navigation, multiple CD autochanger, parking sensors, full leather seats or metallic paint, suggest that while Mercedes-Benz would like to see lots of highly specified A-classes being chosen, it’s not going to give away anything for a cheap price.
Behind the wheel
THANKS to a wide range of engines and gearboxes from launch, there should be an A-class to suit all tastes.
For a fleet driver, the diesels are a considerable improvement over the rather chuggy units in the old car. The 140bhp A200 CDI offer a real kick in terms of performance thanks to its latest generation common rail injection and turbo, with low emissions of 141g/km of CO2 and good fuel economy of more than 50mpg.
It’s a pretty good, refined combination and thanks to a much improved suspension system, the A-class feels much more like a car you actually want to drive rather than potter to the shops and back in.
It actually handles well, and grips, while the ride quality is good – certainly more comfortable than the likes of the 1-series or Audi A3. but then this is a car with a slightly more laid back attitude.
The C180 CDI is nearly £2,000 cheaper than the C200 and not a great deal slower, while the 160 CDI does struggle a little to haul the car about, but the trade-off is very low CO2 of 128g/km and fuel economy of 57.6mpg.
In comparison, the petrol engines, although very smooth, don’t quite have the same punch, and the top-of-the-range A200 Turbo, the one engine that could really stand out and above the diesels, was not available to drive.
The manual gearboxes are accurate and have a chunky shift, while the CVT gearbox is excellent, sweeping across ratios with barely any vibration. It is a £1,160 option, but suits the nature of the car, as a cruiser on the open road and runabout in town, perfectly.
The real cleverness of A-class though is in the packaging, and in three and five door specs there is acres of space front and rear.
The driver still sits high, hanging on to that oddly upright steering wheel, but rear passengers get legroom not far off executive models, while the clever Easy-Vario Plus seating – a £240 option for five door models – turns the interior easily into a minivan.
The quality of materials is much improved and the interior’s ambience is properly Mercedes-Benz. This is a quality car, which looks good, and feels good.
THE A-class can finally call itself a proper Mercedes-Benz, and company car drivers choosing one will feel as though they are getting the full Merc experience now.
|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):||128||137||141|
|Model: A150||A170||A200||A200 turbo|
|Engine (cc): 1,498||2,034||2,034|
|Max power (bhp/rpm): 94/5,200||114/5,500||134/5,750||190/5,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 103/3,750||114/3,750||136/3,750||206/3,300|
|Max speed (mph): 109||117||124||141|
|0-62mph (sec): 12.6||10.9||9.8||8.0|
|Fuel consumption (mpg): 45.6||42.8||39.2||35.8|
|CO2 emissions (g/km): 148||157||172||n/a|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||v|
|Transmission: 5-sp man/6-sp man||(A180 CDI, A200CDI,||A200 turbo)/CVT auto (optional with all engines)|
|On sale: Feb 2005|