Mercedes A-Class review
The Mercedes A-Class has ditched its dumpy MPV styling and is now a proper rival to the Audi A3, VW Golf and BMW 1 Series
With downsizing all the rage among buyers of premium hatchbacks, the old Mercedes A-Class couldn’t cut the mustard anymore. As more of a mini-MPV than posh hatch, the German brand was missing a vital rival to the Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and VW Golf – a market it simply couldn’t afford to ignore. However, in 2012 the new A-Class arrived and was sleeker, sexier and better to drive than the car it replaced, with a more upmarket interior and a whole load of new safety technology.
There are several trim and engine combinations available, from the entry-level A180 petrol SE, right up to the blisteringly fast A45 AMG. The pick of the range is the A180 CDI diesel, though, mixing performance and economy in equal measure – and impressive 99g/km CO2 emissions.
The Mercedes A-Class isn’t a sporty or as rewarding to drive as the brilliant BMW 1 Series, but it does boast decent levels of grip and the top-spec engines are genuinely fast. The SE models are the most comfortable, while the Sport, AMG Sport and top-of-the-range Engineered by AMG models get bigger wheels and stiffer suspension. Capable rather than fun, the current A-Class offers plenty of badge appeal in a stylish and efficient package.
Our choice: A180 CDI SE
Mercedes employed a ‘clean sheet’ approach when it designed the current A-Class, throwing away the rulebook and creating a totally new car from scratch. The result is a car that bears no resemblance to the old model, and one that is undeniably more desirable as a result. It’s more striking than the Audi A3 and more dashing than the ugly duckling BMW 1 Series. Only the Volvo V40 can get close to the A-Class’s catwalk looks and sleek design. Entry-level models get USB and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as alloy wheels and sports seats with integrated head rests. Add Sport, AMG Sport or Engineered by AMG trim and its stunning looks are amplified even further, with the top model getting 18-inch alloy wheels, a curvy diamond grille and xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights. The interior is similarly stylish, if a little low-rent compared to the Audi A3 and VW Golf – certain sections look like they were an afterthought rather than a priority in the design process.
With SE, Sport and AMG Sport trim levels, plus the top-of-the-range A250 model being badged Engineered by AMG, it’s clear that Mercedes is aiming at the BMW 1 Series with the current A-Class. However, there’s no hiding the fact that the A-Class drives like a Merc, meaning it’s decently sporting, but without the dynamic edge that makes BMWs so special. While grip levels are high, the ride is far too firm for rutted British roads, especially if you opt for high-spec cars with sports suspension and bigger alloy wheels. The steering isn’t as sharp as its BMW rival, while the diesel engines sound very gruff and quite agricultural around town. The basic engines are capable rather than fast, but Mercedes does offer an eye-wateringly quick A45 AMG model – capable of 0-62mph in just 4.6 seconds thanks to 355bhp and four-wheel drive.
Mercedes has long led the world when it comes to safety, and the new A-Class continues that tradition. It’s unsurprising then that the baby Merc secured the full five stars when Euro NCAP tested it back in 2012. Every model comes with ESP and Collision Prevention Assistance, but it’s not a full autonomous braking system – it won’t entirely prevent you from hitting the car in front. Pre-safe, which prepares you and the car for an impending accident, and plenty of other high-tech is available, much of it first seen in the high-tech Mercedes S-Class limousine. However, much of it is on the options list and not standard – and adding it will soon send the car’s list price spiralling. Mercedes finished a solid 5th in the 2013 Driver Power survey – five places ahead of Audi and 10 ahead of BMW – suggesting there shouldn’t be reliability issues with the A-Class.
The penalty of Mercedes’ shift from mini MPV to super-stylish hatchback is practicality. It’s 160mm lower, as well as being longer and wider, too, but the stylish coupe-style looks have had a big impact on the boot dimensions. Its opening is narrow, and is more than 90 litres smaller than in its predecessor’s. More importantly though, its smaller than both the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3, too. As you’d expect, because the car is lower, you’re now step down into an A-Class, rather than up – emphasising its appeal as a car for a younger market. Although rear legroom is still okay, headroom is compromised due to the way the roof narrows at each side, while the rising waistline means you can feel a bit hemmed in. Over the shoulder visibility is none too special, either. Go for the AMG Sport or Engineered by AMG trims and the ride is seriously compromised due to the larger alloy wheels and stiffer springs – proving quite uncomfortable on Britain’s rutted roads.
The petrol-powered A180 is actually quite good value – and not much more than a mid-spec Ford Focus. However, if fuel economy and tax costs are your priority, then the A180 CDI diesel is the one to go for – and is Mercedes’ first model to dip below the 100g/km barrier. The other diesels are reasonably efficient, too. Every model gets stop-start, while the optional seven-speed double-clutch gearbox also posts better economy figures than the manual models. Although the A-Class slightly undercuts posh rivals like the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3, you need to check the spec sheets carefully because it’s not especially generously equipped and you can easily ramp up the costs with extras.