It’s rare that the planets align so that five all-new posh hatches go on sale within a year or so of each other. It started last year with the new BMW 1 Series; a new Audi A3 turns up in a few months; Volvo is muscling in on the act with its V40; and a new Volkswagen Golf arrives before the end of the year.
Not to be outdone, an all-new Mercedes A-Class is on its way, too. This time, rather than a dumpy and dull mini-MPV, it’s a real rival for the premium hatchback establishment.
The old car was clever enough, with its space-saving sandwich floor, but sensible doesn’t sell. The A-Class needed sex appeal.
And that’s exactly what it has got. From its aggressive front end with its wide grille and imposing three-pointed star badge, through heavily sculpted flanks to a tidy, pert rear, the A-Class is now a real head turner. It certainly drew a crowd on our test in Slovenia, with the overwhelming view (mostly from BMW, Audi and VW owners) that it looks fantastic.
The new car sits at least 16cm lower than the old model, its sporty look enhanced by a wheel-at-each-corner stance, Space inside is not as generous as before, but there’s adequate leg and headroom in the back. However, you can feel a little hemmed in, not helped by the shallow glass area due to the car’s tapering waistline. This also hampers over-the-shoulder visibility.
The boot, at 341 litres, is 94 litres smaller than in the old car and offers less space than in an A3 and 1 Series, too. Although the rear seats fold flat, you can’t do it from the boot – you have to do it from inside the car. Old A-Class owners will not be happy.
Style-wise, though, the inside is striking – our A200 CDI AMG Sport came with a leather-effect dash topping with red stitching, and a soft carbon fibre-effect material across the front. Unusually, the dash doesn’t sweep around into the doors and it looks a little odd – as though the designers of the dash and the doors didn’t talk.
The quality of some of the plastics is a disappointment, too, notably around the window switches and on the centre console between driver and passenger. The two lidded storage areas are handy, but quality is a bit old-school Korean and very un-Mercedes.
Unlike the new Audi A3, Mercedes’ smart display screen doesn’t come as standard on every model. It works well, though, and has the best iPhone integration we’ve yet seen on a car. It will let you text, tweet and update your Facebook status – but with limited functionality if you’re on the move. Mercedes’ tech guys based in Silicon Valley have done a great job of giving the A-Class a real advantage over its rivals.
Does that advantage extend to the way the A-Class drives? It drives just like a Mercedes, so it’s not as sporty as a BMW, erring on the side of comfort, but still quite capable through bends. Our AMG Sport car has the firmest of three suspension settings (the softest being SE, then Sport then AMG Sport). It sat on beefy 18-inch alloys with fat, shallow tyres, and rode firmly over bumps and potholes, but wasn’t as jarring as rivals’ sportiest models.
You can thank the advanced four-link rear suspension for that. Grip levels are impressive, but the electromechanical power-steering confuses weight for feel – while it’s meaty and direct, there’s not much feedback from the front tyres. What really impresses, though, is how quiet the car is. Combined with the comfortable ride, the A-Class is a good cruiser.
We drove the mid-spec diesel, the 134bhp 1.8-litre A200 CDI, which is smooth enough, but lacks punch as the 9.3-second 0-62mph time proves. Economy figures are good, with a claimed 65.7mpg and 114g/km of CO2.
However, the 1.5-litre A180 CDI looks more tempting – its performance figures aren’t far off the 200’s, while it’ll be cheaper to buy and run. It’s Merc’s first sub-100g/km car, too. Topping the diesel range is the A220 CDI.
Opting for petrol power means 1.6-litre A180 and A200s (how does Mercedes work out its cars’ names?) and the sports-orientated A250. It’s a 2.0-litre that’ll go from 0-62mph in 6.6 seconds and sits at the top of the line-up until the A45 AMG arrives shortly after the rest of the range.
Our A200 CDI came with Merc’s seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, which delights and frustrates in equal measure. It slurs gearchanges wonderfully, but is way too slow to react if you want a bit more power – you have to be quite forceful with your right foot to get the box to kick down. There’s no sports mode; instead you get paddle shifts, which you’d do well to use frequently.
We expect the range to kick off at a tempting £19,000. Our car will probably cost around £24,000 – competitive with a similar A3 or 1 Series. You’ll get a decent smattering of kit, including some iPhone connectivity – if not the full-blown system. And safety kit is high on the agenda, including Collision Prevention Assist on every model.
Other safety gadgets from the S-Class can also find their way on to an A-Class, including Pre-Safe, which prepares the car and passengers for an impending crash, and Attention Assist, to keep you awake. It’s further proof of the importance of hi-tech gadgets to posh hatch buyers.