Despite marking its road test debut with a humiliating defeat to its closest rivals from Audi and BMW, the latest A-Class is proving popular with buyers – Mercedes has a healthy order book, with interest stirred up by the catwalk looks. But can this diesel model offer up more substance than the pricey petrol car that lost out last time?
Fortunately for those attracted to its looks, the A200 CDI is every bit as desirable as the hot hatch-rivalling A250 AMG Sport. Even with smaller 17-inch alloys and slender air intakes, the stunning design hasn’t been diluted, and the squat, low stance and SL-style headlight clusters mean it really turns heads.
If customers want to give the styling even more bite, they can opt for the £1,290 Night pack, which adds bigger wheels and gloss black inserts on the grille and door mirrors, plus brighter xenon lamps and dark privacy glass.
The A-Class is shorter and lower than the Volvo V40, and looks more purposeful up close. Mercedes’ styling verve spills over into the interior, too, with some modern touches setting the car apart inside.
The fixed, tablet-style display is smart and easily controlled via a wheel on the centre console, while the three-spoke sports steering wheel is trimmed in attractive perforated leather. This Sport model gets silver-painted dials that are much easier to read than the bland standard items, but the dot-matrix display between them looks dated compared to the TFT dials in the V40.
Some of the plastics also trail the Volvo’s on quality, and the cup-holders in particular feel flimsy. The firm seats and fixed headrests are meant to look sporty – but in reality, they make it harder for drivers to get comfortable.
The combination of black rooflining and a high dash means the A-Class feels cramped, while small windows and thick C-pillars make matters worse. Plus, blind spots are a real issue at junctions, due to the narrow rear screen.
Despite its restrictive design, the Mercedes is slightly roomier than the Volvo. The 341-litre boot is only six litres bigger than the V40’s, and the curved rear lights intrude on the load bay, but rear passengers will appreciate the A-Class’ extra headroom, even if the high-backed front seats create a claustrophobic environment. Our car came with a £170 optional storage pack that includes luggage nets in the front seats, hidden cubbies and a sunglasses holder, but you might expect these to feature as standard.
On paper, the Mercedes should trail the Volvo, as its 1.8-litre engine (a slimmed-down version of the 2.1-litre diesel in the A220 CDI) produces less power and torque.However, thanks to its seven-speed automatic box and wider tyres, the A-Class was faster off the line than the V40 and also reacted more quickly in-gear, due to its close ratios. Yet the way it delivers its performance leaves a lot to be desired. A sluggish throttle response and grumbling engine note make it tiresome on longer trips, while the dual-clutch auto is often slow to react, even in manual mode.
Previously, we criticised the A-Class for its firm suspension but, because it was fitted with the Comfort set-up, our test car felt less crashy than the A250 – although it’s still much firmer than its closest rivals. The advantages are strong cornering and virtually no body roll, yet the A-Class can be wearing to drive as it thumps and crashes over potholes.
One area where this CDI did impress was at the pumps – it returned 41.3mpg on a mixed route and beat the heavier Volvo. Do the sums and there’s more good news for the Mercedes, as it should hold its price better and will cost fleet buyers less to tax. You can also save £1,500 by opting for the six-speed manual box. But the car does without a lot of the luxury kit and cutting-edge safety features the V40 has as standard, and the options list is long and pricey.