Mercedes Bionic

Better, stronger and faster was the billing for television's Bionic Man back in the Seventies, but it has taken more than 30 years for science fiction to become science fact.

Mercedes should be congratulated for stepping off the beaten track and producing a family car that pushes design boundaries. As an eco-friendly alternative to conventional small hatchbacks, the Bionic is certainly viable - although not everyone will buy into a machine whose boxfish inspiration is a touch too evident.

Better, stronger and faster was the billing for television's Bionic Man back in the Seventies, but it has taken more than 30 years for science fiction to become science fact.

In the real world, it's cars, rather than people, that are benefiting most from a new blend of biology and mechanics - and in a rather surprising way.

Biology has played the biggest part in the improvement of the design of this new Mercedes, christened the Bionic. The newcomer is no looker, but then the element from nature which has influenced the German maker in designing the model is the ugly boxfish.

It's a creature that appears anything but aerodynamic, yet when engineers recreated the shape in a wind tunnel, they found it was superbly streamlined.

As natural as its styling might be, the A-Class-based machine still looks awkward - and the wind-cheating plastic shrouds covering the rear wheels don't help. Still, it's amazingly roomy inside.

From the driver's seat, the windscreen feels further away than in many large MPVs, while there's still plenty of rear legroom and a sizeable boot, too. The interior is uncluttered and airy as well, thanks to the X-shaped cross member that gives the roof its rigidity while yielding lots of space for glass panels.

In addition to its looks, the boxfish lends the Bionic its structural strength. Engineers used interlinked hexagonal panels similar to fish scales to create a framework that will be as strong as a conventional car in a crash, but is much lighter. This means that while the Merc uses the same 2.0-litre turbodiesel as a normal A-Class, it feels nippier. And thanks to the wind-cheating shape, it's more efficient, too, returning a claimed 65.7mpg on the combined cycle.

The newcomer's environmental credentials are enhanced by new Selective Catalytic Reduction technology. This sprays a special solution over exhaust fumes, converting nitrogen oxides into harmless nitrogen to reduce emissions of the harmful gas by as much 80 per cent. The system may sound rather far fetched, but it's actually production ready, and our test car was fitted with a big enough reservoir of this fluid to last between service intervals.

The large, sealed plastic container is located out of sight, under the boot floor. And the best bit is that you notice nothing from the driver's seat - there's no real change in the exhaust note, and no clouds of smelly vapour. So, after our first drive of the Bionic, we can say it's stronger and faster than a conventional A-Class with the same engine - but is it any better?

In truth, it's still too early to tell, but the technology promises much. And the fact that so many of the innovations are ready for production is a big hint that we will see much of it on Mercedes of the future... Who needs to be a Bionic Man when you can drive a Bionic car?

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