First Drive: Mercedes-Benz A-Class

Time has changed the A-Class…

Twenty years ago it was a forward-thinking technological achievement that mixed big car space with small car proportions. It also fell over a bit too frequently, but Mercedes fixed that quickly.

Now entering its fourth generation, the A-Class has morphed from that cutting edge design, through reasonably generic family car, and now has been reborn as a hatchback so stylish you might mistake it for a plusher, posher Mercedes.

Right now there’s not much choice, with a 1.5-litre diesel option, and two petrol options. I’m in the A200, presented in pseudo-sporting AMG Line trim. This means that there’s spoilers, big wheels and sharp trim added to the car, but underneath is the same 1.3-litre petrol engine developing 163hp. This clearly isn’t going to be a particularly hot hatch, but at least this model gets the independent multi-link rear suspension – lower models have to make do with a cheap torsion beam that’s heavier and less compliant.

That tiny engine is actually up to the job, which is slightly surprising. Throttle responses are almost instant, especially at low speeds, so it feels rather zesty. The de rigueur 0-62mph dash is dealt with in eight seconds dead, but it does start to feel a tad breathless once it’s up at those kind of speeds. Still, motorway cruising is comfortable and quiet, although there’s plenty of tyre roar from the back of the car.

The seven-speed automatic gearbox makes life easier, but it does tend to shift down a gear or two at some inopportune moments from time to time. There are paddles behind the steering wheel to change gear yourself, but those wanting a proper manual gearbox will have to wait until next year.

You might not want to wait though, as the new A-Class is a cracking car to drive, striking an interesting balance between comfort and ability. Leave it set in Comfort mode and you can happily cruise around all day, but Sport adds a bit of extra edge that makes it worth switching to when you find the right road. It never quite feels alive like a proper AMG, but for something that just borrows the badge and makes up the rest, it’s a pleasingly engaging and precise drive.

And then you get to the interior. Imagine the Starship Enterprise and you’re 90% of the way there. Instead of the usual infotainment screen bolted on to the dashboard, there’s a black panel that stretches from the driver’s window all the way to the edge of the passenger seat. It houses two screens that are completely customisable, with an instrument display that can be switched from traditional dials to futuristic yellow edged displays, covering economy, performance or just about anything else you can think of. The same goes with the more central media screen that can be set to display performance metrics, radio information or augmented-reality satellite navigation.

The latter sees arrows and pointers overlaid on a camera view of what’s ahead, with virtual signs pointing out the right exit of a roundabout. It’s odd, but it works. Also odd, and less successful, is a virtual assistant that responds to “Hey Mercedes” before misunderstanding what you want and eventually giving up. It’s got a sassy line if you ask about its rivals from BMW or Audi, though.

All of that interior delightfulness is optional though, and a four-figure option at that. However, it’s worth splashing out on as it really does lift the A-Class a step or three above its rivals, making the cabin feel really rather special. Resist and you’ll get a couple of seven-inch screens that get lost in the swathes of black plastic.

With strong residuals, and some strong PCP offers from Mercedes, the options shouldn’t cost too much more on a monthly basis, which will ease the pain. Take the hit and you’ll have a likeable and capable vehicle that sits ahead of the competition. At least for now; there’s a new Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series coming…

Model Tested: Mercedes-Benz A 200 AMG Line
Price: £28,700
Range: £25,800 – £33,835
Top speed: 139 mph
0-62 mph: 8.0 seconds
Power: 163 PS (161 bhp)
Torque: 250 Nm (184 ft lb)
Monthly PCP*: £392
Official fuel economy: 53.3 mpg
Road test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 123 g/km
Car Tax: £140
Insurance group: 28E
* Monthly PCP estimate based on 20% deposit, 36 month term, 5% APR, final payment of 40%.
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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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