Mercedes-Benz's A-class act
When the first A-class Mercedes-Benz was launched in 1997, it was a relatively cheap family city car that you could also use on the autobahn if that was your bag.
|AT A GLANCE|
|Drivetrain: Transverse, frontmounted FWD, DOHC 16v turbocharged 1991cc four. Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.|
|Outputs: Max 155kW at 5500rpm, 350Nm 1200-4000rpm, 240kmh, 0-100kmh 6.6secs, 6.4L/100km, 152g/km C02.|
|Chassis: Front MacPherson struts, rear torsion beam, electric power-assisted steering, 18J x 7.5 rims with 235/14 R18 tyres.|
|Safety: Nine airbags, five-star Euro NCAP safety rating. ESP, ABS, BAS, EBD, attention assist and collision prevention assist.|
|Dimensions: L 4292mm, H 1433mm, W 1780 mm, W/base 2699mm, F/track 1553mm, R/track 1552mm, Fuel 56L, Weight 1445kg.|
|Pricing: Mercedes-Benz A250 from $64,900. Other petrol and turbodiesel A-class models from $46,900 to $54,900.|
|Hot: Taut chassis; terrific performance; high-quality build and detailing; a worthy entry to a Mercedes-Benz lifestyle.|
|Not: A bit tight in the rear; some think they don't like FWD Benzes (they're wrong!); a lot of cash for a hatchback.|
|Verdict: The A250 works well as the A-class flagship; and we've heard that the entry-point cars don't disappoint either.|
Click on photo for more views of the Mercedes-Benz A250 AMG.
It had a clever sandwich twin-floor design which made impact safety in the sling-back-styled hatch as good as any Benz's. The problem was that it had styling that could polarise in pub conversations and there was some industrial sabotage surrounding its perceived lack of stability.
But market needs and aspirations change, and while that original sandwich design lives on at 'Benz providing a solution for electric car and fuel-cell developments, the basic A-class market slot has moved from a city- plus environment, through its longer, wider and quicker second generation to this, the all-new, ground-up A-class.
This third generation edition of Mercedes-Benz's first front-drive car is designed to appeal across a wider spread of aspirations, from a one-car pride and joy through to a middle-class second or third family driver to the car we're driving here; the hot-to-trot AMG- developed A250
The new A-class has probably the widest market base of all Mercedes-Benz models, with the entry-point A180 offered at $46,900, or just $3000 more than you'll pay for a top Corolla, despite a load of equipment, and diesel and petrol A200 models offering two more steps up to the car we're reviewing here, the A250.
There will eventually be super- hot A45 AMG AWD versions of Mercedes-Benz's new A-class act, as well as a startling four-door CLA coupe, but for the time being the A250 is the range's flagship.
As a $64,900 spearhead for the range, the A250 heads straight for VW's own flagship Golf, the GTi, and the rear-drive 1-series BMW range, while the upper echelon versions of the imminent third generation A3 will also be in the silver star's sights with this car, as well as Volvo's new V40 hatch and the C200h Lexus. Truth be known, the less expensive mid-range versions of the A-class would also tempt buyers of those cars, but for the time being, that important wedge of the market - the early adopters - are predicted to make the A250 for a while at least as numerous as the other three models put together.
With 155kW on tap and a lungingly flexible 350Nm of torque from not much above idle, the turbocharged 2.0-litre A250 Sport is a punchy little bugger, fettled by Mercedes-Benz's AMG performance division to box way beyond its weight, with a slick 7-speed two-pedal double-clutch transmission, that really does "know" what gear you want seemingly before you do.
The AMG work also extends to bigger brakes, whose red-callipers poke out from the special triple- bar, five spoke 18-inch sports alloy rims. All A-class models get at least 17-inch rims, but the AMG items under the hot-hatch help to differentiate the A250 Sport from the school-run versions.
While AMG has beefed up and stiffened the A250's suspension to keep it in high-performance character, it's no crash-bang- wallop prospect over bumps. In fact Mercedes-Benz appears to have reined in the sports suspension modifications a tad, achieving a pleasing blend of massive grip and well-controlled body movement but without harsh reactions to surface imperfections and potholes. In daily driving, the A250 courses over the worst suburban roads thrown at it by our Australian drive route, and with well-calibrated electric steering offering just the right kind of resistance through the car's leather-rimmed wheel, this is a deliciously biddable, but comfortable car. It has to be, as competitors like BMW, VW and Volvo have done much work in their chassis settings in recent years, recognising that comfort can be retained, even in a sporting hatch.
The numbers possible from the car's turbo four include a factory- quoted zero to 100kmh time of 6.6 seconds, which is darn quick in any segment, but the real story is the car's flexibility. Rarely do you need to use the shift-paddles for the A250's seven-speeder, the automatic function for the transmission will drop down a ratio very neatly on the over-run, and even without overriding the ratio you may have left the car in before the corner, the torque spread allows the car to surf from less than 1500rpm to any velocity you can legally and safely nominate. It really feels like a much bigger-engined car.
Like those bigger Mercedes- Benz, the A-class model has its basic gear lever in the form of a wand on the right side of the steering wheel, and it does take a little getting used to. More than once my left hand groped down to the centre console, where a lever "normally" is. However, it will make an interesting boast to your friends when you tell them that your car has "seven-on-the-tree".
With red-stitched leather, a gorgeous black milled-finish dash and a usefully big-screened standard sat-nav panel, as well as five classy "three spoked" air vents, rimmed in red to match the chin and rear-splitter panels that punctuate the car's nose and tail treatment, the A250's driving environment is no low-renter. It has all the quality of the bigger Benzes, and there's plenty of room up front for larger occupants.
It's not quite so good in the rear, where there's decent legroom, but there may be headroom issues if you're over 1.88m tall. At 341 litres, the A-class load area is no segment-leader, but if you take soft luggage, there's no need to travel light.
All four, or five at a pinch, occupants sit quite low in the A250. If you were fond of the early A-class's oldie-friendly seat height, you'll probably recognise the new car's sporty lower-set seating as the biggest difference. You do get the feeling that you're being hemmed in by the car's dark, albeit superbly crafted cliff of a dash and its relatively high window line, but once you're in, it's supremely comfortable and supportive wherever you sit, with the front chairs offering that famous solid AMG "catcher's mit" location and security. That security is reinforced when you get in the car and belt up, as the car's Collision Prevention Assist tugs you a little tighter into your seating position. It's a bit like being tucked in by mother.
For all that, it's still a hot hatch and it looks the part, with a wide, diamond-studded grille up front sitting between headlights that look like they were filched from the latest C-class, while underneath, three intake slots are linked by the tell-tale red AMG bar which is repeated in the rear valance. From the side, the clamshell bonnet closure line sits above two deeply sculptured ridges that give the car's profile real visual tension. The A-class's hipline is a long, chrome-edged convex curve, and of the current batch of German hot-hatches, the AMG-influenced A250 is probably the best looker.
The shape appears to work too, as the drag coefficient is 0.27, which is impressive in a world where anything under 0.30 is pretty good.
When the taller, but much shorter original A-class city car came to the market just over 15 years ago, the world probably wasn't ready for it. Quirky styling, and that infamous rollover moose- test did the car no favours, though you do see a lot of them about, driven by people who like space in a cheap, used small car.
The market has changed. People are queuing for high-end hatches as they down-size from something bigger, or rationalise from several cars to one or two. They still want performance and luxury, and with the world's C-segment growing from a predicted 5.8 million units in 2014, to 7.7 million by 2020, such a sub- segment is ripe for the picking.
Starting with the A180, as I said for not much more than Corolla Levin money, and moving through already well-equipped diesel and turbo petrol A200 models before you get to this, the A250 Sport top-end vanguard for the new A-class brand, I think Mercedes-Benz has probably got its spread of new "Baby Benzes" about right.
It's a joy to drive, replete with luxury and quality detailing that was missing from the original, and judging by the reaction of seen-it-all roadside observers in Australia this week, very nice to look at too. Which was often why people bought Mercedes-Benzes in the first place. With this price spread, now a lot more will be able to do so.