Mercedes-Benz A-class Test Drive

POSTED BY admin ON 31 July 2012

A is for attack. That was how Johann Buss, the strategic project manager for the new A-Class, began proceedings at the global market launch of the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class in Portoroz, Slovenia.

Aside from an initial impulse to duck, it very quickly became obvious to a room full of international Press where the “aggression” was directed at and who the true opposition is.

You see, the market for premium compact cars has been heating up in the last couple of years, with demand (and sales figures) almost doubling over the last two in Europe alone – a fact that has caught the attention of the famous three-pointed-star. The rising demand is coming from a young breed of buyers with a penchant for a hatchback that is sporty, classy and reeking with premium flavour.

The thing is, the “other” German carmakers are already in the game, and Buss freely admitted that the premium compact segment is not one that Mercedes has paid full attention to in the past.

Of course, this isn’t the first A-Class, but the last generation has been infamously accused of being a little lost – it wasn’t sure if it was targeting young buyers, small families, retirees (or all of the above). But that, said Buss, is all about to change with the new model.

In order to have any sort of real game plan going, and a genuine shot at “attacking” a market that has so far heavily favoured cars like the Audi A3 and the BMW 1 Series, the ideology behind the A-Class would have to take a paradigm shift. And it has.

The new A-Class takes a quantum leap forward in terms of look, feel and having a clear-cut direction. With a façade that is undeniably contemporary, a drive that is decidedly more sporty and plenty of hi-tech features to play with inside, the new model leaves no doubt that Mercedes is aiming to lead the market with its latest offering.

It is what young buyers today are looking for – chic looks and high quality wrapped up in an energetic compact package.

Exterior and interior

If you had a peek at the concept version of the A-Class from the Shanghai Motor Show last year, and you liked what you saw, then the good news is the production version doesn’t deviate much.

The side profile still features the prominent character line that starts at the bottom of the front door and dramatically darts upward at the rear door. The front fascia features Benz’s now familiar two-bar grille and LED daytime running lamps, while there’s a boxier look and a standard roof spoiler at the rear, with the hatch attaining a slippery, class-leading drag coefficient of just 0.26.

Opting for the AMG Sport trim will render the car larger 18-inch wheels, aggressively styled bumpers, sporty red accent pieces, and a “diamond-look” for the front grille mesh.

As opposed to the previous generation, which was accused of being “not Mercedes enough”, the new A-Class is plenty of it. Muscular where it counts and lithe where it needs to be.

It is obvious that great care has been taken to fashion the interior to look and feel like the real deal. The layout and styling is reminiscent of the marque’s larger and more expensive offspring. Though a compressed adaptation, there is still little to complain about with regard to legroom.

There is also a stark difference in driving position compared with earlier A-Class models, as it feels considerably lower and less upright – a sportier feel, but luxuriously comfortable and ergonomic at the same time.

Worth mentioning is the luxurious finish on the dashboard and centre console, which highlights a unique “chequered” finish, five classic Mercedes-styled round air-cond vents and free-standing display screen.

Behind the sporty three-spoke steering wheel, which comes with 12 function buttons and an electroplated bezel, is the simple but eye-fetching instrument cluster comprising two large round instruments with small dial sets within each.

The high mounted dashboard lends a “cockpit” sensation to those sitting up front, and while the sports styling in the rear makes it seem like a two-seater, it actually fits three quite comfortably.

Overall, there is no denying that the new A-Class emits a classier aura than other cars competing in the segment and it comes off feeling far more expensive than the 1 Series and the A3. At 341 litres, however, its boot is smaller than the BMW and Audi premium compacts.

The drive

With plenty of long flat straights and scenic curves to play with, it is little wonder why Mercedes chose Slovenia to be the venue for its exciting new premium compact. The route between the nation’s capital, Ljubljana, and the seaside city of Portoroz provided many highways and twisty hillside roads to aptly test the A-Class’ performance on a variety of terrains.

The A-Class is offered in six key variants, and judging by the range of engines it is dishing up, it is evidently aiming for wide appeal with this new breed. See the list of model range and options here.

There are three petrol and diesel versions to opt from, each with different engine capacities, but the initial word from Mercedes-Benz Malaysia is that only two variants will make it to our shores – the petrol powered A200 and the A250 (Sport), inline-fours with seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearboxes.

Naturally, we focused on these and got our hands on the range-topping 211hp A250, which proved to be incredibly athletic and quick off the mark from the get-go.

Mercedes engineers also made sure the A-Class would be a more engaging drive by lowering the centre of gravity and revising the four-wheel independent suspension. The chassis also features a combination of front MacPherson struts and a multi-link rear which endows it with more agility than any entry-level Mercedes that has come before.

The outcome is dynamics that are monumentally improved compared with the A-Classes of yore. Those who’ve experienced previous generations will appreciate the new found fluency and eagerness that comes with the latest generation, with light but accurate electro-mechanical steering.

With just 1,370kg to haul, the 1,991cc engine is never really challenged and the result is smooth acceleration with plenty of punch even on demanding slopes. It also felt quick on the straights, boasting a 0-100km/h figure of 6.6-seconds, which according to the people at Mercedes, rivals the Golf GTI.

There is a good spread of low-end torque that makes the dial on the speedometer climb in a lively but refined manner, and shifting through the gears is a seamless and smooth affair that’s hardly detectable.

Taking on corners was surprisingly satisfying, the A-Class tackled them with more competence than you’d expect from an entry-level car. The improved chassis proved its worth on tight turns, being nimble but also planted and firm, with very little body roll to complain about.

Three shift programmes are selectable at the centre console, with the “sports” shift adding more grunt to your drive, the “economy” softening the aggression and the “manual” putting you in full control of the up and down shifts via a column shifter behind the steering wheel.

While the A-Class offers a radically enhanced driving experience from its predecessor, on first experience some might argue that it does not boast the same dynamic appeal as the I Series, or ride with the same authority as the A3.

But that, by no means, says that it isn’t highly competitive in the same arena. It is a well rounded car that offers the type of balance between drive dynamics and driver comfort that only Mercedes can provide – a fact that could endow it with broader appeal among a wider spectrum of young buyers.

With athletic looks, modern connectivity features, healthy balance between comfort and dynamics, as well as sensible cabin space, the new A-Class has a wide appeal that could reach beyond its target market to also attract young families and second car hunters.

Its well-rounded character and delivery of comfort, connectivity and prestige without compromising in the performance and handling department will reach young male and female professionals equally effectively. And addressing the female market in a way that some of its rival can’t is a big deal, especially in Malaysia where women represent more than 50 per cent of all drivers.

Will it top the segment? Only time will tell, but it certainly has all the right attributes to be a very strong contender.

Specifications of the A250 (Sport)

Engine: 1,991cc, 4-cylinder turbocharged
Max power: 211hp (155kW) @ 5,500rpm
Max torque: 350Nm @ 1,200 – 4,000rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch
Acceleration (0-100km/h): 6.6 seconds
Fuel consumption (combined): 6.4L/100km
CO2 emissions (combined): 148g/km
Price: To be confirmed

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