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Can the latest Mercedes A-Class's slick conformity outweigh the old model's originality?

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The original Mercedes A-Class may have followed the Audi A3 into the 1990s premium hatchback niche, but it bucked that car’s thoroughly orthodox Volkswagen Group trend.

With its snub-nosed, upright profile, impact-friendly ‘sandwich’ platform and front-wheel drive packaging, it was an ingenious, if slightly avant-garde stone cast into the segment’s then untested pond.

The A-Class majors on both style and substance but lacks the originality of its forbear.

Despite high praise and well over 1.5 million sales, not all the ripples that returned to shore were welcome. There were failed elk tests and various criticisms. It was too upright, too ungainly and not sporty enough for buyers’ sharpening taste buds. The A-Class ended up high on expense and short on desirability.

So, for its third generation some 15 years after the original launched, the latest A-Class has renounced the recipe. This A-Class's idea of practicality has been squashed low and long and rendered lip-smackingly svelte. In 2016, the current A-Class was given some love and attention which saw its looks and interior given a new lease of life, ahead of an all-new fourth-generation model arriving in 2018.

The suspicion is that rather than considering how best to package its solution to the world’s oldest transport problem, Mercedes instead pressed its ear firmly to current market conditions. But has it implemented the right solution?

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DESIGN & STYLING

Mercedes-Benz A-Class rear

So the A-Class we used to know has gone, and departing with it is packaging that bordered on the revolutionary. Instead, today’s A-Class mirrors the segment norm, in being a 4.3-metre-long small family car that’s easier for potential buyers to understand.

The original A-Class’s ‘sandwich’ floor trademark, which neatly packaged the engine and ancillaries around or below the cabin rather than in front of or behind it, made it a brilliantly short and exceptionally spacious car.

The A-Class may be svelte, but it's all too easy to brain yourself on the A-pillar entry.

But its purpose was less clear when compared with ostensibly ‘bigger’ rivals such as the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3, even if, inside, they were no bigger at all. Today’s A-Class, then, follows rather than breaks convention. Its proportions are typical for the segment, though the styling cues make it unquestionably a Mercedes.

You would know it even with the badges removed, thanks to the shape of the grille, lights and the strakes in the side that mimic Mercedes’ larger models. The 2016 facelift gave the A-Class a more defined look, with a diamond-effect front grille and changes to the head and rear lights.

Entirely deliberate, you would think, given that Mercedes will want to take advantage of customers downsizing from larger cars in its line-up, or fulfil the realities of those aspiring to own a Benz.

Given the  ‘join them’ ethos, the hardware is as conventional as you might expect. Beneath the steel monocoque, there are MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link set-up at the rear.

Diesel choices consist of a single 1.5-litre and two 2.1-litre engines. There are also four petrols: two 1.6 litres and two 2.0 litres. In addition, there is a plethora of chassis options, with a Comfort set-up offered alongside two firmer settings. Mercedes also answered the calls from the BMW M135i and Audi RS3 by making a hot A-Class; in fact, fire-breathing is probably a more accurate description of the AMG-engineered A45 4Matic.

INTERIOR

Mercedes-Benz A-Class doors open

Sitting low in the car’s bowels, gripped by sports seats and confronted with a chiselled sports steering wheel, it’s readily apparent that the Mercedes-Benz A-Class’s development team has spent a considerable amount of time attempting to bottle its rivals’ brand of high-brow hatchback appeal.

Certainly it shares MFA platform DNA with its Mercedes-Benz B-Class and Mercedes-Benz CLA siblings, but the A-Class’s glossy, well groomed cabin feels as much a derivative of Audi-influenced market expectation as it does a creation of Mercedes’ own hand.

Merc's iDrive-style rotary controller works well, but the shortcut keys for the various menus need to migrate towards it.

That is not to say that it doesn’t satisfy. The suave self-assurance set in motion by the pert exterior rolls seamlessly inside. An impression of superior class is hardly a foreign concept to Mercedes-Benz, but the new A-Class fosters it with far greater confidence than its frumpy predecessor managed.

Such an attribute is essential to selling premium hatchbacks (if it doesn’t make you feel privileged, what’s the point?). Without feeling tremendously generous like its 1990s namesake did, the car is also inch-perfect in size expectations. It seems dutifully compact but will seat four at a pinch, with the rear 60/40 split-fold seats collapsing to offer 1157 litres of total load space.

There are five trims to choose from, with the entry-level SE models coming with 16in alloys, comfort suspension, cruise control and a reversing camera, while inside there is a 7in display infotainment system, complete with Garmin sat nav, smartphone integration including Apple CarPlay, air conditioning and leather seats. Upgrading to the Sport trim gets bigger alloys, auto wipers, 8in infotainment system and climate control.

The range-topping AMG Line and AMG trims come with an aggressive bodykit, interior details and sports seats and steering rack, while the latter comes with LED headlamps, lowered sports suspension and heated front seats. The limited Motorsport Edition was inspired by Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team's success and comes with the team's colour scheme incorporated inside and out.

Those looking for a little bit more speed in their lives can opt for the 380bhp AMG A45 4Matic, which comes with a four-wheel drive system, AMG styling, details and an aggressive bodykit, a race-tuned seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox and a performance braking set-up.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mercedes-Benz A-Class side profile

We’ve been impressed with the A 200 CDI’s 134bhp 2.1-litre diesel showing in the B-Class. The lighter, aerodynamically slimmer A-Class, equipped with the quick-shifting 7G-DCT dual-clutch automatic gearbox, cracks 60mph in 8.9sec rather than 9.4sec; it finds its way to 100mph marginally quicker, too. Significantly, the shorter sprint time puts it on a par not only with the 143bhp BMW 118d but also the Audi A3 2.0 TDI.

However, draw the comparison out to 100mph and the Mercedes lags almost 2.5sec behind its closest rival. The issue here, as before, is a subtle lack of potency. A 221lb ft torque peak versus 236lb ft for the Audi and BMW may sound like an insignificant deficiency, but its imprint is felt as a faint paucity across the range. It will not upset most drivers, but it downgrades the enjoyment of pushing on – which is unfortunate given that the chassis tune positively encourages such behaviour.

The quick-shifting 7G-DCT dual-clutch gearbox significantly reduces the 0-62mph sprint time.

For ultimate peace and quiet, look to the impressive petrol engine line-up. The range-topping A 250 develops 211bhp, endowing the A-Class with hot-hatch levels of performance and managing a 0-62mph sprint in 6.6 seconds. But while it sounds good on paper, the engine fails to electrify proceedings like a range-topping petrol powerplant arguably should. It is responsive, leggy, refined and swift - but then so is the 168bhp diesel-engined A 220 CDI beneath it that tops the diesel side of the line-up.

Lower down the petrol range, the 156bhp A 200 manages the 0-62mph dash in 8.3 seconds, with the entry level 122bhp A 180 taking a second longer. The A180’s engine is no masterstroke, but it does the important things quite well. It stays quiet at low revs, pulls obligingly in high gears, and returns decent economy. This isn’t a fast car, but it’s a flexible one, with a usable low and mid-range.

The A-Class range would be better if it were capable of being seen and not heard. Unfortunately, the combination of intrusive induction noise and mechanical thrashing blights the A-Class’s cabin in much the same way as it did in the B-Class, particularly on the diesel front.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mercedes-Benz A-Class cornering

British roads bring out both the best and the worst in the A-Class. Echoing the trend for ever more ‘dynamic’ premium products, Mercedes has opted for spring and anti-roll bar settings that are seriously intolerant of any lingering, long-wave body movement.

In doing so, it could hardly have created a more stark dynamic contrast to the preceding A-Class. The new car, even rolling on the Comfort suspension, is a fresh start, and sporty with a capital ‘S’.

Avoid the Dynamic Handling Package and large wheels.

And as long as you’d rather be driving a 300bhp hot hatch, you’ll heartily approve. The immediacy and directness with which this car darts into corners and the tenacity with which it holds its line are remarkable handling traits.

A BMW 1 Series seems stodgy by comparison and an Audi A3 almost insipid. But excitement isn’t everything a premium hatch needs to offer – as Audi and BMW well understand. Refinement and high-mileage habitability are even more crucial, and those shopping for a new Mercedes might imagine they could be taken for granted.

They shouldn’t be here. The ride over a typical B-road is both noisy 
and unyielding and leaves a great deal to be desired. At the sort of pace when its enthusiast-market handling can’t really be appreciated, the A-Class just feels awkward.

It is unflinching in its fidgeting pursuit of a perfectly flat body and simply uncomfortable over bad surfaces, admitting more than the odd crash into the cabin as large and sharp disturbances are resolutely overridden.

It’s a divisive compromise. All of the testers who have driven the A-Class were genuinely shocked, to begin with, by its lack of everyday civility.

Some warmed to the idiosyncratic handling enough to consider the lack of rolling comfort just about acceptable. But given that this is an Autocar road test, written by enthusiasts used to making allowances for cars they simply enjoy driving, ‘some’ is pretty damning. And especially so for a car that’s supposed to broaden the reach of the Mercedes brand, not narrow it.

The A-Class becomes firmer still in the A 250 Engineered by AMG model, which sits below the A 45 AMG at the top of the standard A-Class range. The AMG suspension changes might make it handle even tidier, but the trade off in ride quality is such that this is a model best avoided. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mercedes-Benz A-Class review hero front

The old A-Class earned its sales spurs, but it was never the cheapest car to straddle the supermini/small hatchback divide.

The latest version continues in a similar vein, and with the city car leanings banished by its longer backbone, its starting price climbs to fit broadly between the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series.

Go wild with safety and multimedia options, but don't expect much return come resale time.

The A 180 CDI kicks off the diesel side of the line-up, albeit with SE trim at the base. This car is worthy of consideration, too, thanks to the sub-100g/km CO2 output afforded by its Renault-sourced motor. Its pricing puts it head to head with BMW’s much-admired 116d EfficientDynamics model.

You’ll need to avoid temptation at the options stage, though; liberal box-ticking can leave even the more humble of A-Class sagging under a frankly unconscionable price tag.

We recorded a respectable 57.6mpg touring route figure, and with the engine’s revs quick to settle into the long stride of the gearbox’s seventh ratio, that kind of economy isn’t unusual even on more varied runs if you deliberately eke it out.

If economy is of particular concern, the 109bhp A 180 CDI performs admirably, with a combined fuel economy of 74.3mpg. That it takes 11.3 seconds to reach 62mph is the only real penalty.

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VERDICT

3.5 star Mercedes-Benz A-Class

As a brand statement, this A-Class was intended to herald a new dynamism for Mercedes-Benz.

In several significant ways, it does. Visually, it is a sharpened arrowhead of a car; inside, it speaks to the quality and class of the badge.

The A-Class is a divisive car. It appeals with its new looks and sporty demeanor, but its hard ride may limit its chances of success in the UK.

These attention-getting elements are intertwined with clever, cleaner engines, great proportions and dialled-in handling to jump-start the kind of enviable allure that has been absent from small Mercedes in the past. Yet while its imaginative predecessor ran contrary to the path plotted by cars such as the Audi A3, the latest A-Class flatters its rival by reproducing not only its strengths, but also its perceived weaknesses.

In attempting to harness the high-end athleticism that Ingolstadt has made its own, Mercedes has produced a model shorn of the fundamental comfort so essential to success in the UK.

Because of this, and despite invoking enough raw desirability to snare its audience, the A-Class can’t qualify for the class-leading status its makers would have been aiming for.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Mercedes-Benz A-Class 2013-2018 First drives