As BMW enthusiasts get in a froth over the future wave of front-wheel drive models coming their way, Mercedes fans went through the same thing in 1997 with a much more controversial model.
The original A-Class was unfortunately known as much for turning turtle in an early Swedish road test as it was for its quirky styling and clever packaging, but now in its third generation, the A-Class is a much more conventional affair.
Attention-grabbing ‘South seas blue metallic’ paintwork is the first thing you’ll notice of our test car, but the A-Class is awash with other interesting details too, particularly in AMG Sport trim.
Most striking are the 18-inch, gloss black AMG multi-spoke alloys, wrapped in tyres of such low profile you might think they’d been sprayed on. LED daytime running lights dominate the headlamp clusters but those are pummelled into submission by the enormous grille and its truck-sized Mercedes badge.
The sides are deeply scalloped and rendered more aggressive by side skirts to complement the deep AMG front bumper.
The back end is, if anything, a little bland, and when viewed side-on the profile looks a little bulky. The new A-Class is imposing rather than pretty, but for most it’ll be more appealing than the old tall, narrow A-Class models, and appeal to younger, more fashionable buyers as a result – something any manufacturer aspires to.
Overall, the new A-Class’s interior is a wonderful, well-built and high-quality place to sit, particularly in higher trim levels.
Our AMG Sport was loaded with options making it just a little more spicy than the regular car, with full leather trim for the sports seats, red stitching and a black roof lining. It’s probably worth the £1,080 premium – more than can be said for the rear cupholder’d armrest and the net-toting ‘Storage package’, each of which cost a ludicrous £170.
Much of the design takes inspiration from models like the SL and SLS, which isn’t a bad thing. The air vents are lifted straight from these cars and we like the uncluttered centre console of automatic models, with a few extra storage cubbies.
The endlessly-adjustable driving position is spot-on for this tester, and rear space adequate with the driver’s seat adjusted for a 5’9 frame – though tandem six-footers may struggle for leg and headroom.
Only the central display spoils the interior’s ambience – it still looks like a stuck-on, knock-off iPad. It also creaks as it gets hotter and cooler, and while intuitive enough to use at a standstill, it diverts rather too much attention away from the road if you need to adjust it while driving.
If you like your cars to deliver a cosseting ride quality as they whisk you along, you’re probably better off opting for a non AMG-badged model. Or something else entirely.
The ride on our test car was certainly firmer than the entry-level A180 we tested a few months back. It’s never truly uncomfortable (though certain bumps do make you fear for the car’s underside), but it’d be enough to grate if your commute takes in poorly-surfaced roads.
The trade-off is excellent body control and grip, and surprisingly communicative steering too. It darts into corners with more enthusiasm than many in the class and retained its composure when tackling a twisty mid-Wales road with a full complement of passengers.
At lower pace you begin to notice the knobbly ride again but the A200 CDI is at least easy to drive, with relatively light steering and smooth, responsive controls. The brakes are also strong, with good pedal feel.
A slippery, aerodynamic body keeps wind noise to a minimum at higher speeds and the engine remains muted too (more on this in a second). Only the wide tyres spoil high-speed refinement somewhat – on concrete motorways in particular, there’s significant roar from the tyres.
Visibility isn’t too bad, though the large sports seats and sloping rear pillars do occasionally require an extra over-the-shoulder glance when changing lanes.
Mercedes’ 200 CDI engine is a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder unit putting out 134 bhp and 221 lb-ft of torque. That provides it with a reasonable turn of pace and solid real-world economy, and should make it a popular choice with A-Class buyers.
There’s enough punch from the engine when you need it but we’d stop short of calling it effortless – we’d like to try the A-Class with the larger 220 CDI engine, as the extra forty-or-so horsepower should be enough of a kick that a mere squeeze of the throttle delivers overtaking urge, rather than the bootful needed in the 200.
Not that the 200 isn’t rather handy at overtaking, particularly if you use the steering wheel paddles on the speedy 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox to drop down a few cogs. We noted on the A-Class launch that this ‘box is better with diesel A-Class than it is with petrol, and we’d stand by that now. It’s not quite perfect in really low-speed manoeuvres – a regular torque-converter auto is better here – but otherwise it proved responsive and smooth.
Smooth isn’t a word you’d use to describe the engine itself, which is surprisingly grumbly at idle (mitigated by a stop-start system) and vocal under hard acceleration. Like the ride quality it isn’t unpleasant – just not quite as sophisticated as you might expect.
Value for money
Unadorned, our A200 CDI AMG Sport test car costs a not-unreasonable £25,995. The equivalent BMW 1-Series-a 118d M Sport auto – costs £26,175, and an Audi A3 Sportback S Line S Tronic is £26,980. Each car has its strengths and weaknesses, but largely the A-Class is priced competitively.
Until you start ticking the options list, that is. Press cars are always loaded with kit – we can’t review something we can’t test, after all – but at £37,170 our A200 does nothing if not serve to remind you how dangerous a simple biro can be when placed in the vicinity of a spec sheet.
The 200 CDI’s running costs may go some way to offset careless box-ticking, though. Officially it’ll do 64.2 mpg in this spec and emit 116 g/km of CO2 for a 30 yearly VED bill.
We returned around 54 mpg after a week of fairly mixed driving, including a traffic-clogged trip from North Yorkshire to Wales, so a figure in the fifties should be achievable for most. We’d expect similar from rivals.
Equipment is also plentiful, with kit on this car including the leather trim, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, blind-spot warning, carbon-style trim, a panoramic sunroof and more.
The Mercedes-Benz A-Class is a very likeable car, but not a perfect one. The uncompromising ride and associated tyre noise may be enough to dissuade some buyers, and the surprisingly vocal engine may also disappoint drivers weaned on the quieter units offered by some other makers.
It could also stand to offer just a little more performance and a little more space for those in the rear. But it’s fun to drive, economical, has a fantastic-looking interior and isn’t as expensive as some rivals, so there’s plenty to like.
We reckon the sweetest spot in the range would be a similarly-specced car on ‘Comfort’ suspension, with smaller wheels and tyres. Pick that, add another point to our score above, and enjoy many happy miles of A-Class motoring.
What the press think
Reviews for the A-Class are generally positive, and its wowscore actually evens out pretty close to our own rating. Critics enjoy the looks, economy and the desirability of that three-pointed star, but the ride quality and pricing come in for some criticism.
For more information check out our full summary of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class alongside reviews, stats, photos and videos!