The new A-class is a new type of car. That might be stating the obvious, but what we mean is that while it’s kept the name of the model, Mercedes has fundamentally changed the concept of its smallest car.
The A-class used to be a packaging marvel – a family-friendly, mini people-carrier. It’s now a sportily proportioned, regular five-door hatch that cribs the format of BMW’s 1-Series and Volvo’s V40. Just in case you’re in any doubt, this is no longer a short-but-tall car, so there won’t be any roly-poly action when this A-class gets put through an Elk test.
Mercedes is hoping that what you lose in packaging genius will be more than made up for by the new, super-sculptural body and a massive up-tick in sense of quality. If you’re after a premium, compact car (probably on a company car scheme), this instantly needs to go on your list next to that BMW and Volvo and Audi’s new A3.
Should it be at the top of your list though? It’ll depend primarily on three things: how much you want a car with the three-pointed star on the front; how much space you need; and what you think of the way this thing looks.
We’ll tackle this last point, first. The A-class follows Mercedes’s recent design language approach by etching huge, sculptural creases into the body side, to really draw your eye around the car. We think they work rather better here on the A-class than they do on the E-class and CLS and give the car a good measure of distinction.
It’s a little try-hard though with that aggressively diving beltline - which also makes life in the back a little claustrophobic - and all the sharp slashes and creases. It doesn’t have the restrained elegance of some of its German competition and is available in some very bling, very un-Merc-like trim colours and finishes. However, it is alternative, different and new. With Audi’s "blink and you’ll miss it" evolutionary design and the fact many people we talk to seem to think the BMW 1-Series is wilfully ugly, Mercedes may be on to something if you’re bored of what’s already out there.
And with that big grille and massive three-pointed star - you’ll need to stump up for the engineered by AMG model to get the trendy pixellated grille pattern, by the way - you’ll never be unsure of what car’s approaching in the rear-view mirror. It’s only at the back that we think the whole thing falls apart and isn’t very obviously Merc.
Space-wise, if you’re currently in an Audi A3 Sportback and are happily ferrying you and your family’s clobber round in it, the A-class is going to feel like a step down in size. The A-class isn’t a small car - it’s the same size as a Golf - so if you’ve not got two kids or the need to carry four people around regularly, space isn’t going to be a problem and up front it’s great. It’s just no longer cleverly packaged and Tardis-like.
We drove two versions, the A250 petrol and the – likely to be big-selling – A220 CDi diesel, both with an auto box. Both cars have different strengths but fundamentally do most things well.
Considering they are front-wheel drive, they turn in and steer with a good deal of sharpness, and when you’re really pressing on you can trim your cornering line with the throttle pedal, which is fun. The steering is light but way more talkative than in an Audi and, despite 18-inch wheels, the little Merc rode comfortably on all but the craggiest moorland roads.
The diesel is punchy if a little agricultural-sounding for this day and age, while the petrol is nearly hot-hatch quick, with corresponding fuel consumption if you give it a work out. The twin-clutch, 7-speed gearbox comes with a column stalk gear selector and paddles on the back of the steering wheel and works better mated to the diesel, but changes snappily and smoothly most of the time - only moving out of junctions and when asked to give two quick downshifts did it feel that it lagged behind VW’s latest DSG or the ZF 8-speed fitted to the latest BMWs. Of the two cars, we felt the diesel engine suited the A-class more - it even managed to be fun and lose an Audi TT when we were in a hurry and running late for our next appointment on a dash across a (very twisty) moorland road.
Mercedes prides itself on leading in technology and prioritising your safety, so every A-class comes with a pre-safe system as standard, which warns you when you’re too close to the car in front, beeps at you to alert you if it thinks you’re about to crash and then helps you brake with maximum force when you begin to apply the brake. That’s all great, but don’t expect it to brake for you, if you’ve taken your eye off the ball completely. Hopefully, it won’t come to that though, because on the A-class you also get attention assist, which knows when you aren’t looking at the road or are falling asleep. And that’s just the start, because you can add radar cruise control, lane-keep assist and all manner of safety systems to an 18 grand A-class. It even recognised a speed-limit change in a very new section of 50mph average speed camera roadworks on the M1, which we thought was impressive. And it’s all the kind of stuff that wasn’t even an option on the S-class 15 years ago.
Inside the cabin you can have Mercedes’s command interface system and get a tablet-like screen fixed on to the top of the dash, available in 5 or upgraded 7-inch versions - both of which have screen graphics which lag behind BMW and Audi. Overall, it’s okay and nannyingly safe, but the cabin isn’t the brilliantly simple but tech-smart space the new A3 is. Nor does the overall interface and display have the crisp, intuitive qualities of BMW’s iDrive. But that’s not to say it’s not a nice place to sit. The steering wheel feels great, the seats on the Sport models are superb and the materials are mostly high quality and soft touch.
If this makes the A-class sound a mixed bag, then it’s probably because this car doesn’t have one truly standout element, but rather does most things very well. While it’s easy to nitpick individually, spend time with it and it’s a very well-judged coherent whole. We’re not 100 per cent sold on the looks or the tech but you might disagree, and we would fully understand if you went for an A-class simply based on its being a new and different car in a class of same-agains.
If you do, not only will you be getting that three-pointed star on the front, but also a car that’s a fundamentally nice place to sit, one of the best in the class to drive and which - you just know, regardless of spec and engine - comes with that engineering depth that few besides Mercedes are capable of achieving. It goes on sale shortly, starting at £18,945 - which realistically becomes about £25-27,000 for a moderately well-specced diesel in Sport trim.