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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - A-class - A170 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Safety, interior space, clean and ergonomic interior
Room for improvement
Suspension still has ride comfort limitations, sparse equipment for the price

29 Jul 2005

THE A-class has always been an incremental seller for Mercedes-Benz in Australia. Since its local launch in late 1998, it has never managed better than around eight per cent of overall Mercedes sales.

The C-class, for example, which is the next step up the Benz ladder, represents about 24 per cent of local sales, while even the upmarket E-Class accounted for about 14 per cent in 2004.

Clearly the entry-level Benz has remained just that: The quirky five-door hatch is by far the least expensive way of getting behind a three-pointed star, but that hasn't necessarily meant a swathe of aspiring local buyers have lined up for it.

Although global sales may have topped one million since the original launch, the A-class has yet to become a familiar sight in our urban zones.

Of course there's a lot more to the low-level A-class sales performance than the straight figures suggest. Things like supply and even the predilection of Mercedes-Benz salesmen to deal upmarket, rather than with more proletarian buyers, have undoubtedly been factors.

Not that the A-class is ever going to appeal to your average Hyundai customer. It's too expensive for that, and it's never really had particularly strong visual appeal either.

The latest A-class scores much better, on both counts, than the original.

For starters, it's the first under-$30,000 Benz in living memory and, somehow, the stylists have managed to give it a more acceptable, chunky stance that contrasts with the somewhat vertical, somewhat unbalanced look of the old car.

Much of this has come with a fiddling of the basic A-class proportions. The new one is roughly the same height as before, but it's a lot wider and a fair bit longer than even the original long-wheelbase version.

The front view has the mini-MPV look of the original, while the rear view benefits not just from the extra width, but also from the deeper window line and a re-arranging of basic elements like tail-light placement and proportions.

It's not quite squat, but it looks much more substantial and planted on the road. And the side view is more balanced and pleasing, even if the proportions are similar.

Today, there's only one wheelbase - 2568mm - which sits somewhere between the original's short (2423mm) and long (2593mm) wheelbases. But subtle packaging revisions mean the new A-class makes even better use of the still-compact overall shape and provides an interior with amazing stretch-out space.

Even the boot, with its two-position floor sitting over a full-size spare, is usefully voluminous at 435 litres - Mercedes says it's 15 per cent better than before - and opens up to as much as 1370 litres with the seats folded flat.

But the new A-class lacks the fore-aft adjustable rear seat of the original, relying instead on the removability of the larger side of the 70/30-split rear seat to increase load space beyond normal requirements.

If you want to go further, it's possible to option the "Easy-Vario-Plus" system that allows removal of the complete rear seat, opening up as much as 1995 litres - way above the previous long-wheelbase's similarly-configured total load capacity of 1530 litres.

Passengers in the new A-class will notice a couple of things. For one, there's the almost ridiculous amount of space for a car that measures no longer than a Barina and, secondly, there's the very noticeable improvement in interior trim quality and presentation.

Dash, doors and seats all proudly proclaim membership of the Benz family with simple, tasteful shapes, quality materials and no-brainer ergonomics.

In the Classic-level A170 five-door tested here, there's height-adjustable seating, two-way adjustable steering column and a load of handy spaces to store things. Even wine bottles can stand up comfortably in specially designed receptacles in the front door pockets.

But there's no getting away from the fact that the A-class is still only 3.8 metres long, where a VW Golf, for example, is a touch more than 4.2 metres.

This means things like mountain bikes will only go in with a certain amount of persuasion, and that's with at least one of the wheels removed and the back seats folded into fully-flat mode.

At basic Classic level, there's not a lot of gear for your $37,000 investment though. Air-conditioning, trip computer and alloy wheels are more expectations than privileges at this price, and you do begin to think the lack of power rear windows, cruise control and CD stacker are a little stingy.

But there's no holding back on the important stuff. Like the original, the A-class comes with electronic stability control and ABS, and adds front, side and full-length curtain airbags to maximise passive safety.

The A-class continues with the double-layer floor that enables it, according to Mercedes, to equate the safety levels of larger cars. Footage of the current model slamming into an offset frontal collision with an E-class makes for a pretty convincing demonstration of how well this little 1240kg car has been engineered.

Mechanically, there are a few differences. The engines are based on the same architecture, but the range of capacities is different. Base engine is the three-door A150's 70kW 1.5-litre, followed by the 85kW 1.7-litre in the A170 and the 100kW 2.0-litre in the A200. The 142kW A200 Turbo (in three and five-door form) is due later in 2005.

And, thankfully, the transmission choices are a lot more sensible, including a five-speed manual and a new CVT that replaces the five-speed auto available in the previous A-class. The dodgy, clutchless five-speeder has been discontinued.

The next thing passengers comparing the new A-class with the old will notice is the ride. Benz has no reputation for well-sorted small-car suspensions and the new A-class isn't about to change that, but the new model, with its revised front suspension and a new "parabolic" beam rear axle that combines light weight with complete camber control to help soften the ride and maintain stability is a big improvement.

This is a major consideration given the handling controversies that surrounded the original model prior to its being fitted with stability control to eliminate the propensity to tip over under duress.

The new car rides a lot better - up to a point - than the original, being softer and more absorbent in most conditions. Yet, despite the new selective-damping shock absorbers that are able to sense the difference between a corner and a road bump, it is still uncomfortable with sharp-edged undulations that exceed the available wheel travel.

The shortish wheelbase doesn't help either, contributing at times to some very un-Benz front-rear pitching movements.

The electromechanical steering exhibits some of the traits - a certain numbness, for example - evident in other applications, but it's not too bad in the Benz.

The real problem seems to lie in the still-vertical proportions that make the car feel uncomfortable in crosswinds and a little oversensitive to directional changes. The passengers, seated high above the double-layer floor, can feel the car rocking side to side if it's pushed through a series of corners with reasonable enthusiasm.

The bottom line though is that the A-class never suggests it's likely to become unstable, stability control or not. It's one or two steps above classification as plodding or pedestrian.

But it will be interesting, nevertheless, to see how the forthcoming turbo version comes across in terms of its sportiness.

The 1.7-litre engine, with just a single overhead camshaft and two valves per cylinder, would seem to be well behind the twin-cam, 16-valve four-cylinder competition, but actually it does a pretty good job.

Zero to 100km/h in 10.9 seconds is reasonable enough - and a little faster, and a little less fuel-consumptive, than the old A160 long-wheelbase.

Maximum power may have come and gone by a little over 5500rpm, but the engine feels quite revvy and is happy to run out to the 6000rpm redline.

If there's a problem, it's that first gear in the manual transmission version seems a little too high, resulting in the odd moment of embarrassment as it stalls at the lights (reverse seems a little high too, making it difficult to back out of steep driveways).

There's a reasonably big ratio gap between first and second gears too, although everything begins to work together a lot more closely after that. The manual-transmission A-class then progresses through the gears smoothly, with a progressive clutch action and a light, quite precise shifter.

On the open road, the A-class is smooth and relatively quiet, the engine spinning away in fifth gear at around 2800rpm at 100km/h and no great intrusion from wind noise. There is a sort of drumming that comes up through the suspension though, almost as if the double-layer floor is amplifying it.

But the seats are comfortable and supportive in a no-nonsense Germanic way, and there's plenty of leg, elbow and shoulder room, as well as a light airiness about the cabin that gives a real sense of connectedness with the world outside.

The A170 driver is given a two-way adjustable steering column, a height-adjustable seat and the standard, simple Benz controls with a single, left-hand wand for lights, wipers and indicators.

There's not much to get confused about, with the master light switch to the right of the instrument panel, straightforward heating/air-conditioning controls and classic, easy to read gauges.

Rear-seat passengers get a fold-down central armrest with flip-out cupholders to compensate for the fact they have to wind their windows manually.

Overall? Well, the new A-class is an impressive light car that should set the standard for anyone else campaigning in this size category. It demonstrates that very small does not mean very unsafe, and that it doesn't mean tight, cramped cabins either.

What it does show is that to wear the Mercedes badge one must continue to pay a premium, especially when you consider other cars offering similar, if not better space, equal quality and arguably equal safety levels that open at much lower prices.

The entry-level VW Golf, for example, which starts with all the above for $26,000.

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