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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - A-class - A180 CDI 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Engine responsiveness, interior packaging, quality feel
Room for improvement
Ride quality, steering feel, dynamics

25 Mar 2009

FIRST, a quick bit of history. Mercedes-Benz realised in the early-to-mid-1990s that it would go down the gurgler unless it pulled back engineering costs and started expanding its range, and thus the A-class was born.

The A-class was an example – perhaps the example – of the new Mercedes-Benz: a funky, modern, space-efficient hatch to take on the world.

Its unique space-saving and safety-enhancing sandwich floor construction allowed engineers to meet the “short and practical” design edict. All this would sway customers who had never considered a new Benz.

Except that while Mercedes-Benz might have wanted the A-class to turn the market on its head, it turned itself on its head.

By failing the infamous ‘elk test' and rolling over, the A-class caused Mercedes-Benz to go into damage control, fitting electronic stability control (ESC) – or ESP in Benz-speak – to every A-class to ensure this would not happen again.

It soon gave rise to the question about the whole essence of the sandwich floor design of the A-class: was it really the makings of a packaging wonder, but a dynamic blunder?

Move on 11 years to a much-refined second-generation A-class that arrived in 2005 and received a mid-cycle facelift last year that included a diesel for first time, in the A180 CDI.

Driving the new A-class diesel, you notice straight away how nimble it feels, like it could fit into any urban nook or cranny. Yet soon enough the absolutely lifeless steering reminds us of A-classes past.

There are a few other ghosts here, too. The ride is fussy, pitching and thumping, sometimes all at once. The dynamics are insipid at best, and while the Continental PremiumContact tyres do a fair job of sticking the A-class to the road, they can’t play a cornering game that the chassis does not know.

It simply does not have the agility of many other ‘ordinary’ hatches in the class, let alone the likes of the Audi A3. The A180 CDI feels as safe, sure and reliable and certainly better than the original A-class, but it is no driver’s car, and the so-so ride makes it hard to think of it as an accomplished small luxury car.

Get over the ride and handling ordinariness, and there are some pleasing gems in the A180 CDI.

The powertrain is one of them. This 2.0-litre turbo-diesel four is not the smoothest or quietest diesel on the market, yet it is willing and responsive, with its peak torque of 250Nm starting at 1600rpm and extending to 2600rpm. It mates well with the continuously-variable transmission (CVT).

It has typical turbo lag, but spools up more quickly than most. We averaged around 7.7L/100km in mostly urban stop-start traffic with a few short freeway runs, which is not bad in congested Sydney but a fair way from the 5.4L/100km combined figure quoted by Mercedes-Benz.

Like the first A-class, the MkII version has excellent interior packaging, and is well finished, albeit in the stark Benz way. From the moment you slide into the driver’s seat, you notice the higher hip point compared to most hatches in the class, making it a lot easier to get in and out.

The dash layout is Mercedes-Benz’s simple, clever and familiar design. A-class owners will feel at home if they trade up to a bigger and better Benz.

The seats are flat and unsupportive at the front, but vision out of the A-class is good. The bonnet disappears to nothing but is quite short anyway and it is easy to gauge the length, even without park assist.

The cabin has a large glovebox, useful cupholders in the door pockets and one in the centre console, but centre console storage is not abundant, despite Mercedes-Benz’s claim that it is bigger than before. There isn’t a whole lot of room between the seats.

The rear seat has plenty of leg and headroom, and even the centre occupant gets adequate foot space with a minimal centre floor hump. The rear seat is also quite flat and hard, and lacking a little under-thigh support.

The lift-up tailgate requires a bit of swing room, as it is quite tall, but the benefit is a low-loading floor and a flat squared-off load area. There are four tie-down loops, a ski port.

The rear seat folds down in a 60-40 split and also in two parts - the base folds forward and then the back folds down. The base is quite flat and does not take up much space. With seats folded, there is a flat load floor, and the 15-inch steel spare wheel sits in a well under a hard cargo floor.

Although it is a far better car than the original A-class, and the diesel/CVT combination is a good one, you would buy the A180 for its interior space, nimble exterior, economy, powertrain and – let’s face it – the badge, not for its value (a Golf diesel is about $10k cheaper), ride or its handling.

This is a good car - a car we really want to like more - but it seems the one-box body with sandwich floor construction is what makes the A-class so practical yet so boring.

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