Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - A-class - range
Strong engine and drivetrain combinations, equipment levels, ease of use, fun to drive
Room for improvement
Road and wind noise can be intrusive, firm ride, some cabin squeaks and rattles
1 Mar 2013
UNLIKE the original A-Class, which was originally launched without even a stereo as standard and let’s be honest, had limited appeal due to its oddball upright styling, here we have a slinky low-slung and sporty little number with strong engines and a long standard equipment list.
It even comes with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that delivers lightning fast, seamless gear changes and paddle-shifters for DIY enthusiasts included in the price.
Benz has gone all out with funky interior design for the A-Class, which oozes showroom appeal with its different coloured and textured surfaces, chrome bling, contrast stitching and racy looking sculpted sports seats.
It couldn’t be further removed from the conservative function-leading-form design of the VW Golf or Audi A3, businesslike layout of the BMW 1 Series or tech-fest of the Lexus CT200h – in fact it has more in common with the more stylish Volvo V40 or Alfa Romeo Giulietta interiors.
There is also a lot borrowed from the B-Class in there, like the centre console almost entirely dedicated to storage, the jet engine style air-vents and large infotainment screen that sprouts from the dash like someone wedged an iPad there.
Overall it is a classy, modern look with the initial wow factor that we are sure will win plenty of customers over – but it somehow lacks the solid feel that is so reassuring about an A3 or Golf as all examples we drove had some kind of interior rattle or creak.
The A-Class also can’t match the Volvo V40’s feeling of airiness and space. It is quite a focussed, sporty feeling and snug driving environment, but never felt cramped.
While the door bins are small, the centre console’s cup holders, large bottle holder, ashtray like cubby, passenger footwell cargo net and big bin under the centre arm-rest provide welcome cabin storage to supplement the fairly narrow glove compartment.
The 341-litre boot is not the biggest in its class but the vacant spare wheel well provides extra space – unless there are Harman Kardon premium sound system electronics in there – and a net on the underside of the parcel shelf is handy for securing small items.
Occupants sit low, but with lots of adjustment for the seat and steering wheel, finding the ideal driving position was easy, although we found the angle of the pedals gave us a bit of foot-ache
There is room for a pair of six-footers to sit in tandem due to a surprising amount of rear seat space, making this a genuine four-seater.
People gripe and grumble about the Benz way of interior layout but this writer doesn’t mind the column-mounted gear selector and at least the combined wiper and indicator stalk means there is no mistaking which side does what.
The cruise control stalk is brilliantly intuitive and makes it easy to set the speed limiter too, while the cruise control itself is accurate and does not let the car run away with itself down hills, for more relaxed driving when speed cameras are about.
All the cars we drove were fitted with the COMAND APS sat-nav upgrade, meaning an intuitive user interface for all infotainment functions, controlled by a rotary dial on the centre console.
This upgrade comes with a Harman Kardon premium audio system and DAB+ digital radio, so we enjoyed crystal-clear tunes backed up by beefy bass.
Apart from the parking brake switch buried somewhere by the driver’s right knee, the major controls were where we expected to find them and were easy to use, with a satisfying quality feel to all switchgear and simple operation for the multi-function trip computer display between the instruments.
Thick C-pillars and a small rear window hampered visibility, but over-the-shoulder glances were fine and all variants get a standard reversing camera.
On the move, we found the A-Class easy to drive, with well-judged steering weight (it is heavier in the A250 Sport hot hatch) and strong engines.
Even the entry-level A180, producing 90kW and 200Nm from its 1.6-litre turbo-petrol engine felt willing and flexible enough to never feel strained.
The transmission does its job seamlessly in the background and is so quick to kick down when bursts of speed are required that it shows up the turbo lag of each engine.
In this respect the A180 was least affected, making it the point-and-squirt choice for city driving and well suited to the car’s nippy, zippy nature.
Ascending a twisty mountain pass the A180 acquitted itself well, never feeling like it was running out of puff and revving cleanly to the redline in each gear with a willing, zingy note that never got harsh.
The quick, direct and precise steering combined with the keen turn-in meant it was fun to punt all A-Class variants through twists and turns.
Excellent body control was a symptom of a ride that may be too firm for some, but we found it well-damped and not jarring – but the stiff setup occasionally had the car skittering across mid-corner bumps and corrugations.
Plenty of grip was on offer, the A-Class held its line with poise and a balanced feel, pushing into gentle oversteer when cornering too hot while a mid-bend tightening of the line was available by backing off the throttle, without much sign of wayward lift-off oversteer.
Of course this front-driver would start to spin up an inside front wheel when accelerating hard in tight corners – especially the more powerful A200 and A250 – but the traction and stability control systems would deal with this effectively and, most of the time, discreetly.
As mentioned, the petrol A200 and A250 exhibited more turbo lag from their more highly strung four-cylinder engines than the A180, but this was made up for on the open road by a more relaxed, lower revving cruise, and on the sportier 155kW/350Nm A250, an entertaining turn of speed and more sonorous exhaust note.
Once over the initial turbo lag, the petrol A200, with 115kW and 250Nm on tap, provided a meaningful amount of extra grunt for more confident country road overtaking than the A180 but delivered acceleration in a less assertive way than the equivalent A3, Golf or 1 Series.
Meanwhile the diesel A200 (with 100kW and 300Nm) delivered plenty of mid-range shove yet revved out willingly when thrashed.
We were not as won over by the thrashier top-end engine note of the petrol A200, which sounded pretty uninspiring, and the diesel A200 was unexpectedly noisy at idle and low speeds but refined and smooth in all other circumstances.
Apart from a background drone from the sports exhaust of the A250, the engines of all A-Class variants settled down to a quiet cruise at any speed, with 100km/h requiring well under 2000rpm in seventh gear.
Like the Volvo V40, road noise was not so well suppressed and worst in the A250 which became almost unforgivably rumbly on coarse-chip bitumen, and the A-Class was also prone to wind rustle around the windscreen and doors.
Benz knows it is going to sell as many A-Classes in Australia as it can get its hands on due to sheer showroom appeal and price positioning alone, not to mention the new mainstream format.
Happily the A-Class is as good to drive as it looks and its ease of use, fun handling and generous equipment levels mean it deserves a place high up on the shopping list and also worth a look from those considering higher-spec versions of non-premium small cars.
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