When Mercedes-Benz first released the 190E in 1983 it was marketed as the new “small Mercedes”. Small for a Mercedes, maybe, but still so big that it left a whole sector of the market completely untapped.
To bring the fight to this battleground the first Mercedes A-Class was released in 1997 to a background of intrigue and wonderment. Mercedes were, for the first time ever, chasing the real small car market.
Nobody really knew what to expect from the new car. There had been concept cars, small hatchbacks often using alternative power sources, but no definitive indication of what form the new car might take. It couldn’t simply be an echo of traditional staid Mercedes-Benz design, the brand longed to escape from its exclusive association with old, fat, rich businessmen.
And when it landed, the A-Class managed to be surprisingly youthful in its appeal. Funky looking, with colourful interior trims available and sporty AMG style dress-up bits available, it seemed quite a package. Practical, too; with various permutations of wheelbase, seats that folded in numerous ways and a well designed boot. It scored well for innovation, too, with a unique “sandwich” floor, designed so the engine and transmission would be directed under the passenger cell rather than into it, in the event of a front impact.
What wasn’t so clever in safety terms was what happened when a bunch of Swedish Journalists from Teknikens värld carried out their standard “Elk Test” simulating a sudden change of direction to avoid an errant moose. Unfortunately the net result of this particularly heavy-handed test was that the car flipped over. In real life the chance of this situation rearing its head was a slim one, but it was enough to give the worldwide motoring press an absolute field day. Stubborn as always, Mercedes chose denial as the way forward, eventually rescinding this policy and recalling 2600 cars to rectify the problem. A solution was found in suspension modifications and the introduction of a Stability Control system, the first ever to be employed in such a small car.
The A-Class then continued with some success, a steady seller among wealthy (and it has to be said, older) urbanites until the current W169 generation came online in 2005. The new range was simplified with just one wheelbase but a similar selection of petrol and diesel engines. The old clutchless manual was gone, but full manual and auto transmissions continued. New, though, was a terrifyingly powerful 195hp Turbo petrol engine. Why terrifying? More on that later.
The car you see before you is an example of a late A160. In solid black, the only option on this car is the parktronic parking sensor system. This is the final form the current A-Class will take, its upcoming replacement is likely to be a far more conventional small hatchback in the vein of the Audi A1.
It’s a very tall five door hatchback (a three-door is available) that covers a similar amount of road space as a current Fiesta. Settle into the supportive front seats and you find yourself looking down on the traffic; the A-Class has a usefully higher driving position than much of the competition thanks to that sandwich floor. You step up into the car like you might a small SUV. Inside the dashboard layout is utterly conventional with no particular design flair to speak of, but it has to be said that the interior materials are really very nice. On this base Classic SE model there is no extraneous décor to distract the eye, and you search in vain for any real signs of cost-cutting. Yes, it’s all very plain, dour even, especially in black. But it feels like it will last for ever.
The stereo unit is the same bluetooth equipped unit seen in the ML off roader, only here it offers rather better sound quality. A vastly expensive upgrade to COMAND sat-nav is available, which nobody ever goes for.
To drive, well, there’s nothing significantly wrong with it. When you’re pottering about all is well; the ride is firm but comfortable in that typical germanic way, that little 1.5 litre engine is willing and flexible and emits an amusingly flatulent exhaust note. Special praise must go to the gearbox. Its selector is one of the most precise on the market and gears are dispatched with a flick of the wrist; there’s a slight notchiness to it but it’s still very positive.
The car responds well to inputs overall, the steering is positive and well geared, but then suddenly physics take over and you learn a lesson very quickly indeed. Carry too much of a head of steam into a corner, especially in this base model with its comparitively narrow tyres, and things start to get dramatic. You can actually sense the inevitable whenever you attempt very low speed maneouvers on loose ground. Turning the car at full lock and doing no more than walking pace, the sensation is that one front wheel is turning, the other is being dragged. The steering geometry of this car seems very strange indeed and this translates, on the open road, to absolutely cataclysmic understeer.
Remember when I mentioned earlier that a Turbo version of this car was available? Well, if you enjoy running intergalactically wide around corners this is the car for you. Well, actually with the more powerful car comes wider, stickier rubber, but the physics are still there. This car, regardless of engine, is an habitual understeerer.
The Turbo is no longer available, and I wonder if this is because MB have decided that their core demographic won’t want a car that ploughs headlong through corners at high speeds. The Turbo is fun in a chaotic kind of way, but it’s like sending your Gran bungee jumping; not really a terribly good idea. What is an extremely good idea, though, is the Park Assist system that comes bundled with the optional Parktronic parking sensor pack. Parktronic gives you a visual display of how close you are to other vehicles and obstacles together with the usual warning beeps. Park Assist, though, literally parallel parks the car for you.
When driving forwards at parking speeds, indicating left arms the system. A symbol appears on the dash when you’ve just passed a space that the car determines is big enough, you then engage reverse and the dashboard asks if you want Parking Assistance. Press a steering wheel button, take your hands off the wheel and the car will guide you automatically into the parking space. All you need do is manage the brake and accelerator, the steering looks after itself. This is an absolute boon for those people who collapse into a blind panic when a parking space presents itself. Moreover, it kind of hints where the natural habitat is for the A-Class; deep in suburbia.
So, there’s the car. Practical, safe, perfectly acceptable to drive. And frighteningly expensive. The cheapest model, as tested is over £16k, without too much effort you could easily spec an A180 CDi to thirty thousand. At any price, though, does the A-Class deserve the three-pointed star on its nose? Well, that alldepends on your ideas of what a badge should mean.
As I type this I am sitting next to an S320 Cdi, sixty-eight grand’s worth of flagship Mercedes saloon car. It’s wearing 20” AMG rims and looks absolutely fantastic. There can be no doubt that this is a truly aspirational vehicle. This, in the mind of many is what a Mercedes-Benz should be all about.
On the other hand, our biggest volume seller is the C-Class, direct successor to the 190E I mentioned earlier. It competes squarely with the BMW 3-Series and is accepted to be on equal footing with the very best in the class. The bread and butter models are at least thirty thousand pounds less expensive than that S320, yet the C-Class is car still a much sought-after by those keen on brand image and driveway prestige.
And so to the A-Class. It’s a hard car to fall in love with, looks-wise. While not gargoyle-ugly it holds little in the way of romanticism or mystique. In terms of visual desirability (without the badges) a Fiesta walks all over it and I can’t imagine a young driver in the land who would plump for the Merc on a “I have to have it” basis.
Uncover the badges, though, and things change. Mercedes-Benz have what is officially reckoned as the worlds most recognised brand emblem, and this is worth a whole lot. Subconsciously the name registers as one you can trust, one that’ll look after you. There’s also that strange feeling as you drive a car with the three-pointed-star on the steering wheel in front of you, a feeling that you deserve every inch of road space you’re occupying. It’s like some strange higher force is looking over you, the badge is your talisman, guiding you safely through the traffic.
This is all, of course, bollocks. It’s just a car, and not an especially inspiring one at that. The truth is that, as long as it wasn’t actually terrible, Mercedes could stick a badge on anything they like and it would still sell like superheated confectionary. The A-Class isn’t awful, it’s a very good car for those who want it. It’s just a shame that style, passion, soul and excitement aren’t even on that long option list.