Thursday, 4 October 2012

New Order vs Old Fart.


Yes, the old Mercedes A-Class has been taken out into the woods and gently put to rest with a swift blow to the head, before being repeatedly shot in the face to finish the job off. A-Class dead. Arise the new A-Class, which, er, I haven't driven.

Sadly I WASN'T BLOODY INVITED to the corporate orgy that was the launch of the New (capitalise this for emphasis) A-Class, which took place in Madeira or Majorca or somesuch exotic clime. Nay, while my colleagues were drinking sangria in between bouts of determined country-road thrashing in the name of "product familiarisation" I was industriously toiling away KEEPING CUSTOMERS HAPPY and MAKING MONEY FOR THE COMPANY.  But never mind all this. The old A-Class has been replaced with the New A-Class. What of it?

Well, to some extent there is no comparison to be drawn at all. Comparing the new and the old is like comparing Ecstasy with Aspirin. That the name A-Class is being used again is merely a consequence of the fact that the car is the smallest in the MB range and, geographically, that means it has to fit in the "A" slot, below "B" and , indeed, "C". Etc. This does rather limit Mercedes to sticking with their hierarchy, there's little scope now for an "A and a half" If MB ever wanted to make one.

The old A-Class, and the one before that (as launched in the '90s and propelling Benz into a sector they had never trodden in before) was relatively revolutionary. A clever design, it maximised interior space, crashworthiness and safety (unfortunate involuntary inversion episode apart) and was optimised to be able to accommodate all kinds of alternatively-fuelled powertrains. Electric, Hydrogen and Steam Turbine powered models were all either proposed or considered by Benz or dreamt up by your author. As the smallest car in the range, it was seen as the car that Stubborn, Conservative old Mercedes could afford to take risks with. It would appeal to a young, adventurous new chunk of the market who would love it for its radical thinking and individual shape.

Well, this never really happened.

What actually happened was that dozens, hundreds, thousands of elderly people all over Europe immediately traded in their C, E and S-Class saloon cars and downsized into the perky little new A-Class, which could be had, if required, with almost all of the luxury trappings enjoyed in the Senior models of the range.  Very soon we would begin to see A-Classes with "On holiday spending our kids inheritance" signs hanging in the rear screen; parking grazes on all four corners and a tartan travel blanked on the parcel shelf, just like the one I have in The Official RoadworkUK Rover.

The A-Class had become a car for old giffers.

Launching A210 and, later, A200 Turbo models (which were actually ridiculously quick) did little to fool anybody. The later Turbo was deleted after a few years having achieved little except increase tyre sales thanks to the unique way the A-Class's front suspension geometry is arranged, together with understeer and 197hp worth of wheelspin.

I've just spent 300 miles in an end-of-the-line A-Class and, you know what? It's possibly the most OK car of ever. Now, obviously I didn't experience one iota of fun at any stage during my time with it, but that didn't make it into any kind of ordeal. I had a comfortable seat, good visibility thanks to the Granny-friendly high driving position, a bluetooth enabled stereo that (despite a dismal lack of DAB) did its level best to entertain me, and sufficient refinement that I reached my destination free of stress and red mist.

I was an A160 CDi, toting a two litre odd diesel engine flat-rated to just 82hp. It's almost an industrial unit, this thing, it just sits there. inert, drizzling out kinetic energy that gets metered out to be used responsibly. Combine this dearth of power with a CVT automatic gearbox and the recipe sounds like a disastrous opportunity to go very, very slowly. And, providing you don't try to drive it like a car, it's absolutely, well, OK.

You get a strange sensation of disconnectedness. From rest you select a target speed and plant the throttle, the engine will then churn out as many revolutions per minute as it decides prudent (if you wish to move with any urgency whatsoever, this usually means virtually all of them), and the tach needle will hover in the same quadrant for as long as it takes until you've gathered momentum, whereupon the gearbox ratio will have arranged itself into an economical cruising gear and the revs will settle somewhere sensible. Suprisingly, a post-80mph cruise isn't a problem.

Think of the A-Class as a totally experience-free personal transportation module and it makes a lot of sense. The A is painless to live with; relatively affordable to maintain and, if I was an employee of Mercedes-Benz or in any way associated with the service department therein I would probably tell you that the A-Class was one of the most trouble-free models we get involved with.

But all of this is totally irrelevant, because the old A had absolutely no image whatsoever, right up until you see old Auntie Edna stepping out from one, at which point the neutral image becomes a somewhat negative one.

Enough is enough, thought Mercedes as it opened the back door and got the shovel and the shotgun ready. What we need the new model to be is the absolute opposite of the current one.

Which is what it is. The New A-Class is almost painfully handsome, with a 1-Series like silhouette, a Golfesque rear end and flanks that come dangerously close to being "Flame surfaced". It looks good; fresh, modern and sharp. White ones will be snapped up by the young without hesitation, and it'll be the first time Merc has managed this (apart from those poor, impressionable fools who bought CLCs). By all accounts, if the reviews are to be believed, the New A-Class just happens to be excellent, too; something the old one never really was. It was just phenomenally OK.

Read Part Two of this, er, I don't know, feature, story, whatever, to see what I'd like to do with the old A-Class.