REVIEW DATE: 06 Aug 2008
The improved second generation Mercedes A-Class is harder to ignore. Andy Enright reports on the A170 version
"It's not going to get round. Not this time." As we sat in our car and watched pre-production Mercedes A-Class models tackling the Nurburgring's Brunnchen corner, it seemed only a matter of time before one would punch a neat sized hole in the adjacent scenery. Every lap that passed seemed to bring the pocket Benz down the hill ever quicker, tyres groaning in protest as the car edged ever closer to the unflinching guard rail. After an hour and with no sign of an impending accident, we departed in search of refreshment, safe in the knowledge that this generation A-Class was a massively different proposition to its predecessor.
This would be all well and good were the development hacks some special one-off sports version, but chatting to the industry drivers over a drink in the Pistenklause restaurant that evening, we found out they were standard A170 models with stock suspension and tyres. If you had the talent and the courage, you could corner an A170 like these guys. I wouldn't attempt it. Despite the many changes wrought upon the latest generation A-Class, it's still not what you'd describe as a sports hatch.
The car's been improved in recent times, though anyone looking to tell the original second generation car apart from this facelifted model has a far tougher task on. For the record, the usual facelift suspects of light clusters, grille and bumpers have been tweaked but we'd be lying if we said that the alterations are groundbreaking. Far more important is what has gone on under the surface.
An option which many owners will want to consider is the BlueEFFICIENCY package. This runs to aerodynamic improvements to the radiator grille and a ride height lowered by 10mm that will also reduce drag. There's a generator management system that charges the battery with energy that would otherwise have been lost on the engine overrun and, the highlight, an ECO stop/start function that turns off the engine when petrol A-Classes like this one are stationary. Expect a fuel economy improvement of around 9% and a similar enhancement to emissions.
"As a value proposition, the A170 stacks up a lot better than you might think"
The £15,680 A170 variant packs 115bhp beneath its stubby bonnet but it's not particularly quick, the pace off the line slightly dulled by the weight of equipment and build quality. Most owners will view this as an acceptable trade off. A six speed manual transmission is the default gearbox but all models are available with an optional Autotronic CVT gearbox. Its 'manual' mode features seven gears although like a proper automatic it has a torque converter. Should be interesting.
Sitting above the A150 and A160CDI models, the A170 represents the sort of Mercedes A-Class that the majority of buyers will turn to. Capable of getting to 60mph from standstill in a respectable 10.6 seconds and registering a top speed of 118mph, the A170 offers a reasonable turn of speed which, coupled with decent economy and emissions, should make it the biggest selling petrol- powered A-Class.
The latest generation car may be built on an all-new platform but structural features such as the innovative sandwich floor have been carried over from the old MK1 A-Class. If you owned one of those, drop inside and you'll instantly appreciate the gulf in quality between this car and that one. The dashboard looks like a scaled down version of the E-Class fascia - think premium not Palitoy - and has been developed with the help of a shiny Berlin customer clinic where everything from materials to switch feel to door slam and indicator sounds have been exhaustively tested.
Pry back the aerodynamic underfloor spoiler and a parabolic axle is evident. This curved tube joins the rear wheels and is mounted to a central pivot point with a linkage providing lateral guidance. It's not a new idea but Mercedes have refined the system so that it's a good deal more tuneable than the outgoing trailing arm set-up. What is new is their adaptive damping system. Most such systems use electronics to alter the characteristics of the dampers but engineers at Daimler Chrysler have developed a valve that allows the oil inside them to move freely when the car negotiates small surface irregularities, thus giving a composed ride, but when more is asked of the damper, the valve closes, firming up the ride during enthusiastic cornering. The power steering does rely on electronic trickery, a motor replacing the old pump system. As you might well expect, the A-Class still comes complete with a legion of electronic safety systems.
The first generation A-Class models were woefully short of Mercedes Benz look and feel inside, although later models rectified this to a certain extent. The second-generation car features soft touch fascia surfaces, sleek switchgear, and a glove compartment lid that closes like an Asprey's jewellery box rather than a CD case. About the best compliment you can pay it is that it now actually feels like a Mercedes.
The A170 is never going to be the headline grabber of the A-Class range. Instead it's a car that juggles many of the inherent compromises involved in building a premium supermini better than most others. Yes, it is a good deal pricier than the majority of the supermini market is prepared to pay, but as a value proposition, it stacks up a lot better than any of the old A-Class variants and offers a decent step up in power from the rather weedy A150. If you have existing prejudices against the Mercedes A-Class, the A170 may just have the power to convert.
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