REVIEW DATE: 22 Nov 2007
The Mercedes A-Class never really overcame a difficult birth. The second generation model has put such things behind it thanks to its greater depth of excellence and technical ability. Andy Enright reports
Can a car that sells more than a million units really be judged a failure? On the face of it, such an accusation would seem churlish in the extreme, but when the car we're talking about is the MK1 Mercedes A-Class, the issue becomes a bit more complicated. Even after racking up such big numbers, few missed this baby Merc when it disappeared from sale in 2005, levelling accusations of rushed development and poor quality at it. This is a little unfair as later MK1 A-Class models were safe and even pretty well built but mud sticks. In order for the A Class to really win our affection, Mercedes knew that they needed to come up with a clean sheet design, offering 'old Mercedes' build with new Mercedes safety and style. They did just that and for the last few years, the second generation A-Class has been rewriting history.
The first and most obvious change if you haven't tried one is that Mercedes is these days offering a three-door version of the A-Class, designed to appeal to younger, more sports oriented buyers. Despite the presence of the old A210 Evolution model in the first generation line-up, nobody could really take the old MK1 car seriously as an exemplar of dynamic excellence. The stance of the latest car is a good deal more conventional, not to mention purposeful, with a 45mm increase in width and a whopping 232mm increase in length. Its dimensions are now more akin to a regular supermini than its predecessors tall, short and narrow measurements ever were. Short and long wheelbase models have these days been replaced by a one-size fits all policy, the three and five door cars riding on the same chassis with prices starting from £14,065.
"You'll instantly appreciate the gulf in quality between this car and the MK1 model"
Despite this more conventional sizing policy, a number of A-Class trademarks are carried over. The latest generation car is built on a completely fresh platform but structural features such as the innovative sandwich floor remain. Drop inside and you'll instantly appreciate the gulf in quality between this car and the outgoing model. 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. Although there are some who claim that customer clinics crush genuine innovation, it has to be said that Mercedes are showing a good deal more humility and desire to understand their core customers than they did with the old A-Class, a car that was launched hoping the market would see things its way.
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 engines have grown that little bit more powerful to grow into the car's increased capability. The petrol line up opens with the 95bhp A150, then there's a 115bhp A170 and a punchy 136bhp A200. Mercedes even offer a 193bhp turbocharged version of this engine, something that would have been unthinkable in the old car. The diesel engine range shows greater innovation. All units are Euro IV compliant and start with the 82bhp A160CDI, the mid range being marked out by the109bhp A180 CDI and the premier diesel powerplant is the 140bhp A200CDI, a car that is an absolute blast. A six speed manual transmission is the default gearbox but all models are also available with an optional Autotronic CVT gearbox. Its 'manual' mode features seven gears, although like a proper automatic, it has a torque converter.
With more power comes a better suspension system. 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.
Although its exterior dimensions are a good deal more sporting than before, the A-Class features a host of MPV style interior features. The rear seats may not slide but they tumble forwards to leave a long flat floor and the Easy Vario Plus system allows the cushion of the rear seat to be hidden under the boot floor. As an option, Mercedes also offer passenger seats that can be completely removed, leaving scope for the driver to be alone with a whole lot of fresh air and thus carrying capacity. It's all very clever and will doubtless cause Mercedes dealers to schedule a little more time for vehicle handover as there's quite a bit to learn.
The familiar Classic, Elegance and Avantgarde trim levels are on offer and air conditioning is standard on all models. A Luxury Climate Control system is offered as an option and uses data recorded by temperature, humidity, sun position and outside pollutant sensors. Other desirable options include xenon headlights, and a dash mounted LCD display linked to Mercedes' excellent COMAND control system.
Bigger, sportier, quicker and more desirable, the second generation A-Class is more Mercedes Benz than ever before. No longer the runt of the litter, this A-Class offers a tempting alternative to BMW's 1 Series if you're looking for a compact but prestigious runabout. If you were tasked with preparing a wish list to make the old A-Class 'right', the result wouldn't have looked too far off the second-generation model we have here. Right second time is better than not at all.
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