REVIEW DATE: 22 Nov 2007
Potential buyers might need to forget what they think they know about the Mercedes A Class. Those who haven't tried the second generation version may find that it re-writes the established class rules. Andy Enright reports on the A150 version
By all accepted wisdom, the A150 should be the least exciting car Mercedes make. Drawing on just 95bhp, Mercedes' A150 isn't exactly a ripsnorter, its 1.5-litre engine being modesty personified. Trouble is, the old A-Class could be a little too exciting for its own good at times. This second generation model might not set your trousers on fire, but it's a better car in virtually every respect. Buying a base model Mercedes can be an exercise in canny consumption.
Prices start from just £14,065 for the three-door A150 with the five-door variant pitching in at £14,815. Compared to an entry level BMW 1 Series, this is bargain basement stuff and comparable in many respects to something far more mainstream such as a 1.6-litre Ford Focus. If you're an enthusiast driver, both of these options may well be preferable to the baby Merc, but there are a great many prospective purchasers who couldn't give a monkey's about heel and toe downchanges or lift off oversteer. For them, the packaging and badge cachet will be more than enough to seal the deal.
Let's have a look at what the A150 is packing. The 8v engine isn't the first or last word in powerplant technology but it is reliable and boasts surprisingly good torque. Compared to the old A140 model, the A150 features 101cc of extra capacity and 7.5bhp more grunt. This modest power is delivered to the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox. If you're planning on using the car largely in city traffic, it could well be worthwhile specifying the Autotronic continuously variable automatic transmission. This is the first transmission from Mercedes to operate on this principle in which the ratios are changed continuously by means of a pulley-wheel variator and a steel thrust belt.
As a result, the A-Class is able to accelerate with no interruption of power and the engine reaches its maximum output more quickly than with a conventional automatic transmission. The Autotronic gearbox also excels in terms of ride comfort and low noise levels. It comes complete with a choice of transmission modes - 'S' for 'standard' in which the gearbox can recognise and learn different driving styles, 'C' for 'comfort' for lower revs, smoother acceleration and lower fuel consumption; and a 'manual' mode where the entire ratio range is split into seven virtual gears that can be selected by nudging the gear lever left or right.
"Whisper it, but the A150 could well be the sleeper hit of the A Class line up"
Performance with Autotronic still can't quite match that with the conventional stick shift, although it's not too far off and many will consider it an adequate trade-off to save their clutch leg in stop/start traffic. The manual A150 will hit 60mph in 12.3 seconds and the Autotronic version will require 13.2 seconds. Both cars will see a 109mph top speed but in terms of economy, it's the manual car that again excels. Score one for the cerebral cortex then, with 45.6 mpg for a manual up against 42.8mpg for the CVT. It's the same story when it comes to emissions, the manual car churning out 148g/km of carbon dioxide and the Autotronic version pumping out a still respectable 157g/km.
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 predecessor's tall, short and narrow measurements ever were. Short and long wheelbase models have been replaced by a one-size fits all policy, the three and five door cars riding on the same chassis.
Despite this more conventional sizing policy, a number of A-Class trademarks are carried over. The latest generation car is built on an all-new 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 versions 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.
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.
The A150 could be the quiet success of the A Class range. While the A200 Turbo model and the torquey CDI diesel variants will attract more attention, the A150 could inconspicuously plunder a whole heap of sales from mainstream rivals. Unlike its predecessor, it's a car you'd be pleased to have on your drive for reasons other than the badge on its bonnet. It's been a long time coming but the A Class could well have arrived.
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