REVIEW DATE: 22 Nov 2007
The Mercedes A-Class Never Really Overcame A Difficult Birth. The Second Generation Model Is Launched With A Greater Wealth Of Experience And Technical Ability Behind It. 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 £15,182 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 will be 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 but below the A180, A200, A200T and A200CDI variants, the A170 represents the sort of middle market 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.
"As a a value proposition, the A170 stacks up a lot better than any of the old A Class variants"
Many of you will already be familiar with the A170 badge, attached as it was to the rump of the entry-level diesel model in the outgoing range, but the latest A-Class line up is a very different proposition. The first and most obvious change is that Mercedes is offering a three-door version of the A170, designed to appeal to younger, more sports-oriented buyers. Despite the presence of the old A210 Evolution model, nobody could really take the old 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 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 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.
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 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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