REVIEW DATE: 22 Nov 2007
A Mercedes A-Class With Some Poke Under The Bonnet May Take A Bit Of Getting Used To But The Results Are Rather Surprising. Andy Enright Reports
The old Mercedes A-Class was many things but it could never have been described as sporting. Early cars had competent handling but if you had an ounce of 98RON flowing through your veins, you'd likely pass the A-Class over in favour of something a little more dynamic. Recognising this, Mercedes have imbued the latest generation of A-Classes with a bit more composure when the road deviates from the straight ahead and to capitalise on this new found surefootedness, they are offering a zippy 136bhp A200 model.
That may not sound a whole lot of power, especially as the old A-Class campaigned with a 140bhp A210 Evolution model, but buyers of this car rapidly discovered that it had a bit more power than the chassis could comfortably handle. There are no such problems with the latest A. That top heavy, slightly wallowy feeling and the sudden intervention of multitudes of electronic control systems has been replaced by a whole lot more fluidity in the chassis and more heft to the steering. So confident are they in the current car's abilities that Mercedes are also offering a 193bhp A200 Turbo derivative capable of a 7.3s 0-60mph sprint.
The A200 will accelerate to 60mph in 9.8 seconds, which will be quick enough for most buyers. A top speed of 124mph will embarrass most hatches although the 193bhp turbocharged version offers enthusiasts some real bang for their buck. Still, it's good to know the chassis is capable of handling that sort of power, safe in the knowledge that 136bhp is well within its comfort zone. The first time you tip the A200 into a corner you're instantly aware that here is a car that has undergone a radical transformation. Although many of the avantgarde engineering solutions remain, the A-Class now no longer feels like something quite removed from the automotive mainstream. In short, it feels like a car rather than a design oddity.
Mercedes' problem is that in bringing the A200 closer to the feel of many more proletarian hatches, it has a tougher time justifying its hefty asking price. You'll need £16,382 to land the entry-level Classic three-door ranging up to £19,177 to buy an Avantgarde SE five-door. That's quite some money, and those looking to seat four comfortably, get a quality interior, a touch of pace and still cut it on the city streets may well feel as if they're getting a better deal with something like a Volkswagen Golf 1.6FSI or a Volvo S40 1.8. Still, whilst both of these cars make superb all rounders, neither has quite the same exclusive feel as the A200.
"The A200 is pricey but now feels like a premium product"
Mercedes has made great strides not only in imbuing the A-Class with superior driving characteristics but also in bringing more traditional Mercedes aspects of build quality to the cabin. 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 first and most obvious change is that Mercedes is offering a three-door version of the A200, designed to appeal to younger, more sports-oriented buyers. 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.
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 A200 offers a decent compromise between performance and frugality, space and compactness. Without the handicap of its hefty asking price, it would be a car that's easy to recommend but there are plenty of other rivals that would appear to offer more for the money. If, on the other hand, you are keen on owning a car with a prestige badge and want something a step removed from the mainstream feeding frenzy, the A200 makes a worthwhile and quirky alternative.
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