Mercedes-Benz A-Class review

19 February 2013

Mercedes A-Class AMG Sport side rear view

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Good: Attractive styling, sporty feel, premium materials
Bad: Poor ergonomics, harsh sports suspension, lacklustre tech
Price: From £18,495
Although it is the third generation of car to bear the name, the new A-Class shares nothing with the previous two iterations. While they were both tall and clever, this one is low and not likely to win prizes for innovative thinking. Where the earlier two cars were gawky swots, this one has been peeking over shoulders for answers.

Those shoulders belong to other premium German brands, of course. On one side, the ugly but successful BMW 1-Series. On the other, the bland but popular Audi A3. By following closely in the tyre tracks of the pair, success for the A-Class seems a given, even if it doesn’t manage to tick all the right boxes.

Mercedes A-Class AMG Sport front-side view

Visually, the new Benz most closely mimics the BMW, but under the skin it’s more akin to the A3 because unlike the 1-Series it’s front-wheel drive.

The skin itself is arresting – one of the better efforts to emerge from Mercedes-Benz in recent years. The flanks carry bold kinked creases that work better from some angles than others, but prevent the deep sides from looking slabby beneath the shallow glasshouse.

The front is rubber-stamp sporty Merc, all gaping maw and three-pointed roundel, while the rear is upright and reminiscent of the BMW equivalent. Incidentally the boot, at 341 litres, is 19 litres smaller than the 1-Series’ and 24 litres smaller than the A3’s.

Mercedes A-Class AMG Sport interior

Inside, the cabin offers high-quality materials and some eye-catching details. The jet-nozzle air vents look good and swivel smoothly in their orbits, but other elements aren’t quite so persuasive. The central information screen seems like a tacked on afterthought, for example, and the way it sprouts out from the dash hints at a need to fall at your fingertips, but it isn’t actually a touchscreen. Instead it’s controlled at arm’s length by a couple of buttons and a rotary knob, down by your elbow.

On models with an automatic gearbox, the button to cycle through economy, sport and manual shift modes is hidden away among other little grey Scrabble tiles, an example of ergonomics that could be improved.

On the day of my test drive I sampled two extremes of the A-Class range. In red, the A180 petrol-powered manual, is the cheapest current A-Class at £18,495. In blue, the A220 CDI AMG Sport diesel automatic is not quite the top of the range but costs a sit-down-and-read-it-again £27,170. For yet more contrast, the diesel had £6,000-worth of extras, the A180 just an upgrade from steel wheels and a satnav. Not even metallic paint.

Mercedes A-Class A180 front view

There are other gulfs between the two, besides price, glamour and bright blue paint. In the red corner, 1.6 litres produces 122bhp and 200Nm; in the blue, 2.1 litres yields 170bhp and 350Nm. Six gears versus seven. And 9.2 versus 8.2 seconds in the sprint to 62mph – surprisingly close, considering, and no doubt partly due to the diesel car’s 1,485kg mass, which is about 100 kilos more than the A180. And a little portly for this class of car, it must be said.

All A-Class cars get auto stop-start – another grey tile marked Eco switches it off – helping the consumption and CO2 figures come out at a moderate 64.2mpg and 115g/km versus a more thirsty 51.4mpg and 129g/km, as you’d expect given the demeanour of the two cars.

Hang on. I’ve listed those the wrong way around. It’s actually the shouty AMG Sport edition that yields the cleaner of the two sets of stats.

While the A220 CDI offers an impressive combination of power and thrift, there is a better bet for outright fuel economy in the middle of range – the £21,225 A180 CDI with six-speed manual in SE trim scores 98g/km on its CO2 test, the only A-Class to dip below 100g/km. But it’s on the slow side and not here today, so I really have no choice but to drop into the 115g/km AMG Sport.

Mercedes A-Class AMG Sport cockpit

The seating position is comfortable and low – the whole car is noticeably lower slung than the latest Golf – creating a suitably sporty feel. Or alternatively feeling claustrophobic, according to your mood. Black headlining is also a factor.

While the cabin is squeak free and feels good to touch, it is let down by technology, which definitely isn’t state of the art. Graphics on the central tablet look very 2005, its shiny plastic frame is wide and ugly, and even the little screen between the dials is blocky, monochrome and outdated. It’s also a surprise to find no button for keyless start – just a twist-and-go key ignition.

On the move, the automatic gearbox – a twin-clutch, seven-speed unit – restores some optimism, offering smooth changes under power and generally arriving in the right ratio at the right time for my driving style, at least. A pair of paddles offer seamless control when needed for overtaking, but there’s no option to nudge a centre stick because Mercedes has put the transmission lever where the wiper stalk belongs. I hunt down the wiper controls, lurking on the indicator stalk, after almost putting the car in neutral when the screen needed a wash.

Mercedes A-Class AMG Sport side view

It says AMG Sport on the tin so you’d expect it to handle and go, and indeed it does. It feels persuasively agile and rapid, with plenty of lateral grip from its 225/40 tyres. There’s a fair bit of rasp under acceleration and tyre roar at speed, but vibration is always well suppressed so if you back off a little the small Merc falls reasonably mute and there’s a chance of some refinement.

Or there would be, if it weren’t for the ride. The 18-inch tyres are run-flats, and they spin on the end of sports suspension that I wouldn’t want to face every morning. The setup is 15mm lower than on lesser models, and features self-adjusting dampers that are supposed to use mechanical cleverness to provide firmness when you’re going for it and softness when you’re not. But for me, the duality simply doesn’t arise. The springs feel as supple as a freeze-dried breezeblock, all of the time.

I suspect that no combination of springs, pistons and valves can really differentiate between a modest bump at high speed and a sharp ridge at low speed. The result is a ride that feels distinctly hexagon-wheeled on our patchwork British roads. You notice it more from the passenger seat, when you don’t have the wheel to hang onto.

Mercedes A-Class A180 interior

The A180, on 16-inch alloys, 55-profile tyres and comfort suspension, feels like a magic carpet in comparison. If I had to choose between the two cars, to live with every day, I’d have to opt for the cheaper car, even though I’d miss the low-down grunt of the AMG Sport, its gearbox and fuel economy.

But I suspect I haven’t yet driven the variant I’d most want to drive home. I’d like to try the A180 diesel automatic, with the more forgiving suspension, before I pass final judgement on the underwhelming new A-Class.

Mercedes A-Class AMG Sport rear end

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