Month 8 running a Mercedes A-class: CAR magazine's long-term test review conclusion
From the moment the new Merc A-class concept broke cover back in April 2011 Mercedes made it clear that here was a step-change, a car to lower the average age of the Merc buyer by, ooh, 50 years or so. Out goes the dumpy ice-cream tub styling of its predecessor, in comes a muscular, snub-nosed Golf-baiter. From soccer mom to swaggering jock.
Which, on the face of it, felt like a potentially challenging fit for me. Even one-day excursions with my wife and kids usually end up with us taking enough support equipment for a trip to the International Space Station. In advance of its arrival, I even popped into Halfords to get the skinny on roof-mounted storage boxes. But, as was pointed out, while I do 40,000 miles a year, 37,453 are probably spent on my own, to and from CAR HQ. The only space I really need is for an iPhone and a brace of cheese & ham rolls.
It says a lot about the A-class that, after a succession of MPVs and SUVs as long-termers, the family never felt compromised on space, simply tailoring our cloth accordingly when undertaking any decent-sized schleps. On the road, while the 1.8 diesel in our A200 CDI Sport will never win awards for refinement – the dynamism of the 2.0-litre block in editor Phil’s A3 starkly evident when driven back-to-back – economy of 46+mpg meant I saved £170 a month in comparison to the much-vaunted CX-5 I’d previously curated. Judicious use of the flappy paddles meant it never felt undercooked.
Our art director ferried his clan to France, where its frugality nearly wowed him as much as the interior. Because, while the A-class may flip the Merc script on the outside, Stuttgart shrewdly decided to uphold company values – das beste, oder nichts, isn’t it? – inside. You could be sitting in any large, premium Merc: chunky, robust steering wheel; that familiar M-B monochromatic display (now, sadly, giving way to colour); brilliant, figure-hugging yet cosseting front seats and those lovely, metallic rotary air-con vents. The only (pitch) black mark is that a smaller car needs a lighter interior trim, or a sunroof. It ain’t ’arf dark in here.
The A-class came with an awful lot of extras, raising the base OTR price by a whopping 25% from £24,745 to £33,425. Some £2880 went on the COMAND Online system with DAB radio and hands-free telephone. Compared to BMW’s wide-screen variant, the 7in tablet-style display screen looks like some knock-off market iPad (the iPud, perhaps?). It looks detachable, but isn’t, making it a possible target for confused, brick-wielding likely lads. Never made use of the 10Gb music hard-drive either. Elsewhere, well-appointed options included rear privacy glass (£230 – I even left my laptop in the back on occasion such is its efficacy) and £1430 on the Intelligent Light System, with its bi-xenons, daytime running and adaptive lights all maintaining that premium feel. But £690 on active parking assist? I’ll think about it when the arthritis kicks in. Although that may arrive quicker than expected – the damp carpet that appeared in the driver’s footwell, necessitating a visit back to Mercedes, remains unexplained.
Halfway through our tenure of the A-class its saloon sibling, the CLA, arrived. It may be raffishly handsome, but the A-class’s shooting brake practicality wins out every day. And while it could do with a peppier, leaner diesel engine, in a premium small car market owned for so long by the Golf and A3, the A-class offers something different – charm, with a side order of class.
By Stephen Worthy
Month 7 running a Mercedes A-class: the Benz is reappraised after a 1000-mile road trip
Car packed: check. P&O tickets booked: check. 500-mile route to south of France: check. The busiest driving day of the year in France: check! Every year, just like us, the French go on their summer holidays. All of them. On the same day. And back in the summer I managed to pick that day to choose to drive our A-class long-termer to the south of France. Now I’m not scared of a long journey (I do this trip every year, after all) but usually I’ve been lucky enough to have access to one of our larger long-term test cars. Not this year.
I chose to take the A-class because I knew it was economical and I’d never taken a small hatchback that far with all the family on board. But once I’d started packing I started to wonder if I’d made a bad choice; why didn’t I take the larger, roomier and more practical Jaguar XF Sportbrake?
The small Merc has attracted some negative press, but I think some of it has been rather unfair. Yes, the ride is a tad harder than you’d ideally want but the car looks different, is well made, is extremely economical (we averaged 47.0mpg over the whole holiday, and I beat my previous best with 52.0mpg on the journey down there) and is not just another default choice Golf or an A3. At last something different for the market!
My journey should have taken me seven hours from Calais, but this year it took 11 hours, so I got to know the A-class pretty well, both outside and in. And it’s inside where I feel it is a cut above its competitors. After half a day in a small car you’d expect to feel drained, but the clever thing about the A-class’s interior is that it actually makes you feel like you are in a larger car. It’s to do with the premium quality. Everything feels solid and formed around you. If I had been in our A3 Sportback this journey would have felt so much harder – its interior is just too basic.
Another thing that made the journey easy was the Merc’s sat-nav display: it sits flat and at the right level for your eyes. You barely need to lift your gaze from the road.
The 1.8-litre diesel engine feels a bit noisy, and its 136bhp hardly warms the heart when you’re trying to make big progress. But this is no fruity V6. Crucially, the lack of punch is made up for with a little display showing how your economy is going. It’s addictive, a bit like Tetris. Gives you a sense of achievement.
I was surprised that its often-maligned ride didn’t annoy me that much, and actually the dynamic set-up makes perfect sense on twisty French B-roads – little body roll allowed me to press on more than I realised. There’s even good boot space for a family of three, something I found the A3 – and many other rivals – just don’t offer.
All in all I’ve come away from my trip being rather impressed by the A-class, more so than I expected. Perhaps the family Golf’s days (we’ve owned four different generations and now have a Mk5 GT) might be numbered. VW, you have been warned.
By Andy Franklin
Month 6 running a Mercedes A-class: the A-class faces off against our long-term Audi A3
Like any new parent, I’m obsessively protective of my baby. So the thought of placing my lovely A3 in Stephen Worthy’s care and trying his A-class is vexing. Like your child’s first sports day, with the little one exposed to the brutal realities of competition, and being trounced in the sack race before running into a tree in the egg-and-spoon showdown.
After all, Stephen’s A200 CDI Sport is a precocious thing: its flashy looks are akin to being the first to wear those must-have trainers in class. And despite becoming an increasingly common sight, the aggressive A-class still magnetically draws my eyes, just like the Bangle E60 5-series always did. It’s not so enchanting in flat white though, Mr W.
Turn the key and things get even less enchanting. The 1.8-litre diesel chunters away like the Tin Man gargling gravel, and if the cacophony of combustion sounds intrusive pootling around town, it’s positively harrowing during kickdown. And it’s not like the A200 offers more fireworks than the Audi’s smooth 2.0-litre: there’s less power and less torque. Indeed, in this sports day’s marquee event – the 0-62mph dash – the A3 proves half a second quicker. And the fuel economy contest? Stephen and I commute on the same motorway, and while the A200 is returning 46.4mpg, the A3 now touches 50mpg.
The Merc tops the class in one subject though: its steering. The electrically assisted rack-and-pinion set-up feels heavier and more substantial than the A3’s, and it’s incredibly direct: it turns in with puppyish glee, often so much that you have to adjust mid-corner, which is really engaging. But the ride is plain disturbing. I counted four ‘ooofs’ in less than a mile of fast B-road, as the suspension compresses with the grace of an anvil dropping, and high-frequency undulations trigger more ferocious hip-shaking than a Shakira routine. It’s not like this firmness translates into superior cornering: the Merc succumbs to understeer earlier than the A3.
While I knew the Audi would have superior ride quality, I thought the Merc would prove a quieter cruiser. But the A200’s wing mirrors create a din like a 747 taking off, louder than the A3’s underlying tyre rumble.
A very enlightening exercise then. It turns out the A-class is the hyperactive kid displaying flashes of brilliance, but with some real issues. I think I’ll stick to my surprisingly grown-up A3 – compared with the Merc, it feels like an impeccable graduate of a Swiss finishing school.
By Phil McNamara
Month 5 running a Mercedes A-class: the gearbox mystery continues, can any A-class owners out there help?
Granted, it's not quite Who Shot JR? or Why Has Emmerdale Been Flattened By A Bomb/Plane Crash/Dam Burst (Again)?, but we’ve left you in limbo on the Case Of The Stuck Reverse Gear for a couple of months.
Here’s a brief recap: I’ve had two instances where I’ve been unable to move out of Reverse and into Neutral, let alone engage Drive. The only way to do a full reset is to that old IT trick of switching off and switching back on again.
Crack Mercedes-Benz operatives in white lab coats, horn-rimmed specs and clipboards have been poking Meisterstück pens around the A-class gearbox but to no avail. Although I submitted video evidence of the rogue process in action, they can’t find a thing wrong with it. I may now be forced to spend the rest of the month pulling off J-turns in an attempt to recreate the issue.
Meanwhile, after sampling two new A-class variants recently, I’ve discovered that Mercedes has installed a colour dashboard display on new models. I guess Stuttgart will call it progress, but there’s something clean and classic about my car’s monochromatic scheme of my current vehicle. If it ain’t broke…
By Stephen Worthy
Month 4 running a Mercedes A-class: is the A-class a better buy than the sleeker, sexier CLA?
My neighbour pinged me a text last week. He didn’t want another natter about hacking down our leylandii, instead the preview read ‘I am going to make sweet love to your…’. Go on, guess the missing words? Wife? Guitar playing? Homegrown runner beans? No, the SMS concluded with: ‘…Mercedes that you’ve brought home.’ Sadly, my A-class long-termer wasn’t the subject of his auto affection. Instead it was its new three-box sibling, the CLA. I’m not as enamoured with its looks as my neighbour is, but perhaps that’s because I’ve got 18 years on him.
Merc marketing boss Joachim Schmidt has bemoaned a lack of customers he called ‘i-people’, or under-35s to you and me. If my own anecdotal audit is anything to go by, it’s not a battle the company will win anytime soon, at least as far as the A-class is concerned – most drivers are aged 40-55.
But even more than the A-class, it’s all about looks with the CLA. Inside they’re near identical, but choose CLA 180 Sport instead of A180 Sport and you’ll fork out nearly £3k more. And fit less leylandii trimmings in your boot.
By Stephen Worthy
Month 3 running a Mercedes A-class: is the Mercedes A-class too complicated for its own good?
Last summer I was sat in a bar on Berlin’s Görltizer Strasse, with a German friend, Karl. Techno blasting from the sound system, it was one of those dingy, bohemian establishments frequented by tight-jeaned hipsters. At one point Karl slammed down his glass of pilsner so forcibly that the froth sloshed up and over its side and, battling with the encroaching thump of a kick drum, shouted, ‘Sometimes it feels like it was you British who lost the War, not us.’
I’d been whinging about the difference that the UK and Germany has to civil liberty. The Germans, it seems to me, treats its citizens as grown-ups, to make a choice – hence unregulated stretches of autobahn, less draconian smoking laws, stricter controls on how government departments share information, for example.
This conversation bubbled up into my consciousness when I began brooding on how differently Mercedes approached warning systems on the A-class in comparison to my last CAR long-termer, a Mazda CX-5. In the latter these were controlled by a prominent and ugly bank of switches adjacent to the steering wheel. In the Mercedes, I struggled to even work out how you turn off stop/start (it’s the button marked ECO. Of course it is!).
With the A-class, when you’re too close to the car in front or in danger of veering into the adjacent lane, little red triangles – a bit like the one Channel 4 used to indicate a late night film containing naughtiness – light up on the instrument panel and door mirror. There’s an apologetic ‘ping’, compared to the Mazda’s shrill bark. And if you turn anything off, it stays off. In the Mazda, you had to reset it every time you pushed the ignition. The A-class does its job without resorting to histrionics.
But after a car swap with Ben Pulman one weekend, he relayed an incident that left him distrusting the safety systems. Making a right turn at traffic lights, the car ahead made a U-turn, and the COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST (all Mercedes’ programs shout at you) suddenly kicked in and brought the car to a halt with brutal effectiveness. But if the system could have actually anticipated the outcome of the situation (that the U-turn would be completed before our A-class arrived at the same spot) then it wouldn’t have acted at all. To save us from carrying spare underwear in the boot, it’s now permanently disengaged.
In other news, we’ve been recalled. Why? A potential faulty passenger airbag, which might affect just 111 cars in the UK. Hardly the 3.4 million owners that Japanese car makers wrote to in April, is it? That was airbags too. Faulty airbags, it seems, are great news for the job prospects of the nation’s car mechanics.
Anyway, Mercedes picked up and dropped back inside a day. They even washed off the guano dropped by a passing albatross, which pebble-dashed my A-Class and wife’s C-Max.
The excitement doesn’t stop there. There’s been no recall for errant auto gearshifts as yet, but I’ve had two instances of selection problems when switching from Reverse to Drive. Stuck in Reverse, try as I might I couldn’t choose Drive or Park. Both times I resorted to turning off the ignition to set it in Neutral in order to proceed. A search of Merc message boards suggests my experience is unique, filling me with self-doubt.
What if it’s me? What am I doing wrong? One thing’s for sure – if Karl was here, he’d send his stein crashing down on the bar again and tell me to grow a pair.
By Stephen Worthy
Month 2 running a Mercedes A-class: why the A-class costs more to run than a 911
It's four and a half years since I screeched up at CAR HQ for the first time, behind the wheel of a 911 Targa (they didn’t stop making them in the mid-’80s, you know). Back then, I was faced with the twin financial shackles of becoming a first-time dad (I’ve got two mini Worthys now) and being able to afford a 150-mile-a-day commute to work. But the Porsche was only on a week’s loan, so paying the monstrous 88p a litre to fill it seemed a small price to pay.
Yes – 88p! I know that because I found a receipt in the sock drawer recently. As it sat there, smirking back at me, my mind wandered to what I would be doing if fuel was that cheap today. Perhaps a season ticket at The Stadium Of Light. The Lisbon version. With a helicopter to ferry me there.
That Targa would have been averaging, what, 25mpg? The A-class is chuntering along very nicely at 46.2mpg, but with fuel now 50% higher, the 911 was cheaper to run at December 2008 prices. No wonder I’ve become obsessed with economy and engine downsizing. I’m still smitten by the A-class’s beefy good looks, but it’s that mpg that I really have the glad eye for.
By Stephen Worthy
Month 1 running a Mercedes A-class: welcome to the third-gen A-class
It’s got something of the VW Scirocco’s stance, the blunt schnoz of the BMW 1-series and is designed to go A3-baiting in the premium compact sector, but there’s no mistaking that our new long-termer is a Mercedes. Look at the size of that grille badge. I’ve been delivered smaller pizzas. And just to make sure you know it’s a Mercedes-Benz, there’s another, smaller triple-point star 6cm north of it, plonked on the bonnet.
We’re about to find out if Stuttgart truly has a car to shout about with the all-new A-class. It trailed in third behind the A3 and Golf in CAR’s three-car Big Test in February, but six months of daily motorway bashing and two jelly-chucking under-fives strapped into the back at weekends should reveal a whole lot more. That Big Test car had the Dynamic Handling Package and Selective Damping System fitted, roundly poo-poohed by Ben Pulman at the time. Thankfully, perhaps with a reoccurrence of my sciatica at the back of their minds, Merc left that off the list when speccing up this A200 CDI demo car, knowing it was eventually destined for me. They started from the base OTR price of £24,745 for the seven-speed 7G-DCT auto (a near £1500 premium on the six-speed manual) and then added – gulp – some £8680 of options. Or enough to buy you a base-spec Dacia Duster, if you chuck another £300 in.
Price-wise, its main headlines are an Intelligent Light System for £1430 (bi-xenons, daytime runners, adaptive beam, et al); the Memory Package (£790), which I have thankfully remembered includes electrically adjustable seats and exterior mirrors; Lane Tracking Package (£770) with blind-spot warning and lane assist; Active Park Assist (£690) and, in by far the biggest extravagance, £2100 has been spent on the Comand Online System with Media Interface. It sounds like it could launch thermo-nuclear war but in reality it’s one of the most comprehensive in-car entertainment systems I’ve encountered. There’s an iPad-style screen which looks removable but isn’t (could that interest Finchley’s merry band of uninformed, light-fingered recidivists?), an SD card slot, 10GB music hard drive, MP3 compatibility and a USB port. You’d think they’d throw in the DAB tuner too after all that, but no, it’s £420 extra. Sadly for those of a puerile disposition, we’ve swerved the potential for cheap laughs by not getting the Night Package (black mirrors, black grille if you need to know).
Sitting in the driver’s seat for the first time, it certainly feels a cut above the small family car hoi-polloi – even if that seat is clad in ‘black Artico artificial leather/chequered design cloth upholstery’. Want the comfort of cowskin on your backside? That costs £1480 extra as part of the Exclusive Package. Perhaps the only option I may regret not having is the panoramic sunroof (£900). It ain’t half dark in here. Which is in contrast to the outside where the Cirrus White paint adds drama to what is already a striking-looking car. With the decidedly workmanlike Alhambra and CX-5 as my two previous long-termers, I’m having to get used to occupants of passing vehicles craning their neck to get a better look.
And yet two weeks into ownership, such skin-deep attributes already threaten to be outweighed by what’s under the bonnet. Not because of breathtaking performance figures – 136bhp and 0-62mph in 9.2 seconds hardly quickens the pulse – but without even trying hard I’m already returning nearly 48mpg from the 1.8-litre diesel engine. There have been times of late when I felt that Sainsbury’s were going to start charging me ground rent, I’ve been using their petrol stations that frequently. That is all going to change…
By Stephen Worthy