Forget everything you knew about the Mercedes A-class. The new model is totally different in appearance, concept and character, bearing zero resemblance to the original entry-level Mercedes from 1998 that made the elk famous by failing the stability test named after that top-heavy, antler-bearing, Nordic mammal.
The third-generation A-class, now on sale in the UK, is no longer gunning for middle-aged customers who like to climb up, sit tall and enjoy the panorama (they can buy a B-class). Instead it wants to be young and dynamic, sporty and trendy, emotional and chic. In short, it’s an Audi A3 or BMW 1-series rival.
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Talk me though the Mercedes A-class revamp
To reach this aim, it has been re-proportioned from scratch; the roof has been pushed down, the wings pulled out and the wheelbase stretched. The new car has broader shoulders, a daring mix of kinks and curves, an in-your-face grille flanked by flaring headlamps, side windows shaped like embrasures and massive coupe-like C-posts. It’s a striking piece of kit – the best-looking small Merc since… since… well, ever?
Is the new A-class as sporty as it looks under the skin?
Of course Merc has played around with ‘sporty’ A-classes before – anyone recall the one-off twin-engined version or the limited-edition A-class ‘F1’? But this time they’re totally serious about pace-setting handling and roadholding, and about best-in-class power and torque. And the engineers have pulled out all the stops, deploying the new 4Matic four-wheel drive system featuring an electronically controlled Haldex clutch, a clever and inexpensive fresh approach to infotainment called Drive Kit, a pair of highly efficient 200bhp-plus petrol and diesel engines, and of course the exciting 350bhp A45 AMG set to debut at the 2013 Geneva motor show.
The new Mercedes A-class line-up
In true Mercedes style the A-class model line-up is witheringly confusing, running to five model lines in the UK even before the Golf GTI-threatening A45. Yet here’s a pleasingly simple fact gleaned from driving the models offered at the press launch: the sportiest one is the most compelling to drive.
Wearing A250 Sport and ‘engineered by AMG’ badges, it’s powered by the 209bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine, will hit 62mph in 6.6sec and is good for 150mph, yet still claims 44.0mpg and 148g/km CO2. Yours for £28,775 (but you can shave two grand off that by foregoing the ‘engineered by AMG’ bit, which means doing without fatter wheels, ‘diamond’ grille, bespoke front and rear aprons, tuned suspension, sport seats and red stitching).
The Mercedes A250 Sport in detail
Even without all that kit, this is no chintzy, timbered B-class. The A-class is a proudly de-chromed, anti-establishment driving machine boasting fire-red brake calipers, metallic-red inserts framing the optional xenon headlights and red accents in both bumpers. Inside, it’s black plastic, real aluminium, fake carbonfibre and genuine Alcantara. The cabin is well laid out and well equipped. A useful extra is the Drive Kit for the iPhone, which lets you access all the phone’s functions, including a sat-nav app, through the multi-function steering-wheel.
Most of our test cars were fitted with either the Driving Dynamics package or with the AMG Sport kit, both offering tauter springs and dampers, lower ride height and Direct Steering, which combines speed-sensitive power assistance with a variable steering rate. The AMG Sport kit adds 18in wheels and cross-drilled front brake discs.
Does the A250 Sport's refinement suffer for its sporty brief?
It's all very macho, but the ride quality suffers badly from the sportier set-up. The go-faster versions are so obsessed with grip, traction and roadholding that the protection against potholes leaves something to be desired. On the credit side, the A250 Sport in particular corners with the flatness and precision of a single-seater. With ESP switched off, steering and throttle will indulge in an entertaining powerplay which is never rough or jerky. It’s expertly balanced, totally responsive and astonishingly quick. But like an Audi S-line or BMW M Sport, the trade-off is a bone-hard ride.
How does the Mercedes A250 handle?
Direct Steering is a prime example of the latest electrically assisted, self-correcting, automatically interfering direction-finding systems, many of which are too clever for their own good. It’s fine, but it tends to over-assist during turn-in and feels always a little faster than the tyres it directs. We may only be talking about nuances here, but nuances do matter because artificial and overly ambitious steering can blur car control in a disturbing fashion.
The A250 Sport hugs the road with dedication and talent. Thanks to the paddle-shift DCT, it is very easy to modulate the torque feed, to match engine and vehicle speed, and to adjust your driving style to terrain and traffic via modes ranging from Eco to Sport. The latter gives early downshifts and late upshifts, paired with a chip-induced blat-blat through the twin oval tailpipes. The brakes are brilliant, too; easy to modulate, and combined with the strong grip of the Conti SportContact tyres they allow you to brake eerily deep into corners.
We tried several other A-class variants during the launch, and all were impressive. The entry-level 122bhp A180 won’t pull a herring off the plate, but runs on compliant 16in tyres and is fitted with supple suspension, while the torquey A200 offers a better spread of grunt in either 154bhp petrol or 134bhp diesel form. But the A250 Sport is the best-sorted, and there’s no better stepping stone towards the lofty height of the 2013 A45 AMG. We await its arrival with interest.