► Facelifted Mercedes A-class driven
► In moderately sporty A250 AMG trim
► New manual gearbox – a decent one, too
Here’s a spec secret for you: there’s now a car in the Mercedes-Benz A-class line-up that’s better to drive than an AMG A45 - and costs precisely £11,000 less.
It’s the manual replacement for the awkwardly named, auto-only ‘A250 Engineered by AMG’ available before this year’s mild facelift. Think of it as a warm hatch with designs on the Audi S3, BMW M135i or even the Ford Focus ST.
While the 2015MY update might seem subtle, you can tell a new A-class by its exhausts integrated with the rear bumper and revised tail lights. Up front that ‘diamond’ grille is now standard and the front bumper has been remodelled so it’s more angular. But under the skin there’s far more to it.
Don't miss our new 2018 Mercedes A-class review
So what makes it so good to drive?
First and foremost, it’s the gearbox. Finally – a successful six-speed self-shifter from Stuttgart! Out of the blue, the firm’s engineers have released the first recent Mercedes with a verified gem of a gear change.
Thing is, in the past a manual Merc was one to avoid. The cog-swapping procedure was vague yet notchy, inspiring very little confidence when driving quickly. Auto was always our preferred option – the seven-speed twin-clutch used in the A-class isn’t without fault, but served the majority of drivers far better, unless eking every last penny from your tax bills was a primary concern.
Imagine our surprise, then, to find ourselves on a winding country road and thoroughly enjoying the process of managing shifts ourselves. This A250 AMG’s gear linkage has been tinkered with; the bearings changed and the throw shortened. The result is a sharp, assured movement between ratios that can be thoroughly enjoyed in conjunction with the excellent 2.0-litre turbo four-pot. I reckon it’s the best manual Merc gear change since the 190E. Quite some accolade.
That engine gains seven horses, now making 215bhp, but it’s the torque that impresses when coupled with the new ’box. Your 258lb ft is on offer from 1200rpm to 4000rpm so there’s a huge amount of flexibility here. You’re changing gears not because you have to, but because you can.
But is this really an AMG, though?
Badge-engineering? Not here. Thankfully, the handling is more than lively enough to live up to the AMG logos dotted about. There’s a new speed-sensitive steering system from the team at Affalterbach, and while – in typical front-wheel-driven hatchback fashion – it doesn’t telegraph every miniscule suspension compression, just like the gear shift it is beautifully weighted. There haven’t been any mechanical changes per se, but a software remap has had a profound effect on how enjoyable the A250 is to drive.
You can change its level of resistance between Sport and Comfort settings through the Dynamic Select system, which is a new feature on the A-class and also allows adjustment of the throttle response, allowing that turbo engine to sing for its supper when required.
And it can change the ride quality too - the steel-sprung AMG suspension can be superseded by selective damping, just like on the A45. This £595 box on the options list is worth ticking, because there’s a comfortable car hidden under all the sporty window dressing. Firming the chassis up into Sport mode means you’re able to have some fun, though, and pushing A250 towards its limits you’ll find it balanced and composed. A lift off mid-corner will get the tail waggling eagerly but predictably. There’s understeer to come if you’re too exuberant, but it takes a fair prod with a sharp stick before you get there. Who drives like that on the road, anyway?
Again aping its hyperhatch sibling, you can even specify 4MATIC all-wheel drive, but we wouldn’t bother. In this case you’ll pay a dynamic penalty for having the rear wheels driven. It makes the car heavier and the resulting handling isn’t as spritely – and it costs more too. Take the thinking man’s option. Keep it simple and enjoy the A250’s new-found pleasures.
Driving the facelifted A-class over the flatlands and mountains around Dresden, heel-and-toeing as if we were back in a 190E, it’s clear this is the car it always should have been. It’s certainly a marked step forwards in terms of styling, driving and cabin quality.
Whether or not the three-pointed star and AMG badging can support a list price higher than a 5dr Golf GTI and knocking on the door of the plusher, quicker Audi S3 and BMW’s cramped but dynamically superior M135i is a matter of some conjecture. At last, though, the three-pointed star has a genuine protagonist in this arena without having to shell out thousands more for the full-fat A45.