The chassis isn’t the last word in innovation. MacPherson strut front and independent rear suspension could have been cold chiselled off a Ford Focus. All-round disc brakes have economy single-piston swinging calipers and the rack-and-pinion steering is electronically assisted. What the original 1996 A-class offered in technical virtuosity has been replaced by painstaking refinement of class-standard components.
The engine choice echoes that of the B-class, which shares this chassis. Three turbodiesels and three petrol engines, with a choice of six-speed manual or Mercedes’s own seven-speed, twin-clutch transmission. There will be five main model lines: Base, SE, Sport, AMG Sport and a single top-model A250 Sport “engineered by AMG”. Prices will start at under £19,000, which is keen, but that’s for a manual, 1.6-litre petrol stripped out like a nuclear winter.
We tried the 105bhp 1.8-litre turbodiesel first, with the seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox and sports suspension. The engine is refined and powerful enough to haul 1.5 tons with reasonable alacrity. It also seems quieter than when fitted in longitudinally engined cars, with less noise, harshness and vibration in this transverse application. This was confirmed by Jörg Prigl, the vice-president of compact cars at Mercedes. If anything the petrol alternative was even better, more flexible and nicer to drive, although obviously it uses more fuel.
The seven-speed is highly efficient at all speeds up to fast, but not as good as the decent manual choice when you press on. It is reluctant to skip down ratios when entering corners and you end up driving to match the transmission. The default option is to leave it in automatic, which sort of misses the point.
Prigl claims that one of the reasons Mercedes has produced such a conventional hatchback is the requirement for it to be sporty. “The old A-class was far too functional and unemotional,” he says. It was also expensive to make. Yet the sports suspension option is far too harsh, with a trembling, shuddering ride on even the smoothest surfaces.
Mechanical grip is quite good, but the car feels cumbersome and doesn’t flow. Competitors such as the V40 ride much better, the A3 is dynamically superior and a Focus would leave them all for dead.
Mercedes’ “direct steer” system is as horrid as the sports suspension. It’s far too heavy, inconsistently weighted and, to maintain a straight line on a motorway, you have to lean against the artificial resistance like an old Labrador leaning against the kitchen door frame on a hot day.
A bit of a disaster, then? Under the heaviest pressure, Merc pulled out a couple of standard-suspended cars and the improvement was remarkable. Fluent, fine riding, with much improved steering, this is the car you want. The steering still fizzes along with the road surface, but the standard suspension puts the new
A-class slap bang in contention with its rivals; it is a lovely machine to drive and reasonably sharp when you want to make progress. It’s worth noting that all UK cars will have this “comfort” suspension as standard.
In the end, the A-class will sell by the bucketload purely on the strength of its provenance. The Volvo and the Audi have marginally better dynamics, but the Merc gives you a star on the bonnet and that’s important in this badge-obsessed world.
And in case you were in doubt, there is a difference between premium and non-premium, although that tends to be felt mostly in the cabin, where the former’s materials and construction are superior. If you can live without a swanky cabin and the badge, phone a Ford or Honda dealer, then book a holiday with all the cash you’ll save.
Tested: 1,461cc, four-cyl turbodiesel, six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Price/on sale: £19,000-£29,000/end of the year
Power/torque: 108bhp @ 4,000rpm/192lb ft @ 1,750rpm
Top speed: 118mph
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 11.3sec
Fuel economy: 74.3mpg (EU Combined)
CO2 emissions: 98g/km
VED band: A (£0)
Verdict: With the right suspension, the new A-class has a fine ride combined with some of the best engines in the game.
Telegraph rating: Four out of five stars
Volvo V40, from £19,745
Very nice reinterpretation of the Ford Focus chassis, which handles well but rides better. Slightly strange digital dashboard takes some learning, but safety is at the top of the class, as are the seats. Surprisingly competent and attractive choice in the premium market.
Audi A3, from £19,205
Redesigned so you’d scarcely notice, Audi’s Golf-based hatch uses aluminium to trim its weight and (optional) advanced suspension systems to mollify the potentially harsh ride of the sports versions. Lovely cabin and very good to drive, but dull to look at.