As makeovers go, they don’t come more extreme than the third-generation Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
What was once a conservative mommy-mobile has transformed, Jekyll-and Hyde-like, into a sporty hatchback that might grab the attention of those who not too long ago were the very teenagers sitting in the back of that mommy-mobile.
The previous A-Class was a monobox featuring an innovative “sandwich floor” with an engine mounted partly under the chassis that freed up lots of cabin space on a relatively short wheelbase – perfect for shlepping families.
The newcomer’s a more straightforward two-box hatchback design with the engine placed in front of the cabin much like the Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and VW Golf premium hatchbacks this baby Benz competes against.
Whereas no boy-racer would have spared a second glance at the old A-Class, this one squats 160mm lower on the road and has a far sleeker and more dynamic look, shedding all conservative pretensions.
FEELING THE SHRINK
Under that sexier new body is a cabin cell that’s shrunk in size, however. The old sandwich design made for a very roomy cabin in a car that was just 3.8 metres long, but there’s less space in the new car even though it’s now grown to 4.3 metres in length, and rear passengers will find themselves somewhat short-changed in the leg- and head-room department compared to before. While adults will fit in the back, they won’t have as much space as in the rear of some competitor cars.
The boot’s shrunk too and now offers 341 litres expandable to 1 157 litres with the seats folded – compared to 435-1 370 litres for the previous A class.
As has become the Mercedes norm, the badge on the bootlid has little or nothing to do with engine size, and the A200 on test here – selling for R309 116 – is powered not by a 2000cc engine but by a 1600cc. It’s turbocharged however, which delivers similar power to a normally-aspirated 2.0-litre (in fact the 1.6T has an advantage at high altitude) so the badge doesn’t hold false promise.
The force-fed petrol engine is reasonably smooth and silent for a four-cylinder, and only becomes somewhat vocal when revved hard. Intruding upon the car’s upmarket feel somewhat was some wind noise and an occasional rattle from the driver’s door.
The A200 delivers reasonable gusto with outputs of 115kW and 250Nm, and the car happily stays in the fast lane and pays little attention to steep uphills. In our Gauteng performance test the car recorded an acceptably nippy 0-100km/h sprint time of 9.1 seconds (8.4 seconds is claimed at sea level) with a top speed of 224km/h.
Hindering the driving enjoyment somewhat is a dual-clutch seven-speed automatic gearbox which is a little slow through the gears and has longer-than-comfortable pauses before kick-downs. It’s not as slick as the dual-clutch autos found in rivals like the Audi A3 and VW Golf, nor the Steptronic auto of the BMW 1 Series.
For ten grand less the A200 is available with a six-speed manual gearbox, which might be a better bet.
New generation engines in the A-Class are said to be around 30% more efficient than before, and there’s a stop/start system to help keep fuel bills down. Our A200 test car didn’t come close to its claimed figure of 5.4 litres per 100km/h, but the 7.5 litres it used was reasonable for the power output.
Two chassis and suspension set-ups are available in the new A-Class: comfort or sports (the flagship A 250 Sport has an AMG sports suspension). The car no longer has adaptive dampers like the old A-Class, which adjusted the shock absorber forces as the driving situation changed.
Clearly Mercedes has firmed up the chassis to appeal to more young-at-heart drivers. The A200 feels fleet-footed through tight corners, with its lowered centre of gravity very apparent from the minimal body roll that manifests, and while there’s understeer it only shows when you really push the handling limits. It’s all assisted by stability control and ABS brakes which help to save over-enthusiastic drivers from themselves.
On normal roads and undulations the ride quality feels suitably calm and comfortable, but on bumpy surfaces it deteriorates and becomes choppy. This could partly be because our test car had optional low-profile 17” tyres fitted, instead of the comfier-riding 16s that come standard (the tyres are runflats, incidentally), but overall the A-Class doesn’t live up to the class-winning ride quality of a Golf or an A3.
The old A-Class’s somewhat plasticky cabin has taken a big step forward, with a premium feel served up by leather-covered seats and dashboard (the Artico “leather” is actually plastic, but it feels like the real thing and is reputed to be hard-wearing).
The rotary vents lend the fascia a sporty, almost Alfa-like feel, and they’re made of smart-looking silver-chrome instead of plastic. It’s a classy-feeling cabin and most of the controls and switchgear are similar to what you’ll find in bigger, more expensive Mercs.
The new A-Class comes with many standard safety features that are available in pricier Mercs, including a radar-based Collision Prevention Assist, Attention Assist and Pre-Safe, along with multiple airbags.
With air conditioning, electric windows all round, climate control, Headlamp Assist, 12-button multifunction steering wheel, and hill-start assist, the A-Class is well equipped even in its base configuration. The multimedia system includes a colour display, CD player, USB ports and Bluetooth.
The A -Class can be personalised with Urban, Style and AMG Sport equipment lines, and three Design packages (Night, Exclusive and AMG Exclusive), in addition to a raft of optional extras.
The safety and high-class trappings are all authentically Mercedes, and with its sassy new styling the reinvented A-Class has what it takes to lure younger buyers into the Benz fold. But it needs better cabin space, gearshift speed and rough-road ride quality to challenge the best hatchbacks in the class. -Star Motoring