"The A-Class is now a great looker and very comfortable, but quality disappoints."
The old A-Class was something of a stuffy family mini-MPV. In 2012, Mercedes decided to attract much younger buyers to its brand but turning the latest A-Class into its first genuine rival to premium hatchbacks like the BMW 1 Series, Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf. So, the current car bears no resemblance to its predecessor, looking much sportier, with a much lower roofline and detailed creases on the body. You can get it with a range of engines, including an A180 CDI diesel that emits less than 100g/km, making it tax-free – the first Mercedes to do so – and an entry-level BlueEFFICIENCY model. The current top performer is the A250 208bhp 2.0-litre turbo version, but an A45 350bhp AMG model is just around the corner. Prices are competitive with the A3 and 1 Series, but the optional extras are pricey and can push the list price sky-high pretty quickly.
Coming in four versions – SE, Sport, AMG Sport and A250, which is marked as ‘engineered by AMG’ – the A-Class drives like most Mercedes, so relatively sporty but lacking that extra bit of edge common to BMWs that makes them that little bit special. With Mercedes taking the 1 Series head-on with the new style A-Class, this means that the Mercedes doesn’t quite cut the mustard, with steering that isn’t as responsive, performance that isn’t as impressive, diesel engines that can be noisy and a sluggish seven-speed automatic gearbox that is far inferior to the equivalent Audi gearbox. And while the A-Class has good grip, the ride is often far too hard to balance out any improvement in performance.
The A-Class errs more on the side of comfort compared to most of its rivals, but moving up through the specifications does progressively firm up the suspension, with top-of-the-range AMG Sport and A250 models having a hard ride at times. That said, it never reaches the point that you’ll feel completely battered after a long journey. The AMG Sport's seats could also do with more lower-back support. Space in the back is just about roomy enough for average-sized adults and children (once you’ve clambered over the high wheel arch), but boot space is compromised by a narrow opening that makes loading difficult. As in most Mercedes, all the controls are very sensibly positioned and easy to use, while the interior is similarly stylish.
An 8th place finish in the 2012 Driver Power customer survey shows how good a reputation Mercedes has for reliability. And many aspects of the current A-Class's quality really do impress. The dashboard is very well made and the interior is generally stylish. That said, however, some of the materials on the centre console and around the switches on the doors are a bit sub-standard, and there are some wide gaps between some of the body panels, too. In terms of safety, the A-Class continues Mercedes tradition of advancing technology. Armed with a full five-star EuroNCAP crash safety rating, every A-Class gets electronic stability control and collision prevention assistance as standard. However, many of the really advanced safety systems – like pre-safe, which prepares the driver and the car for an impending crash, and driver drowsiness detection – are only available as options.
You only have to take a look at the latest A-Class compared to the old model to know that practicality will be reduced in the new car. It may be lower, longer and wider, but the sportier dimensions simply aren’t as spacious. The boot is more than 90 litres smaller, in fact, which makes it slightly smaller than either the Audi A3 or BMW 1 Series. Also, the rear seats can’t be folded until the parcel shelf is removed – but they do fold flat at least. There is enough leg and headroom in the back for adults, but the sloping roof does mean that taller passengers could feel a little squeezed for space as the roof narrows and the body shape curves in at the sides. Visibility out of the back of the car also isn’t the best as a result.
Value for money
If you’re in the market for a premium hatchback, you’ll need to have a calculator handy to choose between the A-Class, Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and Volvo V40. Extensive comparison of standard equipment and options list is required to judge what is best value in the sector, even though the A-Class does undercut its more well-established rivals. For example, not every spec of A-Class comes with the dashboard-top display screen, but every Audi A3 has it as standard. Likewise, the fierce competition in this class means resale values will be similarly strong in the used market, too. Entry-level A-Class cars come with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, but many exterior improvements like alloy wheels, sports seats and Xenon headlights are only available on the higher-spec models. And for good measure, you can get voice operation and full iPhone connectivity for extra cash, as well.
At £19,000, the entry-level A180 petrol A-Class is pretty cheap, while the A180 CDI diesel is the first Mercedes to emit less than 100g/km of CO2, which of course has massive tax benefits. The A-Class also promises compelling fuel economy of more than 70mpg, with the A200 CDI still pretty tax-friendly, returning mid-60s mpg and emitting only 114g/km. Even the petrol models are fairly efficient, with all versions coming with stop-start and the option of a seven-speed double-clutch automatic gearbox that further reduces consumption over the manual gearboxes.