"The Mercedes A-Class is now a great looker and very comfortable, but quality disappoints."
The new Mercedes A-Class is quite different from the original fuddy-duddy family MPV of old, with Mercedes totally revamping it to appeal to a younger audience who want to get on the premium car ladder. So now the A-Class is premium hatchback rivals for the likes of the Audi A3, BMW 1 Series and Volkswagen Golf. Looking nothing like the car it replaces, the current A-Class has sporty dimensions and a much lower, sleeker roof. The engine range includes the first Mercedes car to emit less than the magic, road-tax-free 100g/km of CO2, the A180 CDI diesel, and an entry-level BlueEFFICIENCY petrol model. The best performance from the main specifications comes from the A250 208bhp 2.0-litre turbo version, but the recent A45 350bhp AMG model takes it to another level – if you can handle it. Prices are on par with the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series, but the extras list gets pretty expensive and can push the cost through the roof pretty quickly.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
There's no denying that the £19,000 entry price for the A180 petrol A-Class is really quite inexpensive for a Mercedes, but the diesels are where the real savings are, even they do cost more to buy. The A180 CDI diesel is the first car made by Mercedes to emit less than 100g/km of CO2, which means no annual road tax bill. The A180 CDI also has excellent fuel economy, returning more than 70mpg in combined economy, while the A200 CDI is also still pretty tax-friendly, returning mid-60s mpg and emitting only 114g/km of CO2. Even the petrol models are reasonably efficient, with all versions fitted with stop-start technology and the option of a seven-speed double-clutch automatic gearbox that further reduces consumption compared to the manual gearboxes.
Interior & comfort
Mercedes usually leans more towards luxury and comfort than performance, with BMW trumping it for speed. But it can’t quite resist the lure of speed, so as you go up the A-Class range, the suspension gets firmer and firmer, with top-spec AMG Sport and Engineered by AMG models verging on uncomfortable – which is hardly acceptable considering the cost. Having said that, you don’t feel like you’ve been in the trenches after a long drive, so it's not a lost cause – but you may have slight back ache if you drive the AMG Sport, whose seats really could use more lower-back support if we’re honest. You’ll just about fit adults of an average size in the back, but taller passengers will struggle – if they get over the high wheel arches, that is. Boot space is also not great because of a narrow opening that makes loading and unloading far too difficult. On the plus side, the A-Class has well-positioned, easy-to-use controls on the dashboard, and a stylish, luxurious interior.
Practicality & boot space
The one thing the original A-Class had going it for it was practicality, and you only have to take a cursory glance at the new model to know that the practicality will be somewhat worse. No matter how much longer and wider it is, the lower, sportier dimensions really cut down on space inside. You lose 90 litres of space in the boot, making it smaller than both the BMW 1 Series and the Audi A3. Plus, it's a bit irritating that you have to take out the parcel shelf to fold the back seats down, but at least they do fold flat, expanding the 341 litres to 1,157. Also, while there is technically enough room to fit two adults in the back seats, the reality is that most will find that the sloping roof severely reduces headroom and will cause quite a crick in the neck over longer journeys. Even with the ample legroom, the truth is that the back of A-Class is best suited to child passengers. The shape also reduces visibility out of the back for the driver, making it harder to park than it frankly should be, given its smaller size.
Reliability & safety
Mercedes climbed three places up the manufacturers rankings in the 2013 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, entering the top five at fifth and finishing above its main rivals BMW and Audi. The improvement over its 2012 eighth place thanks to excellent performance across many categories, with only running costs and practicality letting it down – which, to a degree is what you might expect from a premium manufacturer. The A-Class itself is still too new to feature, but many aspects of the current car's quality are very impressive and should serve it well when it finally makes its survey debut. The interior is certainly stylish, but the dashboard is well made enough to stand up to significant wear and tear. However, some of the materials on the centre console and around the switches on the doors are surprisingly cheap looking for Mercedes, and some of the body panels actually have some wide gaps – hardly what you’d expect from a Merc. But at least it's nice and safe, having secured the maximum five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests, coming armed with lots of advanced safety technology. Every A-Class comes fitted with electronic stability control (ESP) and collision prevention assistance as standard. However, too 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 – can only be added as optional extras.
Engines, drive & performance
The A-Class comes in four models – the SE, Sport, AMG Sport and Engineered by AMG specification, which drives as you’d expect most Mercedes to drive. That means some relatively sporty performance but without that extra little bit of something special that makes BMWs stand out from the crowd. Which would be all well and good, if the A-Class wasn’t targeted directly at the BMW 1 Series, which still has the edge over the Mercedes. The A-Class’ steering isn’t responsive enough, speed isn’t as impressive, diesel engines are too noisy and the seven-speed automatic gearbox is sluggish and nowhere near as good as the equivalent Audi gearbox. It does have good grip, but the ride is way too firm that doesn’t counter-balance it with truly excellent performance.
Price, value for money & options
Anyone shopping for a premium hatchback will need to get hold of a complete breakdown of the specifications and equipment available for the Mercedes A-Class, BMW 1 Series, Audi A3 and Volvo V40 – then open the calculator on your phone and get comparing. It's the only way to be sure you’re getting maximum from a car that will suit your needs best. On basic price, the A-Class does manage to undercut its most established competitors, but there are some little differences to pick up when deciding if that is enough of an incentive to buy. But as long as you know what you need from your premium hatchback and are diligent, there's no reason that the A-Class can't tick all the right boxes. The fierce competition continues into the used car market, with the A-Class and all its rivals generally having strong resale values when looking for good second-hand deals. The entry-level A-Class comes fitted 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 or as optional extras. For a even more extra outlay, you can add voice operation and full iPhone connectivity, too.