First, a word of caution. We can only review cars in the spec they are supplied and, as is so often the case with new launches, Mercedes chose to provide only the most luxuriously appointed A-Classes, laden with myriad options – some of which, like the driver assistance systems, won’t be available in the UK until September.
The slightly irksome consequence of this decision is that we have no idea what the interior ambience of an entry-level car might be, with two smaller TFT screens in place of the impressively monstrous ones on the cars we tested.
More troubling is the fact that this is the first Mercedes designed with torsion beam rear suspension – a design deployed on all affordable hatchbacks partly for space efficiency but mainly because the design is cheap as buttons compared with a fully independent rear end.
A multi-link rear axle exists, but only on the A250 as standard. It’s available on the A200 only if you choose the top-spec AMG Line trim; SE and Sport customers miss out. And if you order an A180d, as most in the UK will, it’s not available at all.
Frustratingly, you can buy an A180d in mainland Europe with the more sophisticated rear suspension because it’s part of the pack you get when you specify adjustable dampers, but there are as yet no plans to offer that in the UK.
Despite this profound change in suspension philosophy, Mercedes saw fit to bring not one beam-axle car to the launch. Its chief engineer, Jörg Bartels, insists it’s almost impossible to tell the difference and I believe he believes that. Everyone else, cynical hacks included, will reach their own conclusions about the decision not to let journalists see for themselves.
In the meantime, welcome to the most plush, sophisticated interior ever seen on a car of this kind. The perceived quality is fabulous and the design streets ahead of the rather predictable cockpits of even its best rivals.
Groaning under all the goodies it was carrying, the A180d test car did take some figuring out, but the graphics are gorgeous and, once learned, the functionality is pretty intuitive - save for the ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice recognition software. Three of us – all veterans of the car launch circuit – had multiple stabs at simply telling it to turn off the radio. Suffice to say, all failed.
The engine in the A180d is a 1.5-litre motor supplied to Mercedes by the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance and produces a modest 114bhp and a claimed 68.9mpg. Fuel economy is a poorer figure than the 74.3mpg of the similar engine it replaces and comes with a commensurate hit in CO2 – but only because the NEDC 2 figures now have to be reversed back out of new WLTP data, not because the car uses any more juice in the real world. Mercedes says that, in typical driving, the new car uses less fuel than the previous one.
Compared with the 2.1-litre diesel engine in more powerful versions of the last A-Class, it’s a paragon of refinement, although Mercedes’ all-new 2.0-litre diesel will likely combine both proper power with proper manners within the year.
The problem for diesel hunters, in the meantime, is that this A180d motor offers very modest performance. Overtaking needs to be planned well in advance, even though the Getrag transmission works tirelessly and effectively to make the most of what little urge is available.
The 161bhp 1.3-litre joint-venture petrol engine in the A200 offers a rather strained-sounding step in the right direction, but it’s only when you saddle up the excellent home-grown 221bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine in the A250 that the A-Class offers both the performance and character you might hope and expect to find in a Mercedes. Interestingly, the A250 has a Benz gearbox but, as far as I could see, it is no better or worse than the Getrag one in its less powerful siblings.
For those happy to leave the overtaking to others, the A180d has much to offer, even beyond the realm of its glitzy interior and a usefully enlarged rear cabin offering more space in every direction save leg room, which remains unchanged.
The ride is quite superb, at least with the expensive rear suspension; it's dramatically better than the last A-Class and probably class-leading. It’s compliant yet controlled, and I could fault only the very slight vertical movement found when you drive the wheels off it on a very difficult road. I can’t see too many owners being unduly troubled by that.
It’s also a quiet car – exceptionally so, in fact. Cruise at any speed compatible with the retention of your driving licence and you’ll hear a distant thrum from the motor, very modest amounts of road noise and hardly anything from the wind at all. Class-leading again? Without rivals present, I cannot say, but I’d be surprised if it was not.
Where the car falls down, unexpectedly and badly, is in its steering. What is hard to understand is that the previous A-Class, while no BMW 1 Series, always responded to your inputs as you might hope and expect. But the new A-Class’s steering feels far more remote and less connected to the road. I don’t mind that it’s light at parking speeds, but I want some resistance to build up as soon as the wheel moves off centre to give me something to push against and, bluntly, it doesn’t.
At higher speeds and despite a fine chassis that’s stable when you need it and adjustable when you don’t, you still find yourself thinking far harder about placing the car on the road than you’d choose. The brakes are over-assisted, too, although unlike the steering you acclimatise to that particular foible in time.