You can form an opinion on the new, much-improved A-class based on the sharp exterior, or the fact that it now drives like you’d expect a small Mercedes to. But it was the intersection of the A-pillar, door and dashboard that summed it up for me.
Unlike the old car, with its less than substantial interior, the solid, slab-sided plastics of the new one and the way they join together are proper Mercedes-Benz. They’re just there, with a uniform gap between them – and look like they’ll be for a long time. It’s a small but important indication of the leap in standards.
To be fair to Mercedes, it has not dodged entirely the issue of the original not quite living up to the quality expected of a Benz. Yes, the PR people said tacitly, build quality and dynamics would be much better than the previous car’s. They had learnt from their customers about what was wanted in a baby Benz and had made every effort to deliver the goods this time around. They may have even been slightly defensive when they said that the old one had, after all, shifted 1.1 million units.
That the new A-class is really good is hardly breaking news, but this is our first steer in the diesels and they’re rather good too. The basic 1991cc block is used across all three of the Euro4 compliant diesels (A 160 CDI, A 180 CDI, A 200 CDI) but it’s the 108bhp A 180 CDI we’re concentrating on here.
With second-generation common-rail injection technology operating at up to 23,000 psi, and an increased capacity over the outgoing engine, the 180 produces 184lb ft between 1600 and 2600rpm. Its character suits the A-class well, delivering a strong surge of pulling power from low revs and sustaining this push without any noticeable drop-off through a wide range. Stay away from the final 1500rpm on the dial and it’s refined, too, remaining smooth and free from awkward harmonics. It’s superior to a VW Golf TDi and to the more powerful A 200 CDI, which is rougher under acceleration. The 180 is an eminently driveable engine and a good match for the car. And Mercedes claims it will return an impressive 54.3mpg.
Despite ubiquitous use of the term ‘driving pleasure’ by so many of Europe’s car companies, the A-class is not a car to rival the BMW 1- series for driver appeal. But that’s not to say it isn’t an appealing car. The main improvement over the old car is the ride, which has a supple but well controlled big-car quality to it, whether at high speed or around town. There’s plenty of poise through bends, decent outright grip and accurate steering with well-judged, speed-sensitive weighting. As you sit high, surrounded by MPV-like architecture, you’re not inclined to push hard, but the diesel A-class can be driven quickly with a minimum of fuss.
Apart from some cheap-looking details and switchgear, the new interior is a vast improvement. The driving position is very adjustable, visibility’s good, and the cabin has a quality feel in both its construction and ambience. It’s also spacious – especially in the rear – and offers versatility; there’s even an optional removable front passenger seat.
UK buyers will have to wait until early next year before right-hand drive cars are delivered, and can expect to pay accordingly to put a three-pointed star on their driveway. But the new A-class is everything the old one should have been: an individual, practical, prestige-badged small car. And it’s a real Mercedes.