What is it?
This is the cheapest – or rather least expensive – version of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class you can now buy, bringing with it a couple of significant firsts: the A180-spec version of the 1.3-litre petrol engine and a manual gearbox, all wrapped up in the entry-level SE spec.
The gearbox in particular is most definitely welcome, for one of the big criticisms of several early versions of this fourth-generation A-Class has been the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, the sole choice thus far, and the hesitancy it can display.
The A180 engine is a detuned version of the 1.3-litre four-cylinder turbo found in the A200, producing a still healthy 134bhp and 148lb ft in this state of tune. The manual 'box it drives the front wheels through is a six-speeder. You can also now get the gearbox on the A200 as well as the A180, with more set to follow, including on diesel versions, as Mercedes fleshes out the new A-Class range.
What's it like?
We’ve tried the auto’ in several petrol and diesel versions, and found a hesitancy in it, particularly at step-off and low speeds, as well as a wider lack of intuitiveness when you’re looking for a quick burst of acceleration. It’s probably the one major black mark about what is otherwise an excellent well-rounded family hatchback.
So it’s a relief that the manual makes the car so much more drivable across so much more of the rev range. A good transmission will just slip into the background experience of driving, and give you an unconscious enjoyment when doing so, and this gearbox does just that.
The shift is slick, the integration with the engine seamless and the low-speed hesitancy of the auto’ all gone. It’s the transmission we’d now recommend when speccing your A-Class.
There’s plenty to recommend about this engine, too. It feels in no way a poor relation in the range, with more urgency and a wider band of use than its diminutive capacity suggests. It's as much performance as you'll tend to need in everyday driving, without ever getting your pulse racing.
The engine and gearbox can’t of course solve some of the choppiness of the low-speed ride, even on 16in alloys and tyres with plenty of sidewall (205/60) that SE trim brings. Shame, as the A-Class oozes sophistication almost everywhere else, from its precise and agile handling, pleasing steering feel and, of course, that interior. Multi-link rear-end-equipped versions of the A-Class higher up the range (this one gets a torsion beam) handle with even greater agility, and do ride a bit better across all speeds, too.