The idea of a premium manufacturer offering a model other than standard saloon/sporting variants is something which is firmly entrenched in the minds of the modern car buyer, but if you look back a mere 20 years (OK that does sound a long time ago but we’re only talking 1995!) then there were essentially no options besides the oddball BMW 3 Series Compact. The BMW was really just a shortened version of the 3 Series Coupe except with the more compact/cheaper rear suspension from the previous generation 3…it’s dull looks and questionable value meant that it wasn’t a major hit in any market despite limping through 2 generations.
Fast forwarding to the present day and even Lexus offers a dolled up version of the Prius to buyers and Audi slaps their badge on a restyled version of the humble Volkswagen Polo; the Ingolstadt based company actually has a lot to do with the creation of this category as it was their 1996 A3 which was really the first small premium hatch to capture the mind of buyers, and although rivals have tried to replicate their success it remains Audi whose offering continues to sit in the top 10 sales chart for the UK market. Inoffensively styled with a high quality interior, the A3 is not the most exciting car on the market and is arguably just a tarted up Golf but it’s still the one to beat in today’s market.
But we’re not here to talk about the Audi, no it’s Mercedes’ offering in this category which probably has the most interesting history with a fair few ups and downs. In-keeping with their ‘Class’ naming system, Mercedes chose the A Class name for their smallest model and entrusted it with ushering in a whole new era for the brand – both in terms of exterior styling and interior accouterments, as well as modern engineering and packaging feats. Admittedly not the prettiest car to look at, the original A Class was actually shorter than a Ford Ka yet had space for 5 adults and their luggage – thanks to an innovative ‘sandwich’ platform where the fuel tank was placed inbetween the floorpan and passenger cabin it meant that a lot more interior space could be utilised. The tiny dimensions of the car were possible because of the crash structure of the vehicle and involved an engine designed to slide under the passenger cell in the event of a frontal collision. Unfortunately for Mercedes though, the car gained notoriety before it’s launch when it flipped onto it’s side in the infamous ‘elk’ test where the car has to swerve to avoid an obstruction in the road; savaged by the automotive press for both this and it’s unusual looks, the baby Merc sold reasonably well but mainly thanks to it’s premium badge and manageable dimensions…although the fact it was chosen as the ‘EasyCar’ by Stelios Haji-Ioannou for his car rental service meant that it’s image did slide downmarket a little.
For the car’s second generation Mercedes stuck to their tried-and-tested formula, giving the car slightly sleeker looks and a more premium interior. It was also slightly bigger all around and came with a more impressive set of engines (plus an ungainly 3 door version), but by this time the Mercedes name had become slightly tarnished from a downturn in reliability and quality in the late 90’s/early 00’s, so this plus the fact the slightly larger B Class catered better for the family market meant that the A Class’ sales paled in comparison to the second generation A3 and new rival BMW 1 Series. I have been in a couple of second generation A Class and on the whole they are very nice little cars; roomy enough for a small family and with a nice interior too, it is just a shame that the car’s looks remained a little quirky and failed to really self identify either as a supermini or a family hatchback.
This brings me around to the new generation A Class which has now been around for 3 years or so, and a car I had the pleasure of a limited ride in yesterday. A complete blank canvas, Mercedes used the opportunity of the third generation model to redesign the A from the ground up and in doing so changed the mission of the car itself – from a practical supermini-cum-MPV it is now a genuine competitor for the 1 Series and A3, not to mention the rivals which have sprung up from Lexus, Volvo and a host of other semi-premium rivals…it also managed to poach quite a few sales from drivers of regular hatchback models who fancy a premium badge on the bonnet. It has also become the heart of a brand new compact family of A/B Class models, with an MPV, SUV, 4-door coupe and estate already on the market, plus potentially a roadster in the future too.
Key to the A’s new appeal is it’s exterior looks, which have taken cues from larger and more expensive models to give it some real presence in all guises; the A3 has remained rather stale and clinical in appearance and the BMW continues to divide opinion with it’s front heavy goggle-eyed styling. It’s still quite a small car despite the trend towards burgeoning dimensions and has remained a front wheel drive model (with optional AWD in performance spec), but overall is a whole lot more conventional with a longer bonnet and sleeker roofline than before. Of course looks are subjective and with smaller wheels the car looks a little cheap, but on the whole the A looks sharp and appealing to the younger buyers it is targeting with this model.
Inside things are a little mode divisive; the baby Merc shares a lot of details with the impressive new C Class with a swooping dashboard and circular ‘pod’ air vents, but as with most modern German premium cars it has an infotainment screen which looks very stuck on, and if you fail to option the full COMAND system the screen looks a little pitiful and dated. Additionally I found the quality of plastics a little below my expectations…maybe that’s because my experience with other Mercedes have been of models higher in model hierarchy, but the grained plastic compared unfavourably to my old Astra in my humble opinion. Also a little disappointing was the lack of space for rear passengers, which when combined with the large, figure hugging and all-in-one front seats mean that I expect it could be a little claustrophobic…the boot wasn’t that impressive either.
I didn’t have the opportunity to take the A180 CDI on a test drive personally, but I have it on authority that the car drove with all the verve that it’s 108bhp would suggest…ie it was a bit of a slug. Seeing as though the A hatchback is primarily a car aimed at the European market I found it surprising to discover that there quite so many engine choices both diesel and petrol. The base diesel is the A160 with a mere 89bhp, followed by the aforementioned A180 and 134bhp A200 which is likely to form the bulk of UK sales. Top spec diesels are the A220 which have a reasonable 168bhp to compete with BMW’s ubiquitous 120d and Audi A3 2.0 TDI, although those looking for anything more powerful will be dissapointed unless they are OK with a petrol engined car. Those buyers can also have a A180 and A200, albeit with more power but less torque than diesel versions (120bhp and 154bhp respectively). The 208bhp A250 will have enough power for most customers but the real crazies out there will only be satisfied with the amazing 355bhp A45 AMG – a huge output for a vehicle which only has a 2 Litre turbocharged engine! With AWD and a dual clutch transmission it will reach 60 in 4.6 seconds which is crazy for such a small vehicle. Speaking of transmissions all but the top 2 engines (3 if you include the A45) offer a 6 speed manual as standard, with a 7 speed automatic being an option on those or standard on the A220 CDI and A250, although they do have a column shifter a la other Mercedes.
While the A Class is not perfect by any means, for me personally it offers the most appealing package in it’s market segment – although I will admit that it essentially comes down to design preference. The BMW will admittedly drive better, have more efficient/powerful engines and probably has an easier to use infotainment system, but it still looks like a pig in lipstick and every privileged 20-something seems to have one. If they don’t then they probably have an Audi A3 in S Line trim, but you’d never realise because they look so bland they may as well be driving any lower down Audi or indeed a Golf. Choosing the A Class allows you access to a genuinely premium hatchback which offers a fair amount of driving pleasure and personal satisfaction, and at least it’s the one where you can look back appreciatively and have your mates say ‘Oh that’s a nice car’…which is essentially the point of buying such a car, otherwise you’d have just bought a Ford Focus like everyone else.
As for prices, well the Mercedes starts at £20,715, the BMW at £20,245/£20,775 and the Audi A3 at £18,615/£19,235 (the latter two have different prices for 3 and 5 door versions respectively, whereas the Mercedes only gets 5 doors). More importantly for most buyers will be finance costs, with all 3 being available from between £249 and £279 per month, albeit with the Audi and Mercedes requiring a much larger deposit vs the BMW.