The least expensive A180 petrol version of Mercedes' A-Class is still surprisingly desirable. Jonathan Crouch reports on the revised version.
Ten Second Review
Some might feel a pang of regret that Mercedes returned to a more conventional shape with this third generation A-Class, but it's proved o be a much more competitive proposition in this guise against BMW 1 Series anmd Audi A3 rivals. This facelifted version looks a little smarter and gets more equipment. Here's the most affordable version, the A180 petrol variant.
The Mercedes A-Class was always a clever and innovative car. MK1 and MK2 models had a neat sandwich floor whereby in the event of a violent frontal impact, the engine and transmission would slide underneath the floor below the pedals rather than entering the passenger compartment. Plus an 'A' has always been economical, spacious and good looking. It never drove very well though. Pushing one hard along a B-road always felt as if you were being a bit cruel. The second generation car that appeared in 2004 was a bit better but by then, the BMW 1 Series had appeared and showed how things should be done. Fast forward to 2012 when buyers at the most affordable end of the Mercedes range were first treated to this, the third generation A-Class. Here, the script had changed. Radically. Where the previous models had been tall, boxy and frumpy, this one was cool and sporty. Yes, just like a rival Audi A3 or BMW 1 Series. Now, this MK3 model has been subtly updated, but the least expensive way to buy into it is still to opt for the variant we look at here, the 1.6-litre, 122bhp petrol A180 model. Let's check it out.
And on the road? Well, if you were expecting something soft and friendly, you're in for a shock. The A-Class feels like a sports hatch. The ride, even in comfort-oriented SE spec, is extremely firm and this may put a few people off. On a badly-surfaced British B-road, it feels constantly busy, reminding you to stay on top of your game, demanding attention like a spoilt kid. Get it on tarmac not quite so scarred and it's just got the mightiest front end. This is a car you can really lean on as you enter a corner, confident in the knowledge that it's not going to wash out until you've got some really silly numbers on the clock and even then the ESP stability control intervenes and gathers things up. The entry-level petrol 1.6-litre A180 with 122bhp, the car we're looking at here, Underpinning the baby Benz is a fairly conventional suspension system found beneath the B-class, featuring MacPherson struts up front and a four-link design at the back. Anything else? Brakes good, gearchange a bit lightweight but accurate, all-round visibility out of the car just about acceptable, driving position excellent. When was the last time Mercedes made a small car you really wanted to drive? It's been a while but the three-pointed star is back in the game.
Design and Build
This third generation A-Class delivered a design that was longer, wider and lower than before, with sharply defined edges and tautly-drawn convex and concave surfaces which seem to constantly change as the light catches them. Not too much has changed in this regard, except at the front where there's a smarter, more angular front bumper below a standard 'diamond' front grille. At the rear, the exhaust pipes are now integrated into the rear bumper while the tail-lights are revised. Overall, though the changes may be subtle, they do sharpen up the styling nicely. Inside, the interior has been upgraded with smarter instrument dial housings, more seat adjustment, sleeker metal switches, plus a fresh choice of materials and dash trims. Higher end variants also benefit from a larger 8" touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink smartphone integration. This system is an option on lower models. Boot space remains competitive at 341-litres.
Market and Model
Pricing for this A180 theoretically starts at about £19,000, but that's for an entry-level version with steel wheels that few potential buyers will want, though you do get air conditioning, an eco start/stop function and a CD stereo. Better though, to look at a starting point for ownership as being the SE version, priced from just over the £20,000 mark. At this level, you get 16-inch alloy wheels, some body-colour and chrome finishing, lovely chromed air vents, and ARTICO faux-leather sports seats. Where this A-Class really pulls out the stops in this sector is by being one of the few vehicles in its class to feature as standard a radar-based collision warning set-up. Working with adaptive Brake Assist, which lowers the risk of rear-end collisions, the Collision Prevention Assist system gives a visual and acoustic warning to alert a distracted driver to identified obstacles, and prepares Brake Assist for the most precise braking response possible. This is initiated as soon as the driver steps firmly on the brake pedal. It's all very clever but like the best technology, doesn't impose itself until it's actually needed. Other features fitted as standard include Attention Assist, which monitors the duration and style of your driving and makes recommendations when you may well be driving in a fatigued state, Brake Hold function and Hill Start Assist. Options include Blind Spot Assist, Lane Keeping Assist, Speed Limit Assist, Active Parking Assist and a reversing camera.
Cost of Ownership
Mercedes has pulled out all the stops to make the A-Class one of the cheapest cars to run in its class. It has some redoubtable opposition of course, not only from the likes of BMW and Audi but also from a resurgent Volvo but the A-Class makes all the right numbers, with all its engines featuring direct injection and turbocharging, plus an ECO start/stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. Further efficiency measures include an economy setting for the automatic gearbox, intelligent management of engine ancillaries like the alternator, the oil feed and the water pump, a display to encourage more economical driving, low rolling resistance tyres, an adjustable radiator shutter and a CAMTRONIC load management system for the petrol 1.6 that reduces throttling loses under partial load, this alone improving fuel consumption by up to 10%. You'd expect the result of all this to be a frugal set of running cost figures - and you'd be right. The A180 manages anything between 49.6 and 55.4mpg on the combined cycle, depending on the wheel and gearbox options you choose (automaic models are more frugal). And CO2 emissions vary between 119 and 133g/km. What else? Well, as you'd expect, the Mercedes after-care package is comprehensive, with a three-year unlimited mileage warranty and a Service Care package that spreads the cost of routine servicing, guaranteeing the price of parts and labour for up to four services and covering the cost of all recommended service items such as brake fluid, spark plugs, air filters, fuel filters and screen wash.
The Mercedes-Benz A-Class isn't going to be for everyone. Some will find the styling too strident, others will baulk at the firm ride or the fact that it's not got the biggest boot. If Mercedes was planning on broadening the appeal of its baby, it might not get the results it was expecting. If, on the other hand, Mercedes wanted to distil all that's exciting fresh and modern about the company into one small package, I don't think it could have done much better. Mercedes is a company that's often portrayed as deeply conservative but no other manufacturer has such a record of innovation. It's a bold, forward-looking car maker and while the A-Class seems as if it's become more derivative in philosophy, the execution is anything but. If you like your hatches sporty, self-assured and with a big feel-good factor, you'll probably want to book a test drive. Even in entry-level A180 form, we reckon this car is a little bit special.