Mercedes-Benz has wiped the slate clean for its third-generation A-Class. It's gone back to the drawing board and returned not with a rehashed mini MPV, but with a new luxury hatchback that will go head to head with the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3. Prices start at £18,945 for the entry level car. Our test vehicle was the top of the range A 250 Engineered by AMG model, which retails for £28,775 on the road.
Name notwithstanding, the new A-Class has very little incommon with its predecessor. The first and second-generation models were round, curvy, mini MPV affairs, but this new model has a more traditional wedge-like hatchback design. Some might argue it's lost its unique identity, but we think the changes have made it a more athletic, sporty and attractive proposition that people will flock to not just because it's the cheapest Mercedes on offer, but also because it looks the part.
The new design is the brainchild of Englishman Mark Fetherston, who also penned the incredibly attractive SLS AMG, and it shows. The A-Class has an aggressive nose that, in Inspired by AMG form, is festooned with jewel-like splashes of bling. Elsewhere, there are plenty of sharp edges and muscular multi-dimensional side panels that are brought to life thanks to clever use of convex and concave shapes.
Inside, the A-Class A250 Engineered by AMG draws its inspiration from the concept A-Class, which was unveiled in 2011. It features a wing-shaped dashboard, aviation-themed vents and instruments arranged in a logical, easy-to-use fashion. It's comfortable, and practical, too. A pair of cupholders rest in the centre console just ahead of a central storage binnacle and the door pockets offer plenty of storage for flotsam. The driver's seat provides a fantastic driving position. It's low slung and sporty if you want it to be, but there's good adjustability on the seat and steering wheel so shorter drivers can have a good view over the bonnet.
Rear space is surprisingly good. The narrow aperture of rear doors and smallish rear windows can make things feel a little claustrophobic, but there's enough room three six-foot-tall passengers in the back and the large panoramic sunroof lets in plenty of light. The boot is of ample size. It has a relatively small opening, but it has 341 litres of storage, which is an improvement on the 316 litres you get in a Ford Focus. The rear seats fold down when extra room is required, providing a maximum luggage capacity of 1,157 litres.
Performance & Handling
The Mercedes-Benz A-Class is available with a variety of engines. The A 180 and A 200 BlueEfficiency models utilise a 1.5-litre petrol engine tuned to produce 122hp and 156hp respectively, while the A 250 BlueEfficiency packs a 2-litre petrol that chucks out 211hp. The best compromise of efficiency and performance is offered by the A 200, though if it's sheer pulling power you're after, the A 250 in either AMG Sport or Engineered by AMG spec is an aggressive performer, capable of 0-62mph in 6.6 seconds and a top speed of 149mph. 1.4- and 1.8-litre turbodiesels are also available, though the best blend of performance, emissions and economy is offered by the larger 2.2-litre turbodiesel.
All versions of the A-Class are offered with a choice of six-speed manual or 7-speed dual-clutch transmissions. In the case of the A 180, the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission commands a £1,450 premium. It provides the advantage of slightly faster acceleration, marginally better fuel economy (it's in the region of 0.1 seconds faster to 62mph and around 1mpg more frugal) and is easier to drive. Honestly, though, unless your left foot is averse to a bit of clutch exercise, we'd pick the manual. The dual-clutch transmission, the only option available on the Engineered by AMG model, works well for the most part, but never truly gives you control of which gear you want selected – the car thinks it knows best and there's little you can do to override it, no matter how much you yank away at the paddles behind the steering wheel.
Whichever engine you opt for, you'll be very pleased with the car's handling. The A 250 Engineered by AMG model we tested felt a little jittery over potholed road surfaces, but it corners superbly, has responsive steering and grips the road in a manner befitting the high power output of its engine. Driving enthusiasts may be slightly disappointed with the fact it's not possible to turn the car's traction control off (its safety systems will constantly fight against you if it thinks you're driving too aggressively) but its overall balance and driveability is fantastic.
If you're after a softer, less jittery ride, the standard, SE and Sport models will help prolong the structural integrity of your spine.
Economy & Environment
The entry-level A 180 petrol delivers a good combination of performance and efficiency. It's on par with the entry-level BMW 114i, producing 122hp while returning 51.4mpg and generating carbon dioxide at a rate of 129g/km. The lowliest Beemer, in contrast, returns 49.6mpg and 132g/km, while producing a mere 102hp, though it costs about £1,000 less. The most efficient of the A-Class's diesel engines, the 109hp A 180 CDI BlueEfficiency, returns 74.3mpg and produces 98g/km. The equivalent BMW 1 Series, the 116d EfficientDynamics, returns similar numbers.
Equipment & Value
The Mercedes A-Class comes surprisingly well equipped. All models come with an electronic key, remote central locking, alarm and immobiliser, a 6-CD stereo, Bluetooth, USB and aux-in and a 5.8-inch tablet-style display for accessing the car's onboard audio and computer systems. Sat-nav is an optional extra, but if you own an iPhone, you can use the screen on the A-Class to access your phone's sat-nav, as well as Internet radio, Facebook and Twitter.
If there's one thing the Mercedes A-Class does well, it's saving your backside – it comes with more safety equipment than there are ways to die. Every car has airbags at the front, sides and rear, ABS with brake assist, collision prevention assist, electronic stability program with acceleration skid control, an active bonnet that flips open to cushion the fall of pedestrians when you run them over, and a first aid kit. The cars will even do their best to monitor your driving for signs of tiredness and will issue a warning to take a break if it thinks you're tired.
The Mercedes-Benz A-Class is, in our eyes, much improved over its predecessor. It's lovely to look at, drives well in standard form and offers thrilling performance in A 250 AMG Sport and Engineered by AMG guises. Some may prefer the unique styling of its predecessors but there's little doubt this latest A-Class adds a touch of class to the segment. The BMW 1 series may have a slight edge over the A-Class where driving dynamics are concerned, but the mini Merc is arguably the more desirable package. If you can afford the slightly high asking price, particularly for the flagship Engineered by AMG model, it's well worth a look.
Model tested: Mercedes-Benz A 250 Engineered by AMG
Engine: 2-litre petrol
Acceleration: 0-62 in 6.6 seconds
Top speed: 149mph
Emissions: 148g/km CO2