A bold new Class act from Mercedes

Mercedes-Benz's new A-Class offers everything the company stands for in its most compact package, says Matt Kimberley, PA motoring writer.

Let's be honest – the original A-Class was something of an oddball. A premium supermini/multi-purpose vehicle combination was something that none of Mercedes-Benz's rivals ever thought worth imitating.

Even though the A-Class sold by the container-load, the compact premium car game has moved on and left Mercedes behind. Cars like BMW's 1 Series and the Audi A3 have forced the A-Class to change its ways altogether.

That's why the only thing you'll find shared between that and the new one is the name. Longer, lower, wider and much more aggressive-looking, the new A-Class is taking the fight to the competition in a surprisingly bold way – probably because Mercedes has a lot of catching up to do if it's to win over enough of the market.

At launch there are a trio of petrol engines and three diesels. This is the entry-level 180 CDI diesel, which in basic spec with a manual gearbox dips below the magic 100g/km CO2 mark that fleet buyers and company car drivers adore. It's also offered with a seven-speed automatic gearbox as tested here.

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The odd thing is that the A180 CDI manual has a completely different engine to the identically-badged A180 CDI auto – a 1.5-litre versus a 1.8-litre respectively. Power output is the same with a whisker more torque from the manual 1.5 and with slightly different driving characteristics, but it seems a bizarre – if largely inconsequential – difference.

This is the 1.8-litre engine anyway, and it's enough to stroke the 1,475kg A-Class plus passengers and luggage up to motorway speeds in genteel fashion. Its 108bhp leaves it feeling a little lacking on faster roads but it's a fine cruising engine and with a smooth nature does well around town.

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Various specification levels are offered, rising from SE to Sport, AMG Sport and Engineered by AMG, which features a trick front axle and other chassis improvements. The SE's standard air-conditioning, USB input, electric windows and multi-function steering wheel are nice, but in Mercedes tradition a lot of technology is optional.

Existing Mercedes drivers expect it, to allow them to add what they want and leave out what they don't. But what you do get, especially on Sport and AMG Sport cars, is the full sense of quality that all the brand's cars have. It feels like a smaller C-Class on the inside with materials that match up in every way.

Anyone who has driven any Mercedes of the last three years or so will be instantly at home in the A-Class, bar the odd colour display that sticks out from the dashboard rather than being built-in. The point is that the A-Class feels every inch a Mercedes in the same way that its bigger brothers all do. It certainly doesn't feel like the cheap option in the range.

There's huge grip from chunky tyres, balanced handling biasing just a little towards understeer, a good range of colours to choose from –which is good news since the A-Class lends itself to reds and blues much more readily than larger Mercs – and comfortable seats which are ideal for long-distance cruising.

As for niggles, there's noticeable wind noise round the A-pillars and door mirrors, and road noise is a bit too intrusive at speed on poor roads. The engine is as quiet as a church mouse from the inside though, unless it's really revved hard. Rear visibility is also a bit restricted.

The available spread of engines and trims cover all the key business-buyer and early-adopter bases for now. The pick for enthusiasts at the moment is the 208bhp turbo petrol A250 Sport, with fabulous red styling details and seats to die for. It really is an attractive thing. Just note that Sport, as a model designation, sits higher than Sport and AMG Sport as trim designations. Confused yet?

There's a lot to like about the new A-Class, especially the looks. The top-quality interior is a highlight as well, and the general grown-up feel is very welcome. It's taken Mercedes a while to come up with it, but the A-Class offers everything the company stands for in its most compact package.

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