Mercedes A-Class BlueEfficiency First Drive

This is the new 2013 Mercedes A-Class, and the low silhouette and expressive coachwork should tell you that it’s a radically different machine from its predecessor. Indeed, the sheer excitement generated by its Geneva Motor Show launch earlier this year the original could match only by scandalously failing the ‘elk’ test over a decade ago.

The new A-Class sits on the road with the sort of presence normally reserved for larger cars

Seeing the A-Class in the metal for the first time, particularly this AMG Sport model in eye-catching ‘South Sea Blue’, is a real feast for the eyes. The unapologetically sporting stance, its penetrative LED light signature, the muscular sculpted flanks - it’s almost too much, almost a sensory overload, but witnessed from the front three-quarter the A-Class projects a focus of intent as yet unmatched by anything that bears comparison. Volkswagen’s razor-sharp new Golf wears creases and lines that could almost cut you from merely looking at them, but the A-Class almost wants to burst out of its metal panels, so satiated is it with energy and persona. It will be too much for some, but these are early days for Mercedes’ newfound and more organic design language and, as first attempts go, the A-Class undoubtedly puts its best foot forward .

There are a number of progressively efficient debutant engines for the new A-Class (including the 98g/km CO2 180 CDI), but the real headlines will predictably be saved for the car’s exterior aesthetic – something that designer Mark Fetherstone deserves credit for not to mention the Mercedes board for allowing the design team so much freedom.

In addition to the clear two-box design, Fetherstone has been keen to point out the car’s very short rear overhang – aimed at making the car look compact – and the high belt line which, in complete contrast to the old car, lends the A-Class both a sense of robustness and athleticism. It’s also worth noting that the A-Class was largely designed in the traditional manner using sketches and clay, and not, as is now often the case, with extensive use of CAD software. Featherstone believes that an over-dependence on computer programs stunts a designer’s eloquence, substituting with a circuit board the crucial phase where the deft touch of a human’s hands would generally do the talking.

Active radiator shutters behind the grille close to reduce drag, whilst winglets on the rear windscreen channel air off the back

In recompense for the short rear overhangs, the bonnet bursts forward in a manner alien to the rival cars such as the new Golf VII and Audi A3, neither of which stray far from the accepted norm in this segment. Grafted onto the front is Mercedes’ latest DRG. The front grille has been designed to be a low and as wide as possible, referencing the neoclassical and brutal SLS, and it’s this sportiness that Mercedes have been eager to convey onto their smallest model.

The A-Class’s pert derrière is characterized by the voluptuous curvature of the C-pillars as they flow into the rear lamps and, on AMG-styled models, the meshed vents set into the bumper that reinforce the car’s low, expansive stance. Look closely and you’ll find winglets set into the rear windows charged with reducing the disruption of airflow off the back of the car. Combined with a smooth undertray, they help contribute to the A-Class’s drag coefficient of 0.26 – quite exceptional for a small car. Shut lines are generally tight, as you would expect after a €1.4bn investment in the car’s production lines, but the gaps surrounding the bonnet panel are an irritating glitch.

Ride quality is undoubtedly on the firm side of supple, and may prove too hard for some

Perhaps the most effective design elements are the contour-casting feature lines on the flanks that remain surprisingly true to the surface texturing seen on the original concept car. What starts as a shoulder line, originating from the headlights, dips gently before dissipating above the rear wheel arch, giving an illusion of length and elegance. This prevailing line is complemented by a second, lower line that drops sharply at first and serves to emphasize the compact nature of the A-Class’ dimensions. A definite and rising shoulder exists, although it’s a soft, supple form. These lines work well on the A-Class, and the taut interplay between convex and concave surfacing bodes well for the larger models in Mercedes’ arsenal, for which this surface entertainment has already been confirmed.  

Superfluous details aside, it’s the A-Class’ overhaul in proportions that represent the most significant changes, being nearly 180mm lower and 16mm wider than before, it possesses a stance that the old car could never hope to achieve and is most akin to Volvo’s all-new V40.

The A-Class’ interior design can be traced all the way back to the Aesthetics No 2 sculpture exhibited at the Detroit Motor Show nearly two years ago and is broadly the same as the current B-Class - from the aviation-inspired air vents to the open plan IP.  

It’s also a very youthful, dynamic interior with electro-plated metals, perforated leather and extensive use of carbon fibre woven trim that, although sporty, is the very definition of ‘hyper-processed’.  Designer Jan Kaul believes that if you were to take a seat in the A-Class blind-folded, upon opening your eyes you would never assign the car to its lowly segment.  He’s probably right, but the A-Class still seems a little fussy in comparison to Mercedes’ more esteemed model lines, and with dark tones and a high belt line occupants may feel a slightly claustrophobic sensation despite the deliberately low-set centre stack.  This won’t particularly matter, of course, if you buy into the sporty disposition that’s apparent inside the AMG-styled models, but the A-Class offers a different experience to the Golf and V40, which both feel more spacious and are probably more relaxing, too.

With perforated leather and cold-touch materials, the interior feels very special for a C-segment car and the driving position is excellent

The car seen here is an A200 CDI BlueEfficiency AMG Sport, with a 1.8-litre diesel engine generating 136bhp and returning 62.8mpg. We couldn’t verify this figure as new engines take a while to bed in and give their best (as will the slightly creaky interior fit), but this engine seems to offer the greatest compromise, with helpful levels of torque and emissions of 116g/km CO2. Mercedes’ first and wholly in-house built seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is an excellent unit in general terms – gently shifting up at the earliest possible revs in Eco mode – but push on and it’s a little lethargic. Quick to swap cogs, but slow to react to driver inputs, and it will no doubt be remapped for the 349bhp A45 AMG due next year. As a word of warning, the AMG Sport models run on 18-inch alloy wheels and sit 15mm lower than the standard cars. This looks good and lends the car an even more planted stance, but the ride suffers as a result; a quick blast is fun, but it might prove irritating on a daily basis.

Mercedes may unwittingly be running the risk of the A-Class rapidly becoming dated, as often happens with ‘shock and awe’ cars that seem ahead of the game at launch. That the standard car already seems a little ungainly, requiring the AMG kit to lift its visual appeal, is perhaps a worrying sign. For now, however, this new addition to the C-segment is sharp enough, both inside and out, to worry the opposition.  If 70,000 European preorders don’t vouch for that, then what does?

Mercedes A200 CDI BlueEfficiency AMG Sport

Engine:1,796cc 4-cyl turbocharged diesel Power: 136bhp @ 3,600 rmp Torque: 300Nm @ 1,600 rpm 0-62mph: 9.2s Top Speed: 130mph Economy: 65.7mpg combined COemissions: 116g/km Price: From £24,015

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