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|Mercedes A Class
Bigger And Better In Every Way, Including Price
Handling, Quality, Ride All Improved
Elk Debacle A Distant Memory
Rating - *** out of 5
The Mercedes A Class, which survived a near-death experience at the hands of Swedish elks when it was introduced in 1998, has been transformed in its second generation with more space, quality and better handling.
The original A Class tipped over during a road test in Sweden, designed to replicate the kind of evasive action you might take if you encountered an elk while driving at high speed in the wild, northern part of the country. So far there have been no reports from Sweden concerning failed elk tests of this second iteration. You will be glad to hear that no elks are involved in the high-speed swerve test, which uses strategically placed plastic cones.
Mercedes Benz had to withdraw the first A Class after the rollover, and suffered much embarrassment and spent much cash to make the stability control system standard across the range. Mercedes also lowered and stiffened the suspension before the car finally hit the market.
The suspension modifications made the first A Class ride thumpy and uncomfortable, and the handling suffered as well. Quality was also not up to scratch, which made a bit of mockery of Mercedes plans to move its luxury reputation down market.
But the car was a sales success, with over 1.1 million sold worldwide, excluding the U.S., where the car never appeared, although Mercedes had planned to launch it there. It is perhaps hard to remember just how radical the first car was, with its egg shape and sandwich floor concept, where the main mechanicals of the engine and transmission sit beneath a false floor.
The new car has a more spacious and upscale interior and better handling. It is built on a single 2,568mm wheelbase. The old A Class had short (2,423mm) and long (2,593mm) wheelbase versions. This time there is a 3-door version as well. Take a look at the pictures and see if you agree with me that the 3-door version is remarkably ugly. The five-door looks much more handsome and balanced, in my opinion.
Power is increased by up to 38 per cent in some diesel versions, while torque has improved by up to 46 per cent. Fuel economy is raised by ten per cent.
Standard equipment includes a multi-function steering wheel, electronic stability control (naturally), a selective damping system, four airbags and seatbelt force limiters.
There are four petrol engines and three diesels
Just as with a regular Mercedes the trim levels are split into Classic, Elegance and Avantgarde.
On the road the car feels very competent, although wind noise became obtrusive at over 60 mph. The electro-hydraulic power steering is light at all speeds. The new suspension is much better than the old models, flattening out the potholes and bumps of Britains third-world roads. The dashboard was a treat, with great quality materials and clearly laid out controls.
There are some neat storage ideas, including the ability to transform the car into a virtual van by folding the rear seats flat, and the front passenger seat too. Compared with the Honda Jazz, the process is fiddly, and the seats dont fold away completely into the floor. The A Classs boot floor can easily be raised to the same height as the rear loading lip for a completely flat loading area.
And so to prices. Mercedes says prices of the A class start at £13,655 (19,750 euros) on the road, but once youve included a decent sized engine and an automatic gearbox, and a few creature comforts and necessities like side-airbags, automatic climate control, leather seats, and sunroof, the price will start to approach more like £20,000. This is an awful lot of money, which will almost buy you a BMW 3 series, certainly a top-of-the-range BMW 1 series, or an Audi A3 or top-of-the-range Golf. If its flexibility and practicality that you want, why not save about £8,000 (11,600 euros) and buy a Honda Jazz (declaration of interest I own one).
Neil Winton February 4, 2005
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