Even though the Mercedes-Benz A-Class in A180 BlueEfficiency specification is the brand’s base model (ours with an optional AMG pack), it looks athletic, while standing still. Well, all except for its corporate nose-job – the stately grille kind-of looks grafted-onto the funkified hatchback body. However, if the aim was to make the baby Benz feels the money’s worth in terms of kerb appeal and interior ambience, it’s a success.
Once strapped into well-bolstered tombstone-style front seats, front occupants are given a welcome ‘hug’ by the Pre-safe seatbelts, and presented with a dash that’s as styled as the A180’s sheetmetal.
Highlights of this Mercedes-Benz A-Class include the woven faux-carbon dash trim, SLS-alike air-con vents, sculpted steering wheel, and a classy-looking, 14.7cm central display screen of the iPad style that, eventually, will date everything from this era. But, like the snout, the limo-like column shifter seems out of place, and the lack of a conventional gear selector leaves the lazy driver nowhere to rest his left hand…
You’re better off gripping the tiller at 10-to-two, because from there the gearbox can be stirred via quick-to-respond steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters to make the most of the 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo’s modest 90kW power output and meaningful 200Nm of torque.
It’s a gravelly engine with a muted burr and a 6250rpm redline, and goes well enough for an entry-level offering (Benz claims 9.1sec 0-100km/h). Then, when paddling back through the gears, well-judged throttle blips seal the seven-speed 7G-DCT dual-clutch transmission as sweet beyond its around-town lethargy when left in auto-Comfort.
The A180’s 0.27 drag co-efficient is best-in-class, and should contribute to fuel-saving on the highway. In the city, the standard stop-start system will do the same. The official combined cycle consumption figure is 5.8L/100km, which is a bit thirstier than key rivals. We saw a less-impressive 10.1L/100km over 400km of country driving.
The 225/40R18 ContiSportContact SSR tyres of our sport-kitted Mercedes-Benz A-Class (in place of standard 17s) offer plenty of grip on smooth roads, which disguises an ultimate lack of handling cohesion. On fresh hotmix, at urban speeds, the nose points keenly into corners, there’s little body-roll, and the A180 feels convincingly sporty; ready and willing to tickle the senses.
But venture onto country roads – you could call them ‘bad’ country roads, but in Australia, they’re typical – and the A180 doesn’t feel quite so together. Our low-kilometre test car had more fizzes and rattles from the cabin plastics than a new car should, and when the road was undulating, so was the ride. Despite the lack of body control, sharp-edged bumps crashed through, and noise and harshness intruded into an otherwise well-insulated cabin.
That steering, which, at first, felt sharp, lacks the precision to match the willingness of the front-end to turn-in, and weak self-centring means you’re forever finessing the amount of steering lock that’s dialled on. On bumpy surfaces, the grippy front-end can shimmy off line. A resolute rubberiness underlies the A180’s responses, undermining this base hatchback’s desire to be a sporty one.
For those in the back, vision forward is good thanks to a slightly elevated seat base and the slim front headrests. Under-thigh support is lacking, as is headroom for tall occupants, however lateral support is reasonable, the backrest angle is comfortable, leg and foot room are good, and there’s a fold-down centre armrest.
The tailgate reveals a high loading lip and a 341L boot that’s average, size-wise, and offers tie-downs, mesh storage pouches, and a ski-port. Standard safety equipment in the five-star Mercedes-Benz A-Class includes nine airbags, a radar collision prevention system, with adaptive brake assist, and a reversing camera.
As well as tensioning the belts, the Pre-safe system powers the windows and the sunroof shut, and motors the seats upright if it detects a crash is imminent, which could be disconcerting if you’ve actually got it all under control (I’ll have to assume it’s pretty good at knowing when you’re about to crash, because we didn’t test the system). Parking sensors, active parking assist, iPod connectivity, and Bluetooth are standard, but an optional integrated Becker sat-nav system costs $1190.
Among rivals, the A180 can’t match the outright handling sharpness and involvement of the rear-wheel-drive BMW 116i, though the Mercedes-Benz A-Class has a more appealing cabin. Meanwhile, the Audi A3 has the A-Class’s measure at many disciplines, though it’s the all-round talented Volkswagen Golf that undermines the Benz with its refinement and blend of comfort and sportiness, and both of them in terms of value.
On one hand, it’s as though Mercedes’ relative lack of experience in the front-wheel-drive small-car segment – or, at least, its specialisation in medium and large sedans – shows when the driver or the conditions ask the chassis to really deliver, and it can’t.
On the other hand, however, Mercedes-Benz has succeeded in shifting the A-Class towards a more youthful market, bringing newfound flair of an order that you rarely see in a single generational change. And, at $35,600 plus on-roads, a sense of well-priced premium pervades.