Motoring: In A-Class of its own

Futuristic and fun or a space-age shopping trolley? We put the Mercedes A-Class to the test.

ou need only flick through the handbook for its new A-Class to realise that Mercedes is more than a little sensitive about safety. I counted no fewer than 43 little, red "Risk of Injury" triangles in one of its eight (count 'em) instruction booklets - apparently even the floor mats can do you a mischief if you're not careful.

Mercedes is, of course, quite right to be jittery. When a Swedish car magazine tested the original version of the A-Class by flinging a dummy elk at it, humiliatingly it rolled over and cost Mercedes tens of millions of pounds to rectify the fault. But now it has, and this lower, stockier estate-come-saloon-come-funky-van-come-MPV-come-whatever is a pretty fine car. And even a hurricane, or Geoff Capes with a bunch of elks cheering from the sidelines, couldn't turn it over.

Amazingly, at 3.57 metres long, the A-Class is shorter than a Ford Ka, but it seats five people in reasonable comfort due to the fact that its engine is located under the floor.

Most new cars are easy to drive, but the A-Class is, I think, one of the easiest. You sit up high, so visibility is great, and all the controls are light without being flimsy. It'll cruise without stress at 90mph and, in an effort to sort out that elk problem, Mercedes has loaded it up with more acronyms than a Harley Street quack. It boasts ABS, BAS, ASR and something called ESP. Even the nodding dog gets an airbag. That engine location also means that, in the event of an accident, passengers rise above the wreckage instead of finding themselves with an internal combustion engine on their laps. This is now one of the safest small cars in the world, but it still looks exciting and futuristic - like a prop from Blade Runner.

One unfortunate side effect of the new suspension is a firm ride; if you travel in the rear you tend to bounce around as if you're in the back of a National Express coach. And while we're at it, Mercedes promotes the A-Class as having "Big car quality in a small car" - unfortunately the "big car" in question isn't a Mercedes, it's more of a Nissan Primera. Though I don't doubt its mechanical integrity, quality is not what it should be inside the A-Class. As one of our testers remarked, the dash looks like it's been made from the same plastic they use for supermarket egg boxes. I wonder how the Mercedes S-Class owner, pounds 100,000 down on their new purchase, is going to feel when they see one of these diddy space-age shopping trolleys with exactly the same three-pointed star on its grille roller-skate by on the motorway?

Prices range from pounds 14,500 to the astonishing pounds 20,140 you would pay for the 1.6-litre automatic with all the trimmings that we tried. That's two Ford Kas! At that sort of altitude you'll have Audi, BMW, and Saab salesmen pressing their noses up against the glass. Whether or not the Mercedes salesman still has your attention will depend on whether you rate brand identity and design innovation above value for money. Mercedes has bet many hundreds of millions of pounds that you will

The verdict

Richard Maskell, 34, international sales manager, Karen Maskell, 35, cabin service director, Bethany Maskell, 4, from Shepperton, Surrey. Currently drive a Mercedes C180 estate and Fiat Punto

Richard: "I really admire the build quality of Mercedes. I've also been really impressed by the standard of service you get from dealers. I'm not worried by the safety problems they had with this as I'm sure they've thoroughly tested it by now, but it's a bit plasticky inside. I'd go for the manual."

Karen: "It feels more like a Renault than a Mercedes inside. The boot is really small and the rear seat will only really take two child seats. Overall I think it's a bit claustrophobic and really ugly. I think I'll keep my Punto."

Andrew Philpott, 30, manager of a computer network security company, Paula Philpott, 35, purser on Concorde, from Weybridge, Surrey. Currently drive an Alfa GTV and Citroen Saxo

Andrew: "I can't see Mercedes letting the problems with this happen again so that wouldn't put me off. It is very easy to drive but I wouldn't have an automatic - you have to wait too long before it changes gear. It's great that you can remove all the seats to use it as a van, but where do you put them once you've taken them out? I don't think the quality really says Mercedes." Paula: "There's not much room in the back and it's funny looking, like a big insect, a bit Space 1999." The plastic inside looks cheap - my Citroen's interior is better than this. If you removed the badges you wouldn't know it was a Mercedes. On top of all that, its overpriced."

Jeremy Gray, 30, head of a Housing Association hostel, from Belfast; Theresa Zlonkiewicz, 32, senior care worker at Shelter, from Derby. Currently car-less

Jeremy: "It feels very jerky when it changes gear. It doesn't feel that stable to start with and a friend told me that these topple over. It's not my image of a Mercedes at all, it feels more part of the Mazda or Citroen market. It is spacious, easy to park and comfortable, and stability worries drift off as you drive along. It looks superb, especially the lights, but doesn't look quite so good at the back. With those removable seats it'd be a good booze-cruise car!"

Theresa: "I would feel worried about rolling over from what I've heard. I don't like the shape of it, it looks like something from The Jetsons."

Elizabeth Ballantyne, 26, marketing executive from Egham, Surrey; Michael Ormond, 30, technical support manager, from Glasgow. Currently drive a Renault 5 and VW Golf VR6

Elizabeth: "I would expect this to be driven by posh ladies whose husbands have bought them a little Mercedes to match their own. The falling over problem wouldn't worry me now. You sit quite high up, which I like and it's very easy and smooth to drive. It grows on you."

Michael: "I know a couple of Mercedes owners who detest the idea that Mercedes has made a little car like this, it's devalued the brand - this could be a bargain second-hand in a year or two's time. From looking at it, you'd think it was a Nissan. The ride isn't that good, you feel the bumps in the back especially, and it's not the smoothest auto change I've come across. It's just not for me."

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

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