The `affordable' and infamous new Mercedes is put to the test by Roger Bell
Mercedes-Benz's "cheap" new A-class, now on sale in Britain after surviving a launch crisis, is the most radical debutante of the decade. Adventurous in layout and controversial in style, it does not slot into any established category but creates a new one.

At under 12ft long, it has a smaller "footprint" than a Ford Ka. Inside, though, it is almost as roomy as a like-priced Ford Mondeo. The secret to this Tardis-like packaging lies in the position of the under-footwell engine, sandwiched between two floors designed to channel the energy- absorbing power-train harmlessly beneath occupants in the event of a severe head-on collision.

Mercedes-Benz has good reason to stress safety as it was the exposure by a Swedish magazine of potentially dangerous handling that delayed the car's UK launch. The infamous "Elk test" had the original production version overturning. The car's narrow track and lofty build contributed to this instability.

Mercedes' cure cost millions of pounds (and much lost esteem). They modified the suspension and now fit a gizmo called ESP (electronic stability programme), uniting the functions of anti-lock brakes, brake assist and traction control.

It works. I tried hard to uncover any weaknesses in a series of handling tests at the MIRA proving grounds, but none came to light. In fact, the car impressed with its sure-footed composure when pushed to its cornering and braking limits. It is no sports saloon, the A-class, but it is utterly safe. Scandinavia's loose moose have seen to that.

Variations on the five-door A-theme (pounds 14,490 to pounds 17,890 before extras) extend to three trim and equipment packages and three purpose-built engines. The A140 and A160 are peppy four-cylinder petrols; the A170 is a rougher, noisier turbocharged diesel that M-B reckons will account for 30 per cent of UK sales. Of the transmissions on offer (manual, clutchless manual and, coming later, fully automatic) my favourite was the two-pedal manual version.

Inside, behind a bold, shapely dash, you could be in a mid-range saloon. Although your eye-level is high, the driving position is laid-back. Forward visibility is excellent, that to the rear hampered by upswept rear pillars, the car's most controversial styling feature. Tall adults may feel cramped in the back seats.

Even the A40 feels quite nippy. It strides along with the long-legged gait of a more powerful car. The A160 is quicker, though its power can generate steering tug, hinting that M-B has not mastered the nuances of front-wheel drive at its first attempt.

It's probably the Mercedes-Benz badge rather than the car's innovative design that will attract more buyers than M-B can satisfy. Remedial work has pushed up the price, but the A140 Classic is still pounds 5,000 less than the cheapest traditional Merc.


Marque: Mercedes-Benz A160. Price: from pounds 15,490. Engine: 1589cc, 8 valves, four cylinders, 102bhp at 5250rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual, front-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 112mph, 0-60mph in 11 seconds, 39.2mpg combined.


Audi A3 1-6: From pounds 14,855. Less roomy, but nicer to drive. BMW 316is: From pounds l4,670: cheapest BMW lacks sparkle. Badge is big attraction. Ford Mondeo 1.6 Aspen: pounds 14,495. Bigger, less economical than the A-class. Renault Scenic 1.6RN: From pounds 12,995. Roomy, versatile MPV. Good value at keen price. VW Golf: From pounds 12,735. Fourth generation, well-made, refined. Undercuts Merc.