A baptism of fire for the baby Benz

ROAD TEST Mercedes-Benz A-class

Cars are too big, too inefficient and too conservative. At last, here is one that breaks the mould. Amazingly, it comes from Mercedes-Benz - maker of some of the biggest, most inefficient cars on the road.

The new baby A-class is the smallest car that Mercedes has ever released, as well as being the greenest. Given that recent Mercedes-Benzes have included the V12 S-class and the aircraft-carrier-like CL coupe - both of which have more in common with the Queen Mary than the Mini - you may well conclude that it ain't saying much. But you would be wrong. The A- class is not just small by Mercedes' standards; it is small by anyone's. It is the same length as the Rover 100 - as the Metro is now known - and that is considerably shorter than typical small hatches such as the Fiesta or Polo.

More impressive, given that there is no intrinsic virtue in being short, it is incredibly roomy. It is as spacious, in terms of leg-room, as the much bigger (on the outside) Ford Mondeo. It is probably the most space- efficient car in motoring history. There is one extra boon - in diesel guise, it is also one of the most fuel efficient: Mercedes claims more than 60mpg.

The A-class is part of a drive by one of the world's best resourced but least imaginative car companies to broaden its model range and take on a more youthful appeal. The fusty, old-man image that has long hung around Mercedes is to be blown away. New models include the baby A-class, the even more extraordinary Smart baby car (co-developed by Swatch), the SLK sportster and the M-class 4x4.

Why the change? According to Mercedes' boss Jurgen Hubbert, it was change or die. The firm, he admits, was living on its reputation, and was producing a profit only because, up to the early Nineties, it could continue to charge premium prices for solid, over-engineered cars. Mercedes may have spent as much time rectifying a car as Toyota took to build one, but so what? Profits were still rolling in.

In 1993, Daimler-Benz recorded the biggest loss in German corporate history. "We saw the edge of the cliff, and it was frightening," says Hubbert. "We have since then completely changed our ways. The A-class is evidence of the new-look Daimler-Benz - a youthful, dynamic, productive and innovative company."

The A-class is an extraordinary sight when you first see one on the road. It is too high, too short, too narrow, too different from every other car - an upright little bug in a world of long, swoopy birds. It looks a bit like a downscaled MPV - which, in many ways, is what it is.

Safety, that cornerstone of Mercedes strengths, has remained paramount. Mercedes says that the baby A is as crash-resistant as the much bigger E-class. It has achieved this mainly by the use of a sandwich floorpan, the key feature on the car.

The engine sits at the nose of the sandwich, almost on its side. The passenger cell is partly on top, the main reason why the car is so high. Nearly all the fore-aft space can be devoted to carrying people. The double- skin floor also swallows the engine and transmission in a big front shunt - a boon for safety, says Mercedes.

You step up into the driver's seat, rather than fall down into it. The dash, nicely sculpted but poorly swathed in rather cheap and tacky plastics, has conventional switchgear but only three instruments - speedo, fuel gauge and rev counter. What else do you need? Everything else can be just as easily communicated by way of warning lights. But the switches lack the weighty, precise, Swiss-watch-like movement of older Benzes.

The test car was equipped with the basic 1.4-litre engine, good for 82bhp. When UK sales start next spring, you will also be able to specify a 1.6 or a 1.7 turbodiesel. A 1.9-litre petrol motor is on the way. The entry- level A140, as tested, will cost about pounds 13,500 - similar money to a well- specified and bigger VW Golf. The steering, power-assisted as standard, is beautifully weighted and very linear, although the turning circle is large. Handling is sharp and eager, and roadholding is surprisingly good given the high body's propensity to roll.

The ride is excellent, and the car is beautifully stable and quiet at high speed. On Germany's partly unrestricted autobahns, we cruised at 100mph without fuss; like all Benzes, it has a rooted-to-the-ground confidence at speed. Road noise is also well suppressed, helped by the muffling of the twin floorpan. The biggest downside is the gutless 1.4 engine; it struggles up hills and does not gather speed very quickly on the flat, although it is commendably long-legged. The cabin is fabulously versatile.

All passenger seats can be removed, giving you a single-seater van if you want maximum carrying capacity. With all seats in place, you can carry four adults in comfort. Leg-room is extraordinarily generous in a car so small.

There is no doubt that the ingenious A-class is the most radical small car since the Mini. Just as important, it probably signifies a sea-change in the thinking of big car companies. The old way, of incremental improvements, may be coming to an end. One of the world's most influential car companies has a fresh way to package cars. As with the Mini 38 years ago, others will follow.

Mercedes-Benz A-class

Specifications

Mercedes-Benz A140. About pounds 13,500. Engine: four-cylinder, transverse, eight-valve, 1,397cc, 82bhp at 4,800rpm. Max speed 106mph, 0-62mph acceleration in 12.9 seconds. Average fuel consumption on test 36mpg.

Rivals

There are no real rivals, but interesting comparisons are:

BMW 316i Compact: pounds 14,540 - bulkier, far less imaginative, and less roomy than the A. Faster and sportier, but the Compact remains the worst BMW, as well as the cheapest.

Ford Mondeo 1.6 Aspen: pounds 13,765 - bigger, but not inside. More car for your money, but less prestige. The latest Mondeo is a pleasant, if conventional, car to drive.

Renault Scenic 1.6 RT: pounds 13,640 - last year's most novel new car. Has more space and even more cabin versatility than the A, but looks a bit odd and is not as much fun to drive.

VW Golf 1.6GL: pounds 14,175 - solid, slightly stolid, lasts for ever, holds its value well. A-class has more room, more kudos, more versatility, more novelty value.

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