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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sustainability Manager

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

    Graduate Sustainability Professional

    Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

    Business Project Manager

    £350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project Manager job vaca...

    Business Analyst (Agile, SDLC, software)

    £45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

    Day In a Page

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor