Baby Benz in A-class of its own

The most famous luxury car maker in the world, Mercedes-Benz, is preparing to launch a pounds 12,000 city car no bigger than a Volkswagen Polo.

The extraordinary A-Class not only rewrites the rules of small car design - it also symbolises a radical culture change for a company which until recently thrived on making bigger, heavier and more expensive cars than any other major manufacturer.

By moving the powertrain behind the front axle line and under the driver's feet, the

A-Class is shorter than a Rover Metro, yet has more interior space than a Ford Mondeo. Occupants sit about 10in

higher than usual, giving a clear all-round view of the road - a boon to urban motorists trapped in congested traffic.

It is also very safe. Twin platforms give a robust and sturdy structure, and allow the engine to be pushed under the passenger cell in a head-on collision, rather than deforming and crushing the cabin as in a traditional car. Driver, passenger, and side airbags ensure a cushioned impact in accidents.

Two large cargo drawers provide more baggage space than a large saloon, and those who need to haul bulky items can stored them by removing the folding rear bench.

The production A-Class will be slightly different from the car pictured above, which appeared at motor shows last year to test reaction to the

concept of a mini-Benz.

The only drawback for interested London motorists is that the A-Class will not arrive until early 1997 - but it should be worth the wait.

(Photograph omitted)