The original Mercedes-Benz baby, the Mark 1 A-class, had a a difficult birth. The infamous 'elk test' highlighted problems with high-speed stability but Mercedes quickly solved them and the car went on to sell in the hundreds of thousands.
It also won many devoted fans, as I discovered when I met Steve Brown in the course of a Verdict test a few months ago. He told me about the 1,300 strong A-Class Owner's Club and the associated Baby-Benz.com web site; we agreed that it would be interesting to get the reactions of members to the new A-class when it became available in the UK.
That's how I came to meet Steve again, in Bridgnorth in Shropshire, along with several other Baby-Benzers. With us were Steve's wife Andrea and two models from the new range; a five-door petrol engined A150 Classic SE and a three-door diesel, the A180 CDI. The members examined the cars thoroughly and had the chance to drive them as well.
Tony Pulford from the Wirral was positive about the new car, describing the dashboard as "a much needed improvement". Tony also liked the extra edge in performance that the A150's 1.5 litre engine gave it compared with the earlier A140.
Gary Weir from Warwickshire agreed, along with almost everyone else, that the ride was much more comfortable in the new car, but felt that some of the individuality of the old one had been lost. For example, the rear pillars are simpler than those on the old car, which had two useful triangular windows cut into them.
John Roberts and Mike Porter felt that the styling of the new model was less distinctive. John wasn't keen on the new dashboard, but liked the improved comfort and brakes. Mike and his wife Junko run an AMG A210, but as yet, there is no direct replacement for Mike's car, so his reaction to the possibility of buying the new A-class was "No chance.".
Mike also complained that the wipers on both old and new A-classes are set up for left-hand drive, clearing more of the passenger's side of the windscreen than the driver's. But I feel inclined to stick up for the A-class' wipers, if only because they share their unusual 'clap-hands' layout with the wonderful 'Heckflosse' tailfin Mercedes from the sixties.
Ann and Richard Horne tried both of the new cars. They thought the A150 was good in town but a little lacking in power for longer runs; they liked the A180 CDI's performance and six-speed gearbox.
David Page attended with his sons Andrew and Gavin (pictured). Gavin gave the view from the back seat, and said that it was difficult for him to see out of the new three-door version. Andrew thought the new model lacked the 'wow factor', while David liked the improved brakes on the A150 and also the A180 CDI's diesel engine, but regretted the loss of the old model's completely flat floor and the lack of a direct successor for the previous short wheelbase version.
Several Baby-Benzers tapped the bodywork of the new cars. I was puzzled until they told me that they had worked out that some of the panels which had previously been made from plastic, such as the front wings, were now steel pressings.
Mercedes' main changes to their smallest car were those that I would have made myself; a wider stance to remove all doubts about the car's stability and an upgrading of the interior to make it feel more like a Mercedes. But after the meeting in Bridgnorth, I began to doubt this approach. Competent cars of even abilities don't inspire the sort of affection that causes their owners to form clubs and travel long distances to meet fellow fans.
That sort of enthusiasm is often enjoyed instead by cars that are flawed but brilliant, quirky or cute - the Mini, the Beetle, the Fiat 500, the 2CV, and yes, the original A-class. Steve Brown says owners of A-classes old and new are equally welcome in the club and can find out more by visiting the website at www.Baby-Benz.com, or calling 07733 374787 (evenings and weekends).