Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-charged diesel
Transmission: seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Power: 136PS at 3,600 and 4,400 rpm
Torque: 300Nm between 1,600 and 3,000 rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 61.4-65.7 mpg
CO2 emissions: 111-121g/km
Top speed: 130mph
Acceleration (0-62 mph): 9.3 seconds
Price: from £24,720 (six-speed manual available for £23,270)
It is, perhaps, a harsh judgement but the arrival of the new third-generation A-Class marks a sharp and sudden end to fifteen wasted years in the compact car market for Mercedes-Benz. The first-generation model, introduced in 1997, adopted an unusual upright body style that reflected its high sandwich floor construction, a feature designed to accommodate batteries or other equipment for models with alternative drive-trains that never arrived. That car survived a near-brush with disaster early in its life when it failed the now famous “elk-test” swerve manoeuvre carried out by a Scandinavian magazine but recovered after Mercedes quickly introduced some suspension mods to deal with the problem.
With the second A-Class, Mercedes appeared to make a partial admission that it had got it wrong the first time around; in terms of appearance, that car was a bland halfway house between the original tall look and a conventional hatch such as the Volkswagen Golf. There wasn't much wrong with it but there wasn't much to get excited about either.
Now there is a new A-Class that is everything that its predecessors weren't – and that's a very good thing indeed. With this third-generation model, Mercedes has finally produced an outstanding compact car that adopts a body with a similar low-line silhouette to all those other C-segment hatchbacks but feels like a proper Mercedes should out on the road with a “big car” gait and a superb chassis that provides high levels of ride comfort and dynamic ability. Add in some – by Mercedes' standards – very keen prices starting at £18,945, and this A-Class seems set to be a winner.
There are three petrol engine options at launch; a 122 horsepower 1.6 badged A 180, a 156 horsepower 1.6 badged A 200, and a two-litre A 250. Diesels are A 180s or A 200s. The A 200 diesel has a 1.8-litre engine that generates 136 horsepower. All A 180s have 109 horsepower but manuals get a 1.5-litre engine and cars fitted with the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic have 1.8 litres. The 1.5's precise capacity is 1,461cc, a figure shared with one of Renault's mid-sized diesel engines; Mercedes recently entered into an alliance with Renault and its strategic partner Nissan but seems to be a bit cagey about the precise extent of any sharing with the French manufacturer in this case. The Renault engine is excellent, though, so there's probably no need to worry too much about it turning up in some form or another in a Merc. This wrinkle apart, all engines are available with either the six-speed manual or seven-speed DCT.
There are five trim levels – a base car, only available as an A180 petrol, SE, Sport, AMG Sport and Engineered by AMG. The AMG Sport and Engineered by AMG models shouldn't be confused with the much more powerful full-blooded A-Class AMG model, the A 45 AMG, which is due to arrive early next year. The basic £18,945 A 180 is reasonably well-equipped and its kit list reflects Mercedes' heavy emphasis with the new model on in-car connectivity; there's an Audio 20 CD/radio with a 5.8 inch colour screen, an aux-in socket, a USB port, Bluetooth and pre-wiring for the Becker Map Pilot sat-nav system. Becker Map Pilot is an excellent halfway solution between an expensive fully built-in set-up and an after-market unit with lots of messy trailing wires; the Becker sat nav comes in a separate box, but when it is connected to the car, it displays its map information and instructions on the car's own dash-mounted screen. Also available, as an option, is Drive Kit Plus, which includes a Mercedes app that provides deep integration between the iPhone and the A-Class, allowing Twitter, Facebook, Internet radio and other services to be accessed via the car's own screen. This set-up will also be SIRI compatible. I understand that Android support will be available next year.
The SE trim, available with the A 180 petrols and diesels, adds 16-inch alloy wheels, sports seats a leather steering wheel and other trim enhancements. SE prices start at £20,125. Sport models, which cost from £21,240, are available with the A 180 and A 200 petrol engines and the A 180 and A 200 CDI diesels. They get twin exhaust tailpipes, 17-inch wheels, a Nappa leather steering wheel and several Artico (artificial leather) trim parts. The AMG Sport, which starts at £23,445, has 18-inch wheels and the Dynamic Handling Package comprising sports suspension, perforated brake discs, cruise control, an AMG body kit and 18-inch wheels. Finally, engineered by AMG models, only available with the A 250 petrol engine and the future more powerful A 220 CDI diesel engine, get changes such as wider tyres, a reprogrammed ESP system, bi-xenon headlamps and further exterior trim enhancements.
The A-Class also lives up to Mercedes' reputation, alongside Volvo, as an innovator in safety, with standard systems such as Active Bonnet, Collision Prevention Assist (an automatic braking feature designed to prevent a rear-end collision with a hazard that the driver has not noticed) and Attention Assist, which alerts a drowsy driver to the need to take a break.
On the road, the new A-Class is superb. I drove the A200 petrols and diesels, both with the seven-speed dual clutch automatic. Both engines were smooth and quiet, and the gearbox is a good one, even compared with the many modern dual-clutch gearboxes that have been widely offered since Audi pioneered the concept with its first DSG gearboxes almost a decade ago. Dynamically the A-Class is very good too, with fluid precise steering and flat cornering that must now surely banish all memories of elk-induced instability for ever.
But the Mercedes' biggest achievement is giving the A-Class for the first time a “big car” feel with great ride comfort and high levels of refinement. For most of the time I drove the A-Class or travelled in it as a front seat passenger, I simply forgot how small it was; traditional Mercedes Fahrgefühl has arrived in the compact car class at last.
Any reservations? Just two small ones. First, the A-Class appears to offer a cabin of two halves where front seat occupants get a better deal than those in the back; the rear seat accommodation is a bit limited compared with that in the front, and with smallish windows it can seem a bit dark in the back too. Also, the endless emphasis on the new car's sporty qualities, heavily reflected in body trim and model designations, may put off some traditional Mercedes fans who might otherwise be attracted by its other big plus points, its “baby Merc” feel, its high levels of comfort and excellent engineering – that's me, basically. But these are minor points in an otherwise overhelmingly positive picture.
The first sign that the new A-Class was going to be really good came with the arrival of the current B-Class, with which it shares its front-wheel drive platform. The good news is that there will be three more new models that will share the same base; a four-door coupé that looks a bit like a baby CLS, a small SUV and one more car that Mercedes wants to keep us guessing about. All I know is that even if it's only half as good as the new A-Class, it will be very good indeed.