Model: Mercedes A150 Classic SE
Engine: 1.5-litre petrol
Performance: 0-62mph in 12.6secs, 45.6mpg
Worth considering: Audi A3, Honda Civic, VW Golf
Ten years ago this week, Mercedes-Benz was grappling with the biggest crisis in its history. In October 1997, a Swedish magazine subjected the then-new A-Class to its "elk test", a high-speed swerve designed to simulate the manoeuvre required in order to avoid one of these large beasts if it wanders out onto the road in front of you.
The fact that the A-Class was tripped up by this unusual test was probably of limited relevance to those of us who don't live in northern Sweden, but by the second week of November 1997, Mercedes had stopped sales of its new baby, which only resumed in early 1998 after a series of modifications had been made.
A-Class sales recovered strongly, and Mercedes went on to launch a second-generation model, which is the one tested by our readers this week. In fact, the elk test controversy may have done Mercedes a favour, as it meant that other questions that were raised by the introduction of the car weren't explored as fully as they might have been.
One of these concerns my favourite motor-industry "what if" – the possibility that it might have been better to have launched the A-Class as the top model in the Mercedes-owned Smart range, rather than as the smallest, cheapest Merc. This would have avoided the controversial stretching of the Mercedes brand to smaller, cheaper cars, and provided Smart with a multi-model range at an early stage in its development.
This second-generation car has more orthodox proportions, and, unlike the original, is also available with three doors. It is the cheapest Mercedes you can buy, and, at about £14,000, comes close to shaking off the feeling that has dogged the A-Class since the beginning that, while it is cheap for a Merc, it is rather expensive for what it offers once you get past the badge.
Despite its non-metallic paintwork and plastic wheel-trims, our test A150 had a fairly classy air, which also extended to the tasteful, black, roomy interior. Some of the switchgear – perversely, this applies particularly to the items shared with the more expensive cars in Mercedes' range – feels just a little bit flimsy, but other touches, such as the solid and heavily damped glovebox lid, showed that the company is clawing back some of the ground previously lost to competitors in terms of quality.
On the road, the 1.5-litre petrol engine is surprisingly zippy, although the A-class's handling is of the safe, rather than exciting, variety. No elks were encountered during our London-based testing of the A150.
John Stephens, 48, and Josie Turan-Stephens, 8. John is a commercial manager from Ruislip, Middlesex
Usual Car: Renault Laguna 2.0i
I have to admit that I'm not usually a Mercedes fan, but I was pleasantly surprised by the A-Class. Forget their traditional saloons: think more of a large Mini. The interior was roomy and uncluttered. My eight-year-old liked it – there was plenty of room in the back for her grown-up cousins! Generally, it handled well; reasonably quiet on motorways and didn't seem too hard to get up to speed. Parking seemed easy, and there is good all-round visibility. However, push briskly into corners on winding country roads and you get plenty of oversteer rather than roll. Definitely a town car and not a sports car!
Simon Arnold, 28, account manager, London
Usual car: Mazda MX-5
So, this is the cheapest new Mercedes-Benz available today. First impressions are that it looks cheap, with plastic door handles and exterior trims; and it feels cheap, with a plastic steering wheel and gear lever. It doesn't feel sluggish, though, and was a pleasant place to spend time around town and on the motorway, with a safe, planted feeling at higher speeds. The interior was intelligently laid out, too; with big, clearly labelled buttons. Less impressive was the gearchange, with its loose, baggy feel. But who would buy one? A Renault Scenic offers two more doors, more space and alloy wheels for similar money, so what price the three-pointed star?
Oliver Daniel, 39, marketing director, London
Usual car: Mercedes A140 Avantgarde
For the past few years, I have been a very satisfied owner of the old A-Class, so I was keen to find out in what way this new model would be an improvement. The most obvious differences are that it is even more spacious and the handling feels smoother. I was pleased to see that the Baby-Merc still impresses as a quality-built car; you can feel solid German engineering in every detail. Generally, I'd prefer an automatic for the London traffic and I am yet to be convinced as to why anyone would choose a car in the same colour as a fire engine. Though it's a great car overall, I wouldn't buy it until Mercedes finally comes up with a responsible, eco-friendly engine.
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