Visual flourishes: People seeking a sporty hatchback with lots of iPod interface possibilities will be drawn to the new A-Class

Just how far has Mercedes' latest moved on from its stubby forebears?

Price: £28,755 (range starts at £18,945). On sale October
Engine: 1,991cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbo, 211bhp
Transmission: Seven-speed double-clutch gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 149mph, 0-62 in 6.4sec, 44.1mpg, CO2 148g/km

What's in a name? More than one idea, it seems. If you have thought of a Mercedes-Benz A-Class at all, you'll probably have in your head a small, stubby MPV with a high floor and something clever about the way the engine would be pushed under that floor in a big crash. It was a showcase of Mercedes design intelligence.

Those in tune with car design thought the A-Class very cool, if a bit crude in its detailing. The car's second generation had a similar architecture but a properly Mercedes aura of quality, refinement and finish. Trouble was, the A-Class was perceived by the buying public as not cool at all. Youthful, trend-aware types just weren't interested. They would rather have had an Audi A3.

But the new A-Class is a completely different sort of car from its forerunners. Those who still crave a compact Mercedes MPV have the new B-Class, but youthful types seeking a slightly sporty hatchback with lots of iPod interface possibilities will, it is hoped, be drawn to the new A-Class.

It certainly seems to have the right visual flourishes to snare such buyers. On to the basic hatchback form is imprinted a long snout bearing the wide grille of a Mercedes sports car, and a surprising piece of upwardly flipped sculpture along the flanks. This draws the eye from the high base of the windscreen, the result of having to share the understructure with the taller B-Class. You notice this a lot when you sit inside, the dashboard with its cheap-looking instruments looming high and large ahead in an environment otherwise convincingly suffused with quality. It makes what should be a compact car come across as broad and bulky. But that impression soon dissipates once you drive it.

All the available engines are turbocharged with direct fuel injection. The numerical naming policy no longer tells us anything about engine size, but it's enough to know that the petrol 1.6 comes with 122 or 156bhp, the petrol 2.0 has 211bhp and the two diesels (1.5 and 1.8 litres) both produce 109bhp, with the larger engine used with the seven-speed, double-clutch automatic transmission. That engine can also be had with 136bhp and either transmission type.

Confused? I'll keep it simple and major on two engine/gearbox combinations: a 1.8 diesel with a manual gearbox, 136bhp and an A200 CDI Sport designation; and a pair of A250 seven-speed autos. The A200, running on so-called Comfort suspension despite the Sport tag, proves smooth, quiet and lively, although big, racy wheels make the ride more fidgety than it needs to be.

The A250s, both with the quick-shifting, seven-speed, paddle-shifter automatics, gain AMG nomenclature from M-B's tuning division. The lesser version is called AMG Sport, and has firmer, lower suspension and steering whose response speeds up as you turn, making it feel keen but as though the "sportiness" is synthetic. The A250 Engineered by AMG (that is indeed its name) reverts to the standard car's steering but with more weight to its action, and has yet further lowered and firmed suspension.

This A250 is a proper hot hatchback, great fun to throw around bends, crisp in its responses. Quick, too, if not quite as rapid as the mad A45 AMG with 350bhp promised for 2013. So Mercedes-Benz has just made its first hot hatch. For its next trick, the fastest. Who would have expected that from an A-Class?

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