Top Mercs for sporty A-Class
Mercedes-Benz unveiled its new A-Class in steamy Slovenia last week. Declan O'Byrne was there to join in the general applause.
The premium compact segment is under attack.
And Mercedes-Benz is leading the charge in the shape of its all-new, A-Class.
The new car packs a comprehensive armoury likely to give Volkswagen and Audi executives, in particular, some sleepless nights well ahead of its launch here in November/December.
It marries the latest in sophisticated engineering to increasing demand for sporty good looks, peppy performance, safety, environmental acceptability and, not least, the new buzz-word, 'connectivity' in a segment which, despite the global downturn, is actually growing.
Mercedes-Benz estimates that over the next ten years the market for such cars will increase from the current 6.57 million to "around 10.6m worldwide".
And it expects the A-Class, which it's confident will excite "the pulse of a new generation", as its slogan bellows, to capture some 50 per cent of that.
That's no idle boast. Indeed, it may turn out to be an eminently achievable target given the positive response to the new car at its international launch in the scenic, if searingly hot surrounds of Ljubljana last week.
Apart from an impressive product, the new A-Class 'project' will draw additional momentum from an imminent sea-change in the business philosophy of Mercedes-Benz here and globally as it attempts to forge an extremely delicate balance between its traditional appeal to a more mature, well-heeled customer, nurtured on refinement and prestige, while generating a new enthusiasm for the marque among a more youthful go-getter generation of driver.
In the past, the latter, on its own admission, may have shunned Mercedes-Benz over a perceived lack of pzazz. However, with the new A-Class - and MB's determination to modernise its image - youthful naysayers will now have no excuse to overlook the brand.
Not surprisingly, discussions are underway within the company here as to how best this may be achieved. Suffice to say for the moment that both MB showrooms - and the age profile of sales staff when it comes to putting the A-Class in the shop window - will be among the many elements to come under intensive scrutiny over the summer months. Expect to be surprised.
With the dawn of the new A-Class, MB's presence in the segment will grow from two to five models - including the A and B-Class as well as a concept coupe and two other variants, one an SUV. Taken together they form the lynch-pin in its 2020 growth strategy and its objective to become number one in the global premium segment by the end of the decade.
If that doesn't happen, the blame is unlikely to fall at the door of the A-Class designers or engineers who, in a further development of their new eye-catching front and all-wheel drive architecture, have produced a car that not only looks well but performs impressively and which will put the skids under high-end VW Golfs and Audi's A3 to mention but two of its rivals.
Reeling in younger customers may well prove easier than MB assumes. For the car, with its sleek and gutsy looks - it is lower in height and, in overall appearance and vastly more attractive than its predecessor - is likely to sell itself.
The real dilemma for those tempted to buy will be one of choice and cost. While it comes with an impressive list of standard features, there's a plethora of engine options, in both petrol and diesel, as well as variety in interior trims and additional, mostly high-tech entertainment equipment, so the bill could end up being substantially more than the basic price of the car expected to start from €28,000 when it eventually gets here early next year.
The range of "new generation", 1.6 and 2-litre petrol engines produce between 122 and 211hp and all feature BlueDIRECT technology, unique to Mercedes-Benz, with multiple injection, multi-spark ignition and turbo-charging, all of which, combined with eco stop-start across the range, results in reduced fuel consumption of up to 26pc (5.4-litres/100km for the A200) and emission levels already below the Euro 6 standard for 2015.
Diesel engines come in 1.8 to 2.2-litre guise, with output ranging from 109 to 170hp, producing low emissions from 98 grams of CO2 per kilometre.
Depending on the output rating, the engines can be combined with two transmission variants: the new six-speed manual transmission or the 7G-DCT auto, both of which were tested, and a derivative of the SLS AMG super sports car. As a consequence, a distinctive entry-level AMG, the '45 AMG' with a powerful new four-cylinder engine, will be launched in the latter half of 2013.
From the outside there's no doubting that the new sporty hatchback, be it the A-180 (the 1.6 diesel is likely to be the first arrival and most popular choice here), the 200, or AMG 250 - is a "cool car" so no surprise that its designers set out to create a complementary "cool-touch" ambience on the inside with elements of the quality trim - either Urban, Exclusive, or AMG Sport - given an electroplated finish.
All versions of the car, which also comes with a choice of three chassis and suspension set-ups - have front sport seats with integrated head restraints. Electric controls ensure the perfect driving position can be achieved with ease. The instrument cluster is packed but easy to negotiate while the white dials are a matter of taste. But the car doesn't do everything it says on the tin.
MB's claim that it can ferry up to three adults in the rear, doesn't stand up to examination - in fact it's quite tight in the back - two adults in comfort would exhaust its capacity for optimum comfort.
But that's a minor quibble when you take into account its on-the-road credentials, its truly superb agility and precise and assured handling especially at speed.
Hair-pin ends and varying gradients, not to mention smooth-as-a-grape motorway stretches in and around the Slovenian capital in manual diesel and automatic petrol, proved easy fodder for a car that oozes modernity and ability.
And when you add in advanced safety features like Collision Prevention Assist and Attention Assist, allied to its capacity to accommodate all the latest personal infotainment wizardry - including now even live-feed sat-nav and full integration of the iPhone to provide you with on-the-go Facebook news, your own music choices and, even, web radio by simply downloading a free MB app - you realise the attractive package the A-Class has become, regardless of your age.