The original Mercedes A-class wasn’t everyone’s steak and chips but I was a huge fan. More, I thought it an important car, one that in its innovative sandwich floor packaging and lightweight construction held the answer to many of the more pressing issues asked of late 20th century middle-income earners looking for compact yet safe and spacious wheels.
I knew this because my family fitted the description so perfectly I bought one in 1999 and kept it until my children outgrew it over a decade later. True, it was inexactly constructed from some poor materials, but it served us well.
It’s been replaced by a new model with all the innovation removed. The new A-class is convention personified: turns out that the clever platform was expensive to produce and as inflexible to a car manufacturer as it was versatile to its owner. I loved the way the rear seats would tip, slide, recline or remove; Mercedes hated the fact it couldn’t be turned into all sorts of different cars.
It’s a mistake that it won’t be making again. The new platform already underpins the new A- and B-class and will soon sire the CLA coupé, a compact SUV and one other, probably a convertible.
For now the A-class is all the things its parent was not, and vice versa. It’s not miraculously space efficient, its rear seats don’t belong in a circus. But it is beautifully finished, feels like a true baby Benz and handles superbly.
But it’s very dependent on specification. So far as I can work out there are four different suspensions and at least two of them are too stiff. Likewise, you’ll need to make sure you get the engine that offers the best blend of performance and economy – of those I drove, it was the A220 CDI by some distance – and think hard about whether you’d prefer the standard unimpressive manual gearbox or the outstanding seven-speed double-clutch shift. I’m a three-pedal man through and through, but with this car I think I’d have the auto.
And although Mercedes is now throwing AMG badges around with the same worrying abandon as BMW is sweating its M-brand, it’ll be next year before the proper 325bhp, four-wheel-drive A45 AMG is available. You can buy an A250 ‘Engineered by AMG’ now, but it’s more tepid than hot.
But if you choose carefully, there’s a fine car waiting to be discovered. Mercedes admits even it was surprised to discover its diesel engines were more refined in the A-class than the C-class from where they were plucked, while all models I tried handled and steered at least as well as anything in the class.
Less interesting though it is, the A-class no longer feels like a poor relation, and it’s not just Mercedes that’s going to see the sense in that.
Engine: 2.1 litres, four cylinders, turbocharged diesel
Top Speed: 141mph
Price: £23,500 approx
Power: 168bhp at 4000rpm
Fuel/co2: 65.7mpg, 112g/km