Let’s face it: Mercedes-Benz is still considered a pretty conservative luxury car brand. It might build exciting and aspirational cars like the SLS AMG, and run its own Formula One team, but that Three-Pointed Star continues to be rooted in old-style automotive heritage and tradition.
For that very reason, the launch of the latest A-class not only marks the arrival of an all-new car, but also epitomises a real effort from Mercedes-Benz to attract a younger, hipper motoring audience.
The new car is a radical departure from its predecessor. But then, the original A-class was radical, too, if for vastly different reasons.
The first A-class was a small, even tiny car at a time when mainstream Mercedes models were generously proportioned luxury machines. It boasted front-wheel drive when Mercs were rear-wheel driven by definition.
And since Mercedes was adamant that even a small Merc should offer the kind of peerless safety the brand was revered for, it engineered a very clever, very advanced sandwich platform for the A-class that would allow the engine to be pushed underneath the floor of the car in the case of a frontal collision, rather than ending up on the driver’s lap.
Fast forward to 2013, and another A-class is born. The newcomer is considered revolutionary, because it’s so different from its predecessor. Gone is the tall, almost ungainly stance, the high roofline, the almost abrupt rear. Instead, the new A is a low-slung, athletically endowed hatchback, with chiselled flanks, big wheels and muscular proportions.
If the old A-class was dumpy, pragmatic and practical, then its successor is dashing, daring and extrovert – certainly not conservative, and definitely not old-fashioned. It oozes testosterone-tinged aspiration.
Does that make it a handsome car? I’m in two minds about the styling.
Yes, it represents a huge aesthetic leap from its ungainly, mom’s taxi predecessor. And yes, it expresses the young, desirable, trendy look that Mercedes-Benz envisaged. But in the metal, the execution is fussy, with too many styling elements vying for attention.
The bold front end, with its prowling nose and aggressive, oversized grille, is pure SL, SLK and even SLS. But in the A-class context, the snout looks too big, too loud. It’s as if its creators wanted to make sure that the car would not be mistaken for anything else.
Perhaps that’s understandable, because the profile – extended nose, bulging bonnet, steeply raked windscreen, pert derriere – is pure premium, sporty hatchback. And that’s by no means a unique formula.
While the old, dumpy A-class was unique, even trend-setting, the new A finds itself in an already crowded segment. Take away the badge, or view it from the rear, and its identity is not nearly as obvious as one would expect.
The flanks, adorned by a prominent lower style crease and an equally etched upper shoulder line, meet at the rear, where they also serve to emphasise the squat, muscular haunches. Hungry air intakes, extended sills, and a large rear bumper adorned with a contrasting rear apron are further expressions of the newcomer’s sporty styling theme.
The cabin of the A-class articulates exactly the same intentions as the exterior: a younger and more dynamic approach, but one that also manages to retain the expected focus on comfort and luxury.
It’s unexpectedly spacious, with good packaging ensuring ample room for front and adequate accommodation for rear occupants. I say adequate because the low and sloping roofline may makes taller folk feel a little claustrophobic at the rear. And the super-comfy sports seats of the car I drove tend to rob the rear of some legroom.
Even so, the interior is one of the new car’s undisputed highlights – and given that car owners experience their steed from behind the wheel, rather than looking at it, the cabin execution is perhaps the more important aspect.