Slovenia is a tiny country (no, Slovakia is another country). It is so tiny that with a population of two million, an average Mumbai suburb would put it to shame. It is a great place to drive – not because the chance of hitting a Slovenian is remote, but because it has terrific roads with brilliant near-Alpine scenery to match. The highways are of course great to cruise on while the mountain roads that are littered with hairpin bends are just awesome – more so because most of the locals seem to be walking around in Ljubljana checking out the chicks in teeny-weeny summer dresses rather than taking their cars out on the twisties. Perfect then to figure out the dynamics of a car that Mercedes-Benz claims is youthful and sporty – Der Pulsschlag einer neuen Generation. In plain Englisch, it means the A-Class is the pulse of a new generation.
It is literally so. Sorry to go all Autocar on you, but hear me out, because the A-Class is from Stuttgart’s new-generation MFA front-wheel and all-wheel drive platform. This architecture will underpin five distinct Mercs – the B, the A, the CLA compact sedan (below the C-Class), the GLC compact SUV and the CLC compact coupé. While we’re getting the B very soon now, the A will follow early next year. If the A is indeed what the MFA cars are going to be like, then we are in for some exciting times indeed. Since the world seems to have more front-wheel driven cars than rear-wheel driven cars, Merc has some serious competition and they needed to work hard on the MFA to impress. And then there’s me – it’s the first time I am driving a front-wheel driven Merc and I need to be impressed as well!
The smooth hairpins that lead to the capital of Slovenia beg to be straightened out. I rush into each corner as if my pants are on fire and slam on the brakes to shed speed. The dual clutch transmission understands my intentions well and shifts to the lower gear, allowing me to power out of the corner. In the meanwhile, mid-corner, the rubber which has been well in control so far has given in to the laws of physics and lets the tail out just enough to give you a ha-ha-ha moment before electronic mama intervenes. It is all well within control – at no point do I feel that the car wants to join the Chipko movement and become a tree-hugger. The A allows you to have just that little bit of fun without letting things get hairy. Typically, I would have expected the engineers at Mercedes to control even that little tail-out urge of the car – they would have cut power, tightened the seat-belts, remotely controlled the steering input, dialled your wife to say you’re having too much fun and even given it a name like PRE-CORNER IMPULSE CONTROL®. Thankfully, they have done no such thing – with the A-Class, Mercedes engineers have loosened their ties a little bit.
The larger, rear-wheel driven sedans wearing the star usually have an easy, fluid steering feel, but here, the feedback is much to my liking. The steering loads up well at high speeds without sacrificing on the comfort factor of Mercs. It is precise and gives you a good idea of where you are pointing the nose of the car. Sitting on conventional underpinnings – McPhersons at front and an independent four-link at the rear the A-Class does a good job of isolating you from the tarmac. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Slovenian roads were too good to give the ride quality of the car a run for its money.
The A 220 CDI I am piloting is powered by a new, energetic turbodiesel motor. Nestling under the longish,crisp-looking bonnet is a rather big engine for what is possibly the smallest car to wear the three-pointed star. The 2143cc inline-four develops 168 bhp at 3600 rpm and a whopping 35.7 kgm of torque between 1600 and 3200 rpm.
Now that sort of output in a car like this should translate to performance worth talking about – a standstill to 100 kph timing of less than 8 seconds can be expected. Forget the figure, what’s great is the way the car accelerates at any given point in the rev range. The torque and the availability of the cubes give it a real-world usability that’s brilliant. It comes paired with the 7G-DCT dual clutch transmission, in which you can select Sport mode for testing the dynamic abilities of the car. The shifts are decidedly quicker, but being a Mercedes, they are not harsh. What’s even more impressive is that there is barely any torque steer and it doesn’t feel that a big burly turbodiesel is sitting in the nose of the car. However it is unlikely that this engine will be seen in the A-Class that’s destined for our shores.
What we are likely to get is the A 200 CDI which is a more practical, cost-effective, middle-of-the-road option – adequate performance without compromising on fuel consumption. This comes with a 1.8-litre 134 bhp, 30.6 kgm inline-four which should be seen in the B-Class as well. I drove this version as well, and it was good enough for most purposes – cruising as well as on the curvy hilly roads. It does not give you an adrenaline rush, but there’s nothing to complain about it either. As an aside, the basic A 180 CDI uses an engine many of us are familiar with – the 1461cc K9K engine which Mercedes has got from Renault. Sometime in the future, maybe Mercedes will bring this in as an entry-level A-Class model – for now, the A 200 CDI should do fine, thank you.
For what is essentially a large hatchback, the Mercedes looks larger than it actually is. As far as its appearance goes, it is much better looking in the flesh than in the pictures, though I am not a fan of the current Gorden Wagener school of design. Because I think it tries too hard. The upward kink of the so-called ‘dropping line’ is going to be a feature of all new Mercs, I think – it seems to be too rigid and tightly defined. A hint would have been nice. What the design doesn’t convey is that the new A is designed to cheat the wind in the attempt to get better fuel efficiency. Its low 0.27 coefficient of drag has been achieved by small but important details that also contribute to its look – take a look at the black sections holding up the rear spoiler, for instance.
Inside, the single-piece front seats are unusual in a Merc – they are comfortable, no issue. Rear space is adequate for two large adults and one child. The dash design is what is special about this new range of Mercs – supposedly influenced by roadsters. The metallic sections are called ‘cool touch’ because they are actually metal and not chrome-finish plastics. I would give Mercedes brownie points for that because this may be a hatchback, but it certainly won’t be cheap. The marketing guys call the new A ‘a smartphone on wheels’ because it is designed to use your iPhone to the fullest. Well, it’s for the new generation so it is more important to be ‘social media’ friendly – so we will ignore the shameless raid of the parts bin by the interior designers and the presence of the same boring panel on the centre console. Does that make me ‘anti-social media’?
The new A-Class is well on its way (it’s expected to be here early next year) and it may wear a hefty price tag of around Rs 18-20 lakh. That still would make it the cheapest Merc around in the country and help it fight its other German compatriots in India. It is indeed youthful to drive, somewhat youthful in looks and of course youthful enough to be ‘socially connected’. What more do you want? Yes, a grown-up’s salary would help.