Mercedes-Benz has put on its boxing gloves and is all set for round 2 in the bout for supremacy in the so-called affordable luxury range with its new A-Class. After a disappointing response to India's first sports tourer, the B-Class, can this modern hatchback be the game changer the German company has been waiting for? With rivals raking in the moolah by launching lower priced models like the BMW X1 and Audi Q3, Mercedes is banking on the A-Class to change the pulse of the market.
If we look at the the situation strictly from the price point, then the A-Class's rivals are the Mini Cooper and the soon-to-be launched BMW 1-Series. As the Mini is all about panache and lifestyle while the 1-Series is yet to land on Indian soil, the A-Class has a golden opportunity to create a niche of its own by being a state-of-the-art hatchback and taking steps to becoming the segment leader.
Sold on the looks
It's nice to see that Mercedes-Benz has gone the radical way with the brash and imposing nose grille for the A-Class. The front fascia reminded me of Don McLean's song "Starry Starry Night" with its 302 diamond-shaped rivets. I must, however, say that all that use of extra metal does not make it garish, adds, in fact, a new dimension to design. The A-Class is a fresh breath of air as it is the antithesis to the safe and slightly boring Mercedes design. The eagle-eyes-like headlamps are quite stunning with the LEDs beautifully fabricated as a diamond strip. Mercedes, thankfully, didn't go overboard in the design department and let the rear remain simple, allowing just the twin all-chrome exhausts to make a statement.
Step inside and the hatchback welcomes you with all-black-and-chrome interiors. The single-piece front seats are so comfortable and snug that you would want to carry it everywhere with you. The rear seats are angular and as a result lack thigh support. The back rest is too straight for one's liking but there is sufficient knee room. The same can't be said for the head room as the sloping roof eats away precious space. Also with its tiny rear windows, the A-Class can leave you feeling a tad claustrophobic. Overall, the interior build quality is flawless and feels plush.
Behind the wheel
The A-Class is not for the hoity-toity who prefer to be ferried around town - this is a driver-centric car. The 1.6-litre petrol engine is not a scorcher from any angle but the 122 BHP ensures there is enough power for city limits. It is comfortable in low rpm but the mid-range is where you feel the power kick in. One needs to be patient and watch as the speedometer slowly edges towards the red mark. The 7-speed dual clutch transmission tries to balance performance and fuel economy but ends up lacking the punch for true-blue acceleration. The A-Class comes with paddle-shifts which add some spunk as this is more responsive than the automatic mode.
Ride and handling
The steering wheel appears to be sporty but unfortunately there is no feedback. The A-Class confidently negotiates turns and the steady body control helps it hold its line. It does tend to understeer and as it is not rear-wheel-drive, like traditional Mercedes-Benz cars, it is not easy to take on sharp turns, doing which could send the car off the road. The ride quality is disappointing. Even with an option of Comfort or Sport suspension settings, the A-Class refuses to sing any other tune apart from harsh. So avoid potholes. It is only in low speed that you will find yourself curbing your plaints about the ride quality. The low stance makes the A-Class look great on the road, but this has its price. With the mountainous speed-breakers our cities seem to favour, you can be sure you will often hear the discordant tune of metal meeting macadam.
This sporty looking A-Class will definitely draw the attention of the peppy, upwardly mobile, brand-conscious youth. The front grille makes it looks like a baby SLS AMG. If that wasn't eye-catching enough, the 17-inch smoked alloy wheels take flamboyance to a different level all together. The A-Class comes fully loaded with safety features like ABS, ESP, seven airbags, including one for the driver's knee, as well as Attention Assist - where a unique sensor system makes a coffee mug icon pop up on the instrument cluster when the car detects the driver is drowsy. The front seats are class leading and provide an excellent driving position. The engine loses steam at high speed and the suspensions need to be tweaked to Indian conditions. One line sums up the A-Class, "neighbour's envy, owner's pride". But the big question is: will the Rs 22.73 lakh (ex-showroom Mumbai, petrol)-price tag make this the vehicle the game changer in the luxury segment? Only time will tell. MERCEDES A-CLASS
Engine: 1595cc direct-injection turbo-petrol
Gear box: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Price: Rs 22.73 lakh (petrol variant, ex-showroom, Mumbai), Rs 21.93 lakh (diesel variant, ex-showroom, Mumbai)