IAIN ROBERTSON 

As soon as the Teutonic Trio entered market-share battles, writes Iain Robertson, both design and engineering headed south (!), although Merc has made a clear investment in its latest A-Class, which might return it to a class-leading position.

The problem lies with taking one’s eye off-the-ball. There was a period in Merc’s life, when it was the undisputed leader of the pack. During the early-1990s, its then boss determined that a ‘world dominance’ strategy was the more important one and it got into bed with Chrysler Corporation. It was an ill-fated venture from the outset, from which Merc did its utmost to escape, in the process denting its reputation and, in some ways, alienating its core customers to the brand.

While BMW seldom has styling issues with its less-costly models, neither Audi, with its A3 saloon, nor Mercedes-Benz, with its current A-Class saloon, could be said to have got it right. Both look ‘droopy’, subjectively ugly and very uncertain of their places in their respective line-ups. While Audi is now playing ‘catch-up’, Merc has given its rival product a major shake-up and the result is no less than awesome!

Set to be launched at the end of 2018, the four-door A-Class has the same wheelbase (2729mm) as the new hatchback variant but the better proportions of a dynamic and compact saloon possessing short overhangs both fore and aft. A less droopy roofline also contributes to better occupant space in the back seat. However, it scores highly with a drag co-efficient of a remarkable 0.22Cd to make it the lowest aerodynamic drag of all production vehicles worldwide.

To be built in both Mexico and at the A-Class’s traditional home in Germany (Rastatt), it was developed at Sindelfingen. Both the saloon and hatchback will be singularly responsible for introducing new customers to MB, as well as creating vital conquest sales. At 4,549mm long, with a decent boot capacity of 420-litres, the new saloon model offers tremendous practicality and interior space. Yet, it retains a strong reputation for greater efficiency thanks to careful aerodynamic tuning below its bodywork.

From launch, a 163bhp 1.3-litre petrol and a 116bhp turbo-diesel engines, both hooked-up to seven-speed, twin-clutch, automated-manual transmissions, are available. As is customary at Merc, the range will be expanded in due course. Low CO2 ratings and first-rate fuel economy are given for both. The latest A-Class hatch has set new standards for equipment and all versions of the saloon feature the latest touch-screen and driver assistance systems, across a trim range from Style and Progressive to AMG Line, as well as offering further optional equipment.

The ‘keyless-go’ function enables hands-free and fully automatic opening of the boot lid with a kicking motion of the foot under the rear bumper. Edition 1 versions, in the year of its launch, feature a host of copper-coloured highlights both inside and outside the car. Its construction is taut and, with alloy wheels ranging from 16.0 to 19.0-inch diameter, it can look as dynamic as the buyer wants it to be.

The ‘widescreen instrument display’, which is optional, is completely free-standing, while the air-vents feature a sporty turbine appearance. Ambient illumination of the interior (64 colours available) can be as subtle, or wild as the user desires. The main display area can offer two 7.0-inch screens, a mix of both 7.0 and 10.25-inch displays, or a pair of 10.25-inch screens. Called MBUX, the firm’s new connectivity and multi-media offering uses Artificial Intelligence to form more natural links with the car’s occupants. It is intuitive to use and amazing to operate.

The ‘Mercedes me’ app collection can be placed as an icon on the screen in a user-friendly way and can be sorted freely on the homepage, like all other main applications. In addition, online content such as current filling station prices, or the availability of parking spaces, are displayed in MBUX as an option. Online updating is continuous.

Safety and driver involvement used to be aspects as synonymous with Mercedes-Benz as they are with Volvo and all versions of the new A-Class share their high-end technology with the markedly more expensive S-Class range. As a result, frontal and rear-end crash mitigation systems, autonomous braking and lane-keeping assist programs are standard fitments. The new model also incorporates some of the most advanced semi-autonomous driving features, in upgradable readiness for the next developments in motoring.

However, MB now operates a new Technology Centre for Vehicle Safety (TFS), as part of the measures to compete head-on with its Sino-Scandi rival. The design of the vehicle structures incorporates findings from research into real accidents, something at which Volvo remains market leading and most adept. Every aspect of the new Merc’s body-shell was developed according to the loads and stresses encountered, in respects of geometry, material thickness, panel joining technology and material quality (with increased proportions of high-strength and ultra-high-strength sheet steel being used in construction).

The centrepiece of the A-Class body’s safety concept is an highly rigid passenger compartment, which, subjected to accident-induced stress e.g. in frontal, lateral or rear-end collisions and rollovers, is one of the safest elements of any car currently in production. In fact, the A-Class has always centred its safety around the integrity of its passenger cell, something that tends to be forgotten, following its unfortunate and much-publicised ‘elk-avoidance’ incident of November 1997, when the car also featured an innovative alloy ‘honeycomb’-construction chassis.

Optional multi-beam LED headlamps are another example of the technology transfer from luxury to compact classes. They allow extremely quick and precise, electronically-controlled adjustment of the headlamps to meet given traffic situations. Each headlamp features 18 individually actuated LEDs (the latest Vauxhall Insignia has twice the number, when Intellilux lighting is specified). The daylight-like illumination of the LEDs is easier on the eyes and has a positive effect on driver concentration. The road ahead is precisely and brightly illuminated, although LED High Performance headlamps (with even more LEDS) are a further option. Standard fittings are halogen headlamps, with integrated LED daytime running lamps.

Finally, there is a choice of suspension systems for the A-Class that depends on engine and driver preference. The front axle features a McPherson-strut design, while more powerful versions and models with 4MATIC (4×4 system) introduce adaptive damping. Cars with larger wheels are fitted with a complex four-link rear axle. The other models have a weight-optimised torsion-beam rear.

Produced under COMPAS, which is a project of the cooperation with the Renault-Nissan Alliance in America, Daimler and Nissan each hold 50% of the shares in the plant and distribution complex. The majority of A-Class saloons destined for the UK will be produced at the Rastatt plant and will carry the customary fee for ‘conversion to right-hand-drive’ that all Mercedes-Benz landing invoices feature, even for those RHD models produced in South Africa. You should speak with your supplying dealer about that little fillip.

The amount of confidence being displayed by MB for its new A-Class line-up is understandably great. The current A-Class hatch costs from a modest £25,800, before dealer discounts are applied. It is anticipated that the new saloon range will be of a similar order.

Conclusion:    Without doubt, the classiest compact executive saloon to go on sale in the UK (from later this year) will attract a huge amount of attention. Promised driving improvements, better dynamics and enhanced comfort, allied to much better residual values will help Merc’s cause immeasurably.