Globally, Mercedes-Benz wants to increase its product offerings beyond the traditional Luxury segments it operates in. The German company is pushing with a new host of products into the fast-growing Premium segment around the globe. The new A-Class hatchback is Mercedes’ premium offering for customers in this class. In India, the new A-Class is offered in both petrol and diesel versions, and we get behind the wheel of both to bring you this detailed road test of the Mercedes-Benz India A180 Sport and A180 CDI Style.
Design & Engineering
For starters, this is not the first A-Class from Mercedes. The brand had previously launched an innovative and technologically-leading hatchback a few years ago, which never made it to India. That car had a unique “sandwich floor” construction, which packaged the mechanicals in a manner which liberated a lot more usable space with a minimum footprint. The new A-Class boasts of a more traditional front-wheel drive architecture, which Mercedes calls its next-generation compact car (NGCC) platform.
This NGCC architecture is a versatile and modular platform, used not just on the A-Class hatchback, but also for the B-Class sport tourer, the CLA sedan and the GLA compact SUV. The engine is mounted transversely, driving the front wheels through a new 7-speed dual-clutch transmission (7G-DCT).
Front suspension consists of McPherson struts, but with specially forged lower locating arms for more precise steering, and a new four-link rear axle, which gives more consistent damping response and wheel location. Mercedes has spent a lot of time optimizing the suspension set up for the A-Class, because it understands that customers shopping for a premium hatchback expect sporty responses, eve from a front-wheel drive car.
Style-wise, the A-Class does break new ground indeed, not just for Mercedes, but for two-box hatchbacks as we know them. By and measure, the A-Class is one of the sexiest-looking hatchbacks anywhere in the world, at any price point. The proportions are superb, with the long bonnet, tapering roofline and bulging wheel arches. There are two strong character lines running the length of the car, one which starts from the headlights, running along the length of the car, before blending into the rear door. The other starts low, behind the front wheel arch, with an upward tick into the rear door. These character lines give the A-Class a real sense of dynamism, and it looks fast even when standing still.
The blistered tail-lights and the sporty roof spoiler are the other delectable touches on this car.
By far the most striking element of the new A-class is the concave front grille, with its 302 pins which give it a diamond effect. The three-pointed sits proudly in the centre, with a bold chrome bar running horizontally to either side of the star.
Viewed from any angle, the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class is a stunning car. Comparisons with the BMW 1 Series are inevitable, and while the two cars are very different in concept and execution, when it comes to looks, the A-Class boasts a pedigree that the 1 Series can only aspire to in its dreams.
In India, Mercedes-Benz sells the new A-Class with two engine options, which include a 2.-litre four-cylinder diesel engine, and a 1.6-litre four-cylinder turborcharged petrol engine. However, both are available in a single trim level each. The A180 CDI Style is fully-loaded, but the A180 Sport petrol adds extra features like a panoramic sunroof, special light-alloy wheels in a split-spoke design, twin exhaust pipes in a sport chrome finish, Artico Larochette man-made leather upholstery, and a few trim highlights in the cabin.
Interiors & Comfort
Mercedes acknowledges that the interiors of the A-Class had to be made to feel stylish and premium, without costing too much in the bargain either. Don’t forget, this car will be sold in many markets around the world, and Mercedes’ traditional cost-no-object approach would render the A-Class financially unviable otherwise. The template of the A-Class’ interiors are used on other products from the ‘baby Benz’ family, including the B-Class, CLA and GLA. The dashboard, steering wheel, instrument panel, centre console and door pads are similar on all four cars, with some variation in colours and materials used. Nevertheless, it is a design which is tasteful and modern, and Mercedes has succeeded is making the interiors youthful as well. The circular AC vents, with a cluster of three in the middle of the dashboard, the infotainment display in its own pod, and the Audio 20 CD music system are laid out in a manner which is functional yet easy to use. Of course, the surfeit of button in the centre console are not to my liking, but it is something one gets used to in a while.
The seats are overtly sporty, with the front buckets shaped to hold you in a snug embrace. The driver’s seat is fully electrically adjustable, including adjustment for lumbar support and the side bolsters. This is an intimate cabin, no doubt, but let me go on record to say the rear seat is surprisingly spacious and usable for two adults. Of course, don’t expect much of a view from the rear, given the low seating position, small glass area and large front seatbacks. But then, people who buy the new A-Class are unlikely to be chauffer-driven (but in India you never know).
Mercedes claims the A-Class has 341 litres of lugggage space. However, in the case of the India models, this is compromised by the stepney, or spare tyre. Since run-flat tyres have been the subject of some criticism, Mercedes-Benz India has chosen to equip the A-Class (and the B-Class) with a spare tyre in the boot, fastened by straps. Not only is it an eyesore, but it robs much of the boot space and practicality. However, a 400-litre roof box is an optional accessory, in case you plan to take a long holiday in your A-Class.
Performance & Handling
Both the petrol and diesel A-Class models have four-cylinder turbocharged engines, but the outputs differ. The 1,595 cc A180 petrol has 122 PS and 200 Nm of torque, whereas the A180 CDI diesel has 109 PS and 250 Nm of torque. Of course, at 1,395 kgs, the petrol is a full 110 kilos lighter than the diesel A-Class, and since most of the extra weight is carried over the front axle in the case of the diesel A, the petrol appears to be the winner, on paper, in the performance and handling departments.
Indeed, this theory holds good on the road too.
The A-class has quite a grown-up feel from behind the wheel. It is surprisingly well-damped and quiet riding for a ‘bargain’ Benz, but then one would never expect any less from Mercedes. We had the pleasure of driving the A-Class petrol on sinuous roads around Pune, and were quite impressed at the well-controlled body movements. The steering and suspension display a level of coherence which allows you to truly enjoy this car. Having no weight aft of the rear axle ensures a consistency of response, and, for a front-wheel drive car, there is little to no understeer.
The 1.6-litre turbo-petrol makes its peak torque of 200 Nm from as low as 1,250 rpm, so there’s really to turbo-lag to complain about. If I do have a grouse, it’s in the way this baby Benz sounds as the revs climb; you’d expect some aural engagement, but there’s little. And no, it’s not because the passenger cabin exquisitely isolated from the goings-on, instead it is the engine itself which has no vocal character. Which is a shame really, given that when you have a sweet handling hatchback and a twisty bit of road, a soundtrack would have been great accompaniment.
The diesel drives not too dissimilarly. Yes, the mid-range torque wallop is greater, but it is nose-heavy, feels slightly ponderous, and the stiffer springs simply add a hint of pogo-like damping, which is unwelcome. Of the two, it is the petrol which feels infinitely nicer to drive. Both cars use the same 7G-DCT gearbox, which shits quickly and smoothly, and Meercedes must be commended for its execution and function. One would assume that Audis and other VW AG group brands have mastered the dual-clutch gearbox, but Mercedes’ execution is arguably better.
Winding roads are second nature to the A-Class.
I must make a mention of the brakes, too. For what is a regular, road-going hatchback after all, the brakes are extremely powerful. In fact, a lot of enjoyment is derived from the strong braking and sure-footedness of the A-Class since it allows you to brake really late and even tap on the brakes mid-corner to correct your line, if necessary.
I haven’t had the pleasure of driving the A45 AMG (which has 360 PS!), but from what I’ve heard and read, that car truly is a belter. In fact, the chassis and overall character of the A-Class is so good, that it demands more power. 122 PS does not do this chassis justice after all. Mercedes does sell a more powerful A200 variant of the same 1.6-litre petrol, which puts out 156 PS. There’s also an A250 with 211 PS, and then the A45 AMG. There are also more powerful diesel A-Classes, namely the A200 CDI with 136 PS and the A220 CDI with 170 PS. Unfortunately, none of these are offered in India, and we have to make do with the more pedestrian variants.
By comparison, both the BMW 116i petrol and 118d diesel as sold in India have more power than either A-Class model.
Diesel A-Class is very frugal.
Mercedes-Benz claims the A180 CDI diesel manages 20 km/l under standard test conditions, and this is believable. The A180 CDI as tested by us managed 13.4 km/l, with the bulk of our driving in city traffic. The petrol A-Class we drove around Pune for a couple of days secured a mileage figure of 11.4 km/l. These fuel efficiency figures are actually par for the course in the hatchback segment, and should not give owners sleepless nights.
Brakes have self-cleaning function. 225/45 R17 tyres have great grip too, aided by the mechanical grip from the chassis.
Safety is taken very seriously as Mercedes. The new A-Class has been engineered to meet the most stringent safety requirements. There are a total of 7 airbags in the A-Class, which include two airbags in the front for the driver and passenger, four side airbags (two front and two rear), and a driver’s knee airbag. ABS with EBD and Brake Assist is standard on both the A180 Sport and A180 CDI Style. Additionally, the A-Class has a break cleaning function, where water and grime is cleaned off the surface of the brake discs automatically. This is done by the ABS system, which applies slight, barely perceptible braking pressure to clean the disc surface. In our performance and handling section, we’d alluded to the strong braking of this car, helped no doubt by this brake cleaning function.
Cars like the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class are an entirely new breed in India. Spending Rs 25 lakh on a hatchback would have been anathema to Indian car buyers only a few years ago, but today this is not so. There are people for whom a hatchback with style and flair and a Mercedes-Benz badge is worth the price.
And I can see the logic in that argument. The A-Class at once manages to be both aspirational and practical. It might be presumed (and indeed, Mercedes-Benz India acknowledges this fact) that the A-Class will be bought by traditional Benz customers for their children. But it will also appeal to those car buyers who are shopping for a badge on a budget. Mercedes-Benz is absolute automotive royalty, and in that context, a quarter of a crore of rupees appears to be a bargain.
Shopping for a badge?
If I had to choose between the A180 Sport and the A180 CDI Style, then my money would go to the A180 Sport. Not only is the petrol motor better suited to the car’s character, it is also better equipped and far more fun to drive. Yes, I wish it had more power, and Mercedes India could do better by offering more than just 3 colour options.
But at the end of the day, for your money you get a car with head-turning good looks, unimpeachable pedigree and proper feel-good factor from behind the wheel.