Mercedes-Benz has been in India for 17 years. It has come, it has seen and it has conquered. There were initial hiccups and the company did take a bit of a hammering early on, but soon shiny new leather-lined limos with a star on the bonnet were rolling out of the plant in Pune, into the arms of delighted customers. And Mercedes, even back then, was pretty bullish about the Indian market, launching cars long before there was even a semblance of a market for them. It got the E-class here in ’95, the S-class in 2000, the C-class in 2001 and the M-class in 2002. Mercedes, however, stopped at the A-class. The original A-class was very cleverly engineered, but it was a car that didn’t do anything particularly well. Semi-practical, semi-luxurious and totally out of sync with the needs of Indian customers, it really was no surprise that Mercedes kept the original A-class firmly locked away in a box.
Things are a bit different today. For a start, the new ‘W176’ A-class is not the slightly confused, everything-to-everyone car its predecessor was, the Indian market has evolved beyond belief, and Mercedes, as earlier, wants to push the envelope. The question is, will there be many takers with a Rs-18-odd-lakh sticker glued to the windscreen?
It certainly is appealing enough. There’s plenty of mojo in the heavily sculpted design, the stance is very athletic and, whichever angle you look at it from, there really is a lot to admire here. The big star at the centre of the grille gets your attention first, but your eyes then wander over to the scowling headlights.
The square-set chin gives the nose plenty of definition and the long, attractive bonnet and low-slung compact cabin make it real sporty as well. One thing’s for sure, this is no family wagon. Also beautifully executed is the tautly drawn skin, and you can’t help but admire the interplay between the convex and concave surfaces of the flanks. The A 200 CDI in the pictures is wearing an AMG kit, and that makes it look even more aggressive. Even the rear has been thoroughly worked on – a ducted rear bumper and rear splitter together make it look fantastic.
I know, expecting this car to have the build of an E-class is asking for too much, but I’m still mildly disappointed. There’s no doubt this car feels robustly screwed together and easily as tough as an Audi. It’s just that with the star on the nose, you expect it to be unnecessarily over-engineered as well.
A new direction
Quality and fit and finish on the inside, however, are well up to Merc standards. The insides are as well put together as a C-class, there are plenty of metallic highlights to liven up the cabin and there’s enough kit available to make this feel like a pukka luxury car.
The design of the cabin is just as radical as the exterior, the emphasis clearly on sportiness; again. The theme of the cabin is dictated by the electroplated and chromed circular air vents, the entire dash is covered with a carbon-fibre weave and it’s pretty clear Mercedes is targeting a much younger buyer with this car. The central console gets a suspended touchscreen above the vents, you can plug your iPhone in and run apps off it, and the large sport seats on this version include attractive red stitching as well.
While there’s plenty of new stuff in the cabin, the new A has its share of Merc standard kit too. The doorpads are heavily padded in time-honoured Mercedes fashion, the AMG steering wheel can be seen on a number of sporty Mercs and the audio system is from the Mercedes parts bin as well.
I get in the back, just for the heck of it, and despite the low-slung stance and tight-fitting roof, comfort here is surprisingly good. The seat is supportive in the right places, headroom is acceptable and there’s quite a bit of legroom. The 341-litre boot is quite tiny though, and that’s despite the fact that Mercedes has ditched the spare wheel altogether. Merc engineers did, however, mention that there could be a spare for some markets.
The big challenge for Mercedes on this car was extracting maximum agility from this transverse-engine, front-wheel-drive chassis. The earlier A-class and B-class were not drivers’ cars by any stretch of the imagination, and for the new A to succeed, driver appeal was considered essential. So Merc did it the old-fashioned way – it poured money and solid engineering into the car. The rear suspension looks as complex and as detailed as the one on the E-class, the chassis feels incredibly stiff and light, and initial impressions are so good, there’s almost a sense of disbelief.
The A-class feels rock solid even at speeds above 200kph, its willingness to turn hard into corners and remain composed at the same time is baffling, and the high-precision steering makes placing the car exactly where you want it pretty intuitive. Of course, a lot of this dynamism is down to the optional sport suspension on this car, which makes the ride quite thumpy and hard, ruling it out as a setup for the Indian market.
A brief drive in a car with standard suspension, however, reveals that a lot of the agility is present without the fancy setup as well, and it still feels sporty to drive. Charging along lightly trafficked back roads is seriously fun, the handling is pretty neutral, understeer builds progressively, and you can even make the rear break away gently by steering hard into a corner.
As expected, the electric power steering is a bit of a letdown. It’s far superior to many other systems currently on the market and is very precise, but at times you do get into a bit of a dead zone, where the feel from the artificially heavy steering gets a bit ‘arcadey’. What Merc has got spot-on is the tuning of the ESP which, in Sport, rarely seems to interfere with the fun you are having.
This A 200 CDI’s 134bhp may not seem like too much, but the light 1370kg kerb weight and the tightly stacked initial ratios of the twin-clutch gearbox mean performance is quite sprightly. Low-end torque is very strong and there’s a decent amount of shove in the mid-range, and this makes performance pretty effortless. We are likely to get the even more powerful and larger 168bhp A 220 CDI in India, and performance should be even stronger. Merc claims a sub-eight-second 0-100kph time for the A 220 CDI, and that’s plenty quick.
A is for attack
When Merc launches the new A-class in India next year, it will not be a volume seller, at least not immediately. A car targeted at self-driven customers who have evolved past the neanderthal ‘size is everything’ mindset, the new A-class delivers all the luxurious trappings of a Mercedes in a very attractive and compact package. It’s agile and fun to drive, as well screwed together as any other Merc and likely to draw even more attention than something like a C-class. Question is, are there enough forward-thinking customers out there willing to put down upwards of Rs 18 lakh for a car like this? Yes, things are changing rapidly, but a good majority of owners in this part of the market are still chauffeur-driven; probably the reason why Mercedes is also bringing in the even more attractive saloon version of the A-class (known as the CLA) sometime late next year.
Watch video review here