With the race for the top spot among luxury carmakers heating up, Mercedes-Benz is switching strategy in India. Much like rivals Audi and BMW, the company has lowered the price point at which you can own a three-pointed star. To this end, it has launched the A-class petrol (Sport trim), at a price of Rs 22.73 lakh (ex-showroom, Mumbai). And most significantly, the driver-focussed A 180 marks a change in Merc’s traditional approach – targeting the self-driven rather than the chauffeur-driven luxury car buyer.
What’s more, the company will have the first-mover advantage in this segment, as rival BMW’s luxury hatchback, the 1-series, is expected here only later this year. The biggest hurdle in Mercedes’ path, however, is that Indians generally associate luxury cars with saloons, and more recently, SUVs. So the A-class’s success here hinges on more car buyers starting to accept premium hatchbacks as luxury offerings.
It certainly makes a good first impression – the A-class looks simply stunning. It’s a youthful, fresh design that is markedly different from the vast, regal look of traditional Mercs. The grille comprises 302 diamond-shaped aluminium bits, the headlamps are flared, and bold cuts and slashes run along the side of the car. The youth-focussed design continues with the wide haunches at the rear, the low roof, twin exhaust pipes and 17-inch smoked grey alloys.
The 1.6-litre turbocharged, direct-injection petrol engine under the hood of this A 180 powers the front wheels via a seven-speed, twin-clutch transmission. And, at 4,292mm long, 1,780mm wide and 1,433mm tall, it’s no ‘small car’; in fact it is almost as big as a Ford Fiesta saloon.
On the inside, there’s decent space in the rear by hatchback standards, although the sloping roof means the headroom is tight, and the small windows and black insides give it a cooped-up feeling. This back seat certainly won’t offer the comfort you associate with a luxury car, but then this car is meant to pander more to the driver.
The rest of the cabin is just as plush as an E-class, but feels far more modern. The SLS AMG-style triple air-con vents, the free-standing screen for the COMAND interface, the sculpted steering wheel and the chequered-design dials add to the youthful flair. The single-piece front seats are superbly snug, and the knobs, switches and stalks work precisely. The pedals are slightly offset, but this is made up for by the fantastic driving position. However, the steeply-raked windscreen and the small rear window compromise visibility, which is bothersome in traffic and when parking.
Although Mercedes has skipped on electric steering adjustment and even a powered front passenger seat, there’s still plenty of kit; our test car had Bluetooth connectivity, seven airbags, ESP, Bi-Xenon headlamps and USB connectivity. Even the massive panoramic sunroof comes as standard.
The boot, with its 341-litre capacity, is big by hatchback standards, but for the Indian variant, the space-saver spare tyre sits inside (rather than beneath) the boot, eating into luggage space.
The one complaint we have about this particular A-class is that the engine lacks sufficient grunt. Considering the A 180’s 1,375kg kerb weight, the 1,595cc, four-cylinder turbo-petrol motor’s 122bhp and 20.4kgm figures are rather modest. However, it is quiet at idle and, at cruising speeds, has a reasonable amount of punch in its mid-range.
Driven flat out, the 0-100kph sprint is done with in a reasonably quick 9.76 seconds, and the car tops out at 202kph. But this motor lacks the trademark Merc smoothness, with some harshness at the far end of the rev range. The automatic gearbox has three modes—Economy, Sport and Manual—and for once, this is a Merc automatic that responds well to paddle shifts.
The car also handles very well and, for a front-wheel-drive car, there’s very little understeer; there’s great front-end grip and beautiful body control. It’s composed around corners and though the electrically-assisted steering may not be very feelsome, it is precise and quick to react. The A-class is also incredibly stable in a straight line. The brakes have great stopping power too, and the 21-metre 80-0kph braking distance we recorded in our test is one of the shortest we've ever done.
The ride on the A-class is decent, although it suffers over really bad roads and the suspension crashes over sharp bumps. However, for the most part, it handles what our roads have to offer impressively and the low-speed ride is particularly good. But the low stance can pose a problem with big speed breakers, and we did occasionally scrape the belly. Also, the cabin is not as well insulated from noise as most Mercs.
In the end, the A-class comes across a compact, premium and properly impressive runabout. It’s got almost everything we like about big Mercs — a solid build, high-quality interiors and a decent ride, all with a huge dose of youthfulness. The engine in the A 180 could’ve done with a little bit more grunt, but apart from that, there’s little to fault.
The bigger concern is whether or not Indian buyers will accept a hatchback as a genuine luxury car. But there’s a good chance the A-class, with its stunning looks and sheer desirability, could trigger India’s first compact luxury car revolution.
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