Mercedes turned things around with its third generation A-Class, recreating it into the kind of car a younger, sportier buyer could consider. This sleeker, more sophisticated, bigger and better connected fourth generation model version continues that theme and lays down quite a challenge to its Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series rivals.
And in summary? Well those who can afford the asking prices and like the driving experience will find this contender sporty, self-assured and possessed of a feel-good factor that really does make you feel special if you've specced your chosen variant correctly. Which is exactly what owning a car of this kind should be all about.
Want a case study in how to change brand perception? You're looking at it right here with this fourth generation Mercedes A-Class. This car aims to make this famous marque one that more younger buyers could consider.
As before, we're told to regard this A-Class as what the market calls a 'compact premium family hatchback' - in other words, a Focus or Astra-sized car with superior quality and a bit of extra badge equity. It's the kind of very profitable product that all the mainstream makers wish they could sell but which is primarily defined by this car and its two closest competitors, the Audi A3 and BMW's 1 Series. The frumpy first and second generation A-Class contenders didn't really threaten these two rivals in any meaningful way, but this car's MK3 model predecessor really did. With its successor, Mercedes has sharpened up the looks, improved interior space and dialled in a great deal more safety and media connectivity.
On to engines. The entry-level A200 variant is likely to be most popular featuring a new 1.4-litre 163hp unit available with either 6-speed manual or 7G-DCT dual-clutch auto transmission. Rest to 62mph in the manual model takes 8.2s. Next up is the A220 with a 190hp 2.0-litre engine and is the only derivative to offer a 4MATIC 4WD option. That variant sits just below the A250, which uses that 2.0-litre petrol powerplant in a 224hp state of tune. Rest to 62mph here takes 6.2s. Both the A220 and the A250 are only offered with a 7G-DCT auto 'box. At the top of the range is the 2.0-litre hot hatch Mercedes-AMG A35 4MATIC which offers a potent 306hp. There are three diesel alternatives, all offered only as automatics. The first is the A180d, which puts out 116hp and uses the 7G-DCT auto gearbox. Next up is the A200d which has a 2.0-litre 150hp engine. Beyond that lies the top A220d, which tunes the same unit up to 190hp. The A200d and A220 use an 8G-DCT auto.
What else do you need to know? Well the suspension is the usual torsion beam rear set-up on most models, but if you go for a variant with 4MATIC AWD, you'll get a more sophisticated multi-link rear set-up. The 'DYNAMIC SELECT' driving modes system is standard, as usual enabling you to tweak steering feel and throttle response. At extra cost, adjustable damping can be added into it. Some of the autonomous driving capability from larger Mercedes models has been built into this one, meaning that, in certain situations, you're a-Class, if appropriately equipped, will effectively be able to drive itself on dual carriageways at cruising speeds.
There's a choice of five-door hatch or saloon body shapes. Either way, from the outside, this fourth generation A-Class delivers a more progressive design with a low bonnet and flat, more angular LED headlamps. The car is visually extended by its now longer wheelbase and a smart character line along the side. The bonnet slopes down more heavily than in the preceding model series, emphasising the more dynamic, upright front. Larger wheel arches housing bigger rims (ranging from 16 to 19 inches) help too, making this A-Class sit more squarely on the road. This MK4 design has a wider look at the rear end thanks to a more heavily waisted greenhouse and at the rear, there are slim, two-section tail lights.
It's the interior that sees the really big changes though. The usual instrument binnacle cowl has been completely dispensed with, so the wing-shaped main body of the dashboard can extend from one front door to the other with no visual discontinuity. A virtual instrument screen (of either 7-inches or 10.25-inches in size) replaces the usual dials and can be joined with a centre-dash infotainment display (again either 7-inches or 10.25-inches in size) to create one continuous monitor, much as you get in larger Mercedes models. That extra wheelbase means more interior space - and with the hatch, the 370-litre boot is 29-litres larger than before too.
Prices for mainstream models start at around £26,000, which gets you either the A180d diesel variant or the petrol A200. There are three trim levels - 'SE', 'Sport' and 'AMG Line'. There's a choice of five-door hatch or four-door saloon models. The saloon requires a premium of around £2,000 over the hatch and has a slimmed-down engine range - A180d, A200, A220 4MATIC and A250.
Every A-Class model comes well equipped. The entry-level 'SE' trim features twin seven-inch displays including a central touchscreen with MBUX multimedia system featuring 'Hey Mercedes' voice activation. Plus there's comfort suspension, 16-inch alloy wheels, a DAB radio, Artico man-made leather and Bertrix fabric upholstery, Active Lane Keeping Assist, Speed Limit Assist, a Keyless-Go starting function and air conditioning. The 'Sport' trim line adds LED high performance headlights, 17-inch alloy wheels, Artico and 'Fleron' fabric upholstery and automatic climate control. 'AMG Line' customers will benefit from 18-inch AMG alloy wheels, an AMG bodystyling kit, Artico and Dinamica microfibre upholstery and a three-spoke sports steering wheel.
This fourth generation A-Class is much better connected than before. Navigation functions, for example, can now be based on traffic feedback from so-called 'Car-to-X communication' where information gets fed in from other similarly-equipped road users. As usual, there's a dowloadable 'Mercedes Me' app that connects you into your car and can tell you things like local fuel prices or the availability of parking spaces at your destination.
The economy champion of course, is the A180d variant, which exhales just 108g/km of CO2, while only drinking a gallon of fuel on the combined cycle every 68.9 miles. With respectable performance figures, it's a tempting package - albeit one that in its standard form, forgoes the big wheels and aggressive bodykits of more dynamic-looking versions. If you plan on adding the extra features, then economy will obviously take a hit. The A200d manages 67.3mpg and 110g/km. And the A220d returns 65.7mpg and 114g/km.
As for the petrol engines, well the A200 in manual form manages 51.4mpg on the combined cycle and 133g/km of CO2, figures that improve to 55.3mpg and 120g/km if you go for auto transmission. The auto-only A250 2.0-litre petrol variant manages 45.6mpg and 141g/km.
The warranty may be an industry standard 3 years but is for unlimited miles, handy to know if you spend a lot of time on the road. Just remember that a mid-range diesel is the sensible option for high resale figures. With that in mind, something like a mid-spec A180d model might well represent the sweet spot of the range. On the other hand, an 4MATIC petrol variant with every option thrown at it will lose a lot more of its value over the years.