DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

Radical isn’t a term one associates with Mercedes-Benz, that veritable pillar of collectedness and solidity. But with conservatism running out of places to hide in this day and age, certainly where cars are concerned, the Tristar has inevitably had to respond to market demands with necessary fortitude.

The current C-Class hinted at things when it came about, that the brand was trying to inject some vim and vigour into its offerings and effectively broaden its appeal to a larger crowd (read ‘younger’). Still, there are only so many things one can do to a premium executive sedan without turning it into a kitsch-mobile.

So it’s the job of the new third-generation A-Class to bridge new ground. This then is the vehicle the brand is looking at as the spearhead to replace dowdy and boring with fun and cheer. Unimaginable as it may seem, copy from the brochure suggests so, touting the car as “non-conformist from the outside and quite the style icon inside,” and good enough to “expel boredom from the street.” Is it going to be A-Class act? We venture to find out.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

Considering how it started, the W176 has definitely come a long way from the original A-Class. When it arrived in 1997, the W168, it of the ‘elk test’ fame, was very much an urban compact people mover, veined in the thinking of the day, which happened to be along the lines of the Smart, made bigger. I remember the competency of an example I drove a decade ago overseas, a pre-facelift A 170 CDI belonging to a friend, utilitarian as the delivery was.

The second-gen W169 carried on the flow, an evolution of the original offering more in the way of refinement and finesse, but still very much entrenched in functionality. Nonetheless, the appeal broadened somewhat. In its own quiet manner, the little A 170 won me over with its cheerful efficiency during the time I spent reviewing it for a magazine. Still, it definitely wasn’t the final word in vibrancy, and it couldn’t be termed sporty even if its life depended on it.

Enter the W176, which takes up the bat looking to improve the appeal in significant fashion, and designer Mark Fetherston and his team have come up with an offering that in one fell swoop rids itself of its compact urban mover image and gets it squaring off against the likes of BMW’s 1er and Audi’s A3, looking to best them. From a styling point of view, it’s by far the shapeliest of the three.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

To say that the current car – which shares the same underpinnings as the B-Class – has morphed into something previously unimaginable would be understating it. Led by a wedge-like front that follows on elements seen on the current CLS, scaled and smoothened out in scope, the overall stance is almost predator-like, especially from a front-quarter angle view.

The rear is less visually captivating and that bit more generic, like you’ve seen some of the lines and flow somewhere else (on some Korean hatch, perhaps?), but it all hangs together convincingly enough. The five-door hatch, a looker in photos, is even more effervescent in the metal – in all, this is a car with significant presence.

The move towards liberal – and sportier – isn’t surprising. With the premium compact segment market worth 6.57 million units globally as of last year and projected to swell to 10.62 million units by 2021, Mercedes isn’t looking to be left behind. In an effort to capture younger buyers, the design team was given wide-ranging freedom in respect of the design, and was even encouraged to be more progressive. The result is rather spectacular.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

In terms of engines, the 4.29 metre-long A-Class will ship with a choice of three petrol and three diesel forms, all turbo units. The Euro 6-ready BlueDirect petrol range starts with the new Camtronic-equipped 1.6 litre M 270 DE 16 AL, which offers two output tunes.

The first is 120 hp at 5,000 rpm and 200 Nm at 1,250-4,000 rpm in the A 180 BlueEfficiency, and the second is 154 hp at 5,000 rpm and 250 Nm (at the same rpm level) in the A 200 BlueEfficiency.

A quick aside on Camtronic, which premieres on the mill. It’s a load management system with an earlier intake cut-off and intake valve lift adjustment, a first in a turbocharged direct-injection engine. What it does is reduce throttle losses under partial load, helping to lower fuel consumption by up to 10% in certain operating ranges compared to the M 270 without Camtronic.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

Essentially, it’s a mechanically operated system served by an electronically-controlled actuator. The intake camshaft is made up of several components, with two hollow-drilled sub-shafts of equal size mounted on the carrier shaft. The first of these ‘cam-pieces,’ as they are known as, controls the intake valves of cylinders one and two, the second those of cylinders three and four.

The cams themselves are shaped in the form of a double-cam with two curved surfaces, with the surface operating the valves via roller-type rocker arms only half as wide as on a conventional cam. When the steeper half of the cam is active, the valve lift is increased and the valves remain open for longer; switching to the flatter half of the cam shortens the valve lift, and the valves close sooner.

At very low engine torque levels, the load control on the shorter valve lift is conventional, using the position of the throttle flap, while medium torque levels utilises the position of the intake camshaft and high torque levels, the charging level of the turbocharger. As the torque increases, the valve lift is switched to the higher level, with load control once again being conventional via the throttle flap and then, in the charged operating range, via the turbocharger.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

The third petrol unit is the 2.0 litre M 270 DE 20, which equips both the A 250 BlueEfficiency as well as the A 250 Sport versions, and output figures for this one are 208 hp at 5,500 rpm and 350 Nm at 1,200-4,000 rpm. Performance figures include a 0-100 km/h time of 6.6 seconds and a 240 km/h top speed.

It’s the range-topper until the M 132 2.0 litre premieres with the A 45 AMG sometime early next year – that one promises about 350 hp and 450 Nm, stirring numbers indeed.

Diesel-wise, there are three oil-burners powering four variants, two of which are somewhat confusingly known as the A 180 CDI BlueEfficiency. The first A 180 CDI wears the smallest displacement unit, the 1.5 litre OM 607 DE 15 LA, which is a reworked Renault lump offering 108 hp at 4,000 rpm and 260 Nm at 1,750-2,500 rpm.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

Compounding matters, the other A 180 CDI version also has the same horsepower and roughly the same amount of torque (108 hp at 3,200-4,600 rpm and 250 Nm at 1,400-2,800 rpm) from its 1.8 litre OM 651 DE 18 LA unit, so just reading the A 180 badging and horsepower figures won’t tell you which is what.

The A 200 CDI also wears the 1.8 litre, but generates higher output numbers, in this case 134 hp at 3,600-4,400 rpm and 300 Nm at 1,600-3,000 rpm.

Finally, there’s the A 220 CDI BlueEfficiency, which tops the diesel range; the OM 651 mill here has a 2.2 litre displacement, with 168 hp at 3,000-4,200 rpm and 350 Nm at 1,600-3,000 rpm for numbers. It’s nice to note that the A 250 petrol version offer as good a punch in terms of torque to the highest specification diesel unit.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

Transmission choices are a six-speed manual and a seven-speed 7G-DCT. For the petrol models, the dual-clutch ships as standard fitment on the A 250 and A 250 Sport, and as an option on the A 180 and A 200 versions. Some other numbers – the kerb weight starts from 1,370 kg for the A 180 petrol right up to 1,475 kg for the A 200 CDI.

Three equipment lines are available for the car, starting with the Style. This is the entry-level line, featuring a two-fin radiator grille in the exterior colour, with a chrome application as well as 16-inch alloys and 205/55 profile tyres. Internally, there are sports seats finished in an Artico man-made leather/Messancy fabric upholstery with contrast stitching.

The next line is the Urban, which the company tags as an expressive sporty equipment line. Kit includes 17-inch alloys wrapped with 225/45 series rubbers, a two-pipe exhaust system and a front grille with its double fins finished in silver/chrome. Inside, the seats are an Artico/Larochette cloth combination, again with contrast stitching, with decorative trim done in silver chrome.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

The third pack is called the AMG Sport, and as its moniker suggests, the exterior gets a dose of AMG styling treatment with a kit comprising front/rear bumpers and side skirts, and the pack also dresses up the car with 18-inch alloys and 225/40 profile tyres. Also on, a Dynamic Handling package replete with a Direct-Steer speed sensitive steering incorporating variable steering ratio and a brake system featuring larger ventilated and perforated brake discs as well as calipers with “Mercedes-Benz” lettering.

Kit for the interior includes black headliner, carbon-look interior trim elements, stainless steel pedals and an Artico/Microfiber Dinamica upholstery combination. Plenty of red contrast stitching to be found – besides the seats, the door cards and floor mats – replete with AMG lettering – get the treatment too.

As if that’s not enough, Merc has given the A-Class customer further options. There’s a Night package, an exterior dress up bundle that can be added on top of any of the three design and equipment lines. Also to be found are Exclusive and AMG Exclusive packages, which dress up the interior even further.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

There are 11 exterior colours available for the car, eight metallic and three solid, and the standout shade is the Designo Mountain Grey Magno – the satin tone is an absolute delight to the eye, and lends even more authority to the W176’s lines.

It does suffer from the anomaly that besets such a hue though. Under bright sunlight, there’s a perceivable distinction in colour gradation between the metal and on the non-metal parts of the car. And while it’s easiest on the eye, it’s not easiest to maintain. Word is that MBM isn’t looking to offer it as a stock shade here.

Safety kit includes Collision Prevention Assist, Attention Assist and Adaptive Brake as standard, and the A-Class ships with airbags for the front, front sides and windows as well as a driver’s knee airbag as stock fare, with rear side airbags as an available option. Other options include Pre-Safe, Distronic Plus proximity control and a Lane Tracking package.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

In aiming to capture younger buyers, the brand has equipped the A-Class with new levels of connectivity. Chief to it all are two packages called the Digital DriveStyle and Drive Kit Plus for the iPhone, available even from the entry-level Audio 20 system.

Drivers will be able to access content from an iPhone through the board display and via the controller on the center armrest, and the Drive Kit Plus for the iPhone will allow all major functions of the phone to be shown and selected from on the centrally-mounted dashboard display screen.

Besides music playback, making appointments and sending messages, there’s Facebook and Twitter integration as well, and drivers will be able to post and share what they want, with the aid of Siri. The fully integrated packages will also offer customised Internet radio through AUPEO! personal radio, which can recommend music by genre or artist based on the driver’s personal taste. Naturally, there’s GPS in the mix as well.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

The new connectivity will be available from the car’s market debut in September, and at point of launch only as a factory-specified option, which means there’s no retrofitting it if you don’t tick that particular box. By next year though, the kit should be available as an add-on accessory, according to Marina Ivankovic from Mercedes-Benz Accessories.

The dock location, currently in the glove compartment, is also set to move closer to the centre console, allowing easier access. This also happens next year, as does integration with Android.

A quick walk-through of the system revealed its usability, even if there’s still room for refinement in terms of graphics and presentation. Nonetheless, it brings Mercedes up to speed in connectivity terms, and the new face will eventually find its way on to the likes of the C-Class and E-Class, offering a more vibrant option for those who think the traditional COMAND a bit dour.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

On to the sampling of the car. A total number of 34 road cars were listed on the manifest during the international media drive, which took place in Slovenia a few weeks back. The Asian contingent was effectively bringing the event to a close (one more group after us, presumably the Chinese), so those before us had already run the cars hard. Still, the examples felt none the worse for wear, certainly not those that I happened to be in.

There were two drive sessions, split over two days, but with drive time limited to what you picked, my co-driver and I decided to focus on the variants that mattered, in this case the A 200 and A 250 petrol variants Mercedes-Benz Malaysia will be bringing in. Someone else in the group took out a diesel (not by choice, all the petrol units had been swiped), and reported that it felt decent enough.

We started out in the A 250, our example being the only A 250 variant finished in Mountain Grey. The Urban equipment line unit had a crystal grey/black-based interior, which I didn’t really care much for. Tonally, it does make the cabin a bit airier and spacious, but the colour elements didn’t gel, at least to me. The black-themed interior showcases things best – textures are highlighted well, and it does keep it all in line with the car’s sporty presentation.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

The cabin itself is well appointed, with particular attention to refinement being noticeable. The layout and presentation itself is a pretty straight-laced affair, but material-wise, nothing has been skimped, all the more promising for what is essentially entry-level for the brand.

The materials feel good to the touch, even those that aren’t core contact points. For example, the ring surround on the rounded AC vents – ala SLS – felt as classy as it looked, and the inevitable press of the dashboard top got the necessary soft response in tactility. Buyers may have one gripe though – surprisingly, despite ECO start/stop functionality, there’s no push-start button to be found, so ignition remains a traditional, keyed affair.

The front seats are firm-ish, but hold up well in terms of comfort over extended driving, and no complaints from a driving position point of view. Meanwhile, the rear provides ample space for two; it looks bit of a pinch for the third though.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

If there’s a lack in volume, then it’s with the boot – 341 litres sounds adequate for a couple of knapsacks and the weekly grocery haul, but not a place where you’d want to be manoeuvring large bags. We didn’t have to respond to the challenge, but nothing folding the rear seat backrests and bringing capacity up to 1,157 litres wouldn’t have solved in our case, I suppose.

It’s a willing and responsive car, the A 250, and on the whole strikes a neat balance between performance and comfort, though despite the output numbers the perception of pace is somewhat muted. Pushed along, the turn of speed is brisk, but is linear rather than gut wrenching. The refined character of the 7G-DCT no doubt aids the civility. I quite like the behavioural response of the new transmission though. Transitional aspects are clean and the ratios are spread very equitably across the range.

The ride is compliant without being mushy, and though it’s not going to give the 1 Series any sleepless nights handling-wise, the A-Class’ nimbleness is engaging. The steering is less likable in this sense, being on the light side and not very communicative off centre, but at least it’s quick and responsive.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

In the middle of the mix, there was the best bit, and it came in the form of the range-topping A 250 Sport. Having spent a fair bit of time with the A 250 earlier in the day, the expectation was that the Sport wouldn’t conjure up any more than was already absorbed, given the identical powertrain on call.

The track session, held on Portoroz Aerodrome, stated otherwise. With an AMG sports suspension featuring a specific front axle and modified ESP characteristics, the A 250 Sport behaves rather differently than its standard sibling, handling-wise.

On the course, which involved some rather tightly defined turns and a high-speed slalom run, the A 250 Sport felt zippy, though the sensation was inherently psychological than physical, given that nothing has been tweaked in the engine. The changes in handling, however, were distinctly noticeable. Sharper and more reactive to input, this is a Merc that responds to being chucked about with gusto, and it’s easily the best handling standard-fare Benz around, AMG-tweaked as it may be.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

Such was the consensus among the rabble-rousers in our drive group – as the session progressed, we were leaving the braking later and later as well as yanking the steering harder to see if the little A would be unfazed. It never did, and the ESP, while providing a suitable level of assist to keep things tidy, did so very benignly, never once coming across as intrusive or forced.

The following day’s drive back to Ljubljana was done in the A 200, a Jupiter Red example with an AMG Sport pack and a six-speed manual transmission. Undoubtedly, having 54 less horses – and 100 Nm – meant that things weren’t as pacy as with the A 250, but the car didn’t struggle once it got going, and the stick shifter helped to keep things interesting. The 1.6 litre has a good midband punch about it and is quite free-revving into the higher ranges, which helped.

A spot of Cayenne chasing out on the expressway – prompted by another A-Class pushing us just before that – revealed the A 200’s legs, and at 210 km/h the composure of the car was, for want of a better word, poised.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

My co-driver, deciding to take forty winks to compensate the lack of sleep from the previous night, remained undisturbed at the end of my very long high-speed charge, a veritable testament to that. Wind noise was clearly evident at 200 km/h, but the run showed that significant attention has been paid to the areas of noise and vibration.

It did feel less compliant than the A 250 over B-roads on the return route though. Not jarring, but the firmness was a perceptible change from that a day before. Perhaps the 18-inch wheels of the AMG Sport pack had something to do with it, but the ride felt less forgiving of bad surfaces.

Some notes about the manual transmission, even though we won’t ever be seeing it here. The clutch is vague and light, set up for a broader appeal than for the minority. Likewise the shifter, which has a clean, if rather rubbery, quality about it.

DRIVEN: W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class – we sample the A200, A250 and A250 Sport in Slovenia

The short sampling was enough to convince that for all intents and purposes, the W176 A-Class is going to be a winner for the brand. It won’t be the clear cut automatic choice for everyone in its segment, but it’s very well specified and equipped, and it’s a very attractive car, so it’ll be right up there in the mix.

Indeed, this newfound, broader appeal is set to win it many new friends and open up the Tristar to a whole new generation of users – more than 40,000 orders to date ahead of the car’s market launch in mid-September suggest a game changer, very early on. Considering that which came before it, the accomplishment is nothing short of radical.

UPDATE: The Mercedes-Benz A-Class has been officially launched in Malaysia. Read our launch report and view the pics here.