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The following description of a year's ownership (from new) of a Mercedes A-class car may hopefully prove useful to anyone considering purchasing one.
The model considered here is the A160 Elegance (Irish specification), with manual transmission. This trim level includes a body-coded radiator grille, internal storage boxes, an RDS radio with CD player, and remote central locking with alarm/immobiliser.
This car has a 1.6l petrol engine. Other available engines are the 1.4l petrol, 1.9l petrol, and two varieties of 1.9l turbodiesel. The other standard trim levels available are the Classic, which has a black grille and a more basic equipment level; and the Avant garde, which has a chromed grille and half-leather seats but is rather spoiled by an ill-judged 'funky' decal1. It is also possible to tell the trim levels apart on the basis of the brake light cluster, but only for true anoraks.
Outside and In
There seems little point evaluating the aesthetics of the A-class. There are plenty of them on the roads now, so you'll know whether you like the look of them or not. What can be said is that the incredibly short body (20cm shorter than a Ford Fiesta) gets it into parking spaces that other cars couldn't access if all four of their wheels turned through 90°. Around the city, it feels as though no gap in the traffic is too small to take it. It is an ideal car for congested roads.
Sitting in the driver's seat is a satisfying experience. The materials have a high quality feel. The high driving position gives some of the advantages of a 4x4, and the adjustable steering column and seat height mean it should be comfortable across the driver size range. There is no fake wood, but the steering wheel is leather. It carries the Mercedes values very well into the small car sector.
Sadly, the other occupants of the car don't get quite such a good deal. An even moderately tall person can have trouble squeezing into the front passenger seat; paradoxically, there is actually more headroom in the back. Leg-room for rear passengers is as long as most large saloons - though not quite as deep. In theory, three passengers can use the rear seats, but this would be quite a squeeze if they were all adults.
This car in Irish specification does not have air conditioning (unlike the UK spec). This is a mistake; the sheer area of glass around this car makes A/C a real essential for summer. In winter, the heater is good and de-mists reasonably effectively.
The idea of the A-class was to give MPG flexibility in a small hatchback package, and it achieves this astonishingly well. The rear seats fold flat (splitting 1/3 - 2/3), or can be removed altogether - in which configuration it is almost as roomy as a small van. Long loads are a problem simply because the physics mean that the cabin can't be longer than the car as a whole, but the volume available for anything more cubic is extremely impressive.
The little touches, however, don't work nearly as well. The under-seat storage compartments are a joke, being minuscule and hard to access. There is an even more ludicrous storage bin built into the arm-rest, but you have to be careful what you put in it: the arm-rest only opens when in the horizontal position, but if you want to actually be able to drive the car - change gear, reach the hand brake, that sort of thing - you need to tilt it upright. Apart from emergency tissues, it's hard to see what this is supposed to accommodate.
The tailgate is also a problem; the grab-handle built into it doesn't actually pull it all the way down, so you either have to get some speed up and release at the right moment, or push the tailgate from the outside. This is a problem because the proximity of the rear wheels to the back end of the vehicle mean that the tailgate gets covered in mud within about five miles of a wash. Furthermore, the lock on the tailgate is hardly positive and an owner is likely to become paranoid about checking it really is shut.
Finally, the stereo deserves a mention: it is mostly a fine instrument, but the volume control is a ridiculous piece of too-clever design. Rather than a proper knob to turn, the user is presented with a freely-rotating dial affair which gives no feedback on its actual setting. Even worse, the same amount of rotation sometimes brings about an imperceptible change in volume, while at other times one's eardrums will be left bleeding by a sudden jump. Apart from that, the only downside is the impossibility of changing CD while in first, third or fifth gears.
Ride, Handling and Performance
Handling is a big issue with the A-class. The costly failure of the 'elk test'2 led to suspension changes which make the ride more 'sporty' (i.e. less smooth) than would be ideal. This is not too much of a problem for the driver, but rear passengers in particular can feel distinctly queasy if driven quickly over undulating roads. However, the good thing is that the car feels supremely stable - and safe - in almost all conditions.
The power-assisted steering, clutch and gear change are all light, as you would expect from a car designed for use in congested city streets, without being the slightest bit woolly. Together with the more than adequate engine - 0-60mph in 10 seconds - it is hard to describe the car's round-town performance without using the word 'nippy'.
On motor ways, the car is smooth and quiet. The engine can cope with 100mph quite happily - in fact, nothing really strains it too badly, though it is rather lacking in torque at low revs. The only worrying feature at speed is that, being very light and quite high-sided, the baby Merci is more than averagely susceptible to cross-winds.
Reliability and Running Costs
The A-class has a very modern engine management system which means that there are no fixed service intervals; the more gently you drive it, the longer you will get between visits to the garage, up to about a year or 16,000 miles (25,000km). An indicator on the display panel counts down to the service date from a month beforehand. The first service (at one year - in this case 9,000 miles) cost a very reasonable £1203 at a main Mercedes dealer.
The test car had only one mechanical problem in its first year; a pothole hit at speed caused a crack in the wheel-arch casing which cost £90 to fix. The only electrical fault, which took the form of the electric window motors needing some coaxing to work, was intermittent for a few weeks and then disappeared without intervention.
Fuel economy is very reasonable given the size of the engine, though not exceptional for the weight of the car. Fuel consumption depends on use of course, but has varied from 36-40mpg (7.0-7.8l/100km).
Insurance is quite low for a car of the price, with a typical price (at the time of writing) of £350 per year for a man in his mid-30s living in London, with the car parked on the street.
The new price of the car is considerably more than an average small hatchback; around £14,000 (as of April 2001) for the model featured. However, the superior build quality, interior space, flexibility, reliability, and higher resale value will more than make up for that if you can afford it.
The Franchise Dealer
The reviewed car was bought from Western Motors Ltd in Galway. It was ordered in the September 1999: the estimated waiting list was ten weeks, but delivery was to be delayed until the January 2000 to get a new year's registration.
In December, Western Motors called to say that delivery would not be possible before the second half of February, due to higher than expected demand, and offering cars of lower specification more quickly; but surely if there is a point to paying the premium for a new car, it is to get what one has ordered, so these were declined. The procrastination continued until, threatened with cancellation of the order, the car was eventually delivered on the final deadline day, 10 March. It was prepared so hastily there were not even caps on the tyre valves. Obtaining delivery was the most stressful and annoying aspect of the whole owning experience - and would be a distinct discouragement from ever buying a brand new car again.
After-sales service was also unhelpful. The car was taken in twice with the cracked wheel-arch. On the first occasion, no-one from the service team was available to even look at the car; on the second, the part was out of stock. Eventually a local non-franchise mechanic fixed it.
In the couple of years since the A-class was launched, the only true rivals to appear have been the Toyota Years and the Audi A2. Both have poorer rear visibility than the Mercedes; neither comes with such a large engine; both are cheaper, the Years considerably so. All three are very good cars, which represent the kind of car we need to buy if we are to make more effective use of the Earth's resources (and of the parking spaces in our crowded cities).
The Mercedes A-class is certainly not without its flaws, and the dealer was a real let-down, but any car which gets through its first year with so few mechanical niggles or unpleasant surprises must be considered a pretty good buy.