Mercedes A-Class diesel review, test drive

Autocar India
First Published: 17:33 IST(21/6/2013)
Last Updated: 17:32 IST(25/6/2013)
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With the launch of the A-class, Mercedes has taken a bold step in its approach to the affordable luxury segment here in India. We Indians have never been big fans of the concept of premium hathcbacks. So can an all-out luxury hatchback like the A-class even survive here?
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The A-class has very clear sporting intent, from its stunning looks to the way the chassis and suspension deliver really sharp handling. It’s also got lots of stylish appeal, able to make jaws drop more easily than most big SUVs when it drives by. This is a car that speaks to your emotions, so how does it fare when teamed up with a little practicality in the form of a diesel engine? We drove the A 180 petrol last month, and its weakest point was undoubtedly the motor under the hood. This A 180 CDI version, on paper at least, looks promising. But can it deliver where the petrol could not?

For a start, forget the ‘180’ badge; this engine actually displaces 2143cc and is essentially a version of the same OM651 motor we’ve seen under the hoods of the C-class, E-class and M-class, in 220 CDI and 250 CDI forms. It’s been modified for front-wheel drive and transverse mounting under the hood of the  A-class (and indeed the B-class), and detuned to produce 107bhp and 25.5kgm of torque.

Twist the key and the engine thrums to life, and at idle, it’s all but silent with only minor vibrations. Thanks mostly to the big engine, the diesel A-class weighs a chunky 1505kg – that’s a full 110kg more than the petrol. As a result, the 0-100kph dash takes a relaxed yet brisk 11.29sec. However, the readily available torque from the high-displacement engine sort of makes up for it. Power delivery is pretty linear and you can barely feel the turbo kicking in. There’s a gentle surge at around 1500rpm, followed by a strong thrust till about 4000rpm. Things become a bit vocal near the redline though, so it’s best to work with the motor in its meaty midrange.

 

Merc’s 7G-DCT double-clutch gearbox makes clever use of its seven speeds to respond well to those part-throttle inputs that are an integral part of driving in traffic. It shifts smoothly and the engine is quiet at city speeds as well. You can always put it in Sport or Manual mode for urgent overtaking or when you want to have fun behind the wheel. The 20-80kph is done with in 7.03sec, while 40-100kph goes by in 9.14sec.

You’ll love the A-class on a winding road. With the stiff suspension and wide 225-section tyres, the baby Benz changes direction willingly and there is loads of grip. This, combined with superb body control, means you can scythe through a series of bends with complete confidence. Straight-line stability at highway speeds is terrific too, and the A-class is very reassuring to drive. The steering, although not very consistent in the way it weighs up, is direct and helps you place the nose accurately where you want to. But the A-class’s biggest weakness is undoubtedly its hard low-speed ride; you can feel every little road disturbance. The standard low-profile 225/45 R17 tyres are the main culprits here. But the ride improves considerably as you go faster, and the Merc feels more pliant. Also, the low stance and long wheelbase mean you have to tackle large speedbreakers with utmost caution. Though we didn’t scrape the underbelly during our tests, it’s easy to do so.

A quick word on the styling – because the pictures really speak for themselves with this car. The CDI is available only in a lower ‘Style’ trim, as opposed to the petrol which is only available in ‘Sport’. As a result, it misses out on that exotic diamond-effect grille, settling instead for a conventional two-bar setup, and it also loses the big panoramic sunroof; but that’s about it.

If there’s one thing that cements the A-class’s credentials as a seriously luxurious product, it’s the quality of the interiors; after all, if it doesn’t make you feel privileged, what’s the point? Every surface feels properly premium – the soft-touch dashboard front, the beautifully finished, SLS-style air-con vents and the perfectly damped buttons on the steering wheel, to name a few. This may be an all-black cabin, but there is enough metallic brightwork in here to liven things up. The 5.8-inch COMAND screen ‘floats’ above the air-con vents, but isn’t big enough to be distracting when you’re driving. Because the gear selector is on the steering column, the central tunnel has been used for cup holders and cubbyholes; but they aren’t very big.

This is a car designed around the driver rather than the passengers, and it really shows. The front seats, with their snug, single-piece backrests, are a great place to spend time. They’re comfortable and supportive, and the driver’s side has full electric adjustment. The only downside is the visibility which, thanks to the sharply angled windscreen, low seating position and small glass area, is quite poor. The focus on the driver is even more apparent from the back seat, though. You have to duck under the curved window line to get in, and then you’re greeted to an upright bench that’s designed for two; there’s a third seat belt, but not much room to sit. There are no rear AC vents, the windows are tiny, and the big, curvaceous front seats are right in your face. Although the legroom is decent, the headroom is tight, and the combination of a low seat and short squab means you’re forced into a knees-up seating position.

It is equipped like a Mercedes though, with a big focus on safety tech. There’s no less than nine airbags in this little cabin, and a host of active and passive electronic aids. On the infotainment front, Merc’s dated COMAND system soldiers on; it’s not as intuitive to use as its more evolved competitors, but it gets the job done. There’s Bluetooth, Aux and USB connectivity here and most of it can be controlled from the buttons on the steering wheel. Surprisingly, in such an expensive car, there’s no climate control.

The A 180 CDI manages 11kpl in the city and 15kpl on the highway, and again, Indians would expect better from a ‘hatchback’. The thing is, this Merc is a big and heavy hatchback, and this really takes its toll at the pumps. And by luxury car standards, it’s pretty good.

The B-class was not Merc’s big game changer thanks to its unconventional looks and the initial lack of a diesel engine option, but that’s where the A-class comes in. It has its work cut out for it in India, and has to convince buyers that there’s no harm if small is expensive. But if there’s a car that can break conventions and make a big first impression, this is it.

The styling alone takes care of that, but when you dig deeper, you find a car that lives up to Mercedes’ proud reputation for solidity, quality and technology. Both engines, particularly the diesel, are well suited to the urban grind. So it’s quite a shame that the ride is just the opposite. And if the back seat is a deal-breaker for you, then you aren’t this car’s intended customer.

Merc has also managed to flip convention on its head with the pricing, because, for once, the diesel is cheaper than the petrol. So, at Rs. 21.93 lakh, is it really good value? On paper – no. But if you want to make a style statement, have fun at the wheel and enjoy a properly luxurious cabin, the A 180 CDI is very tempting.

 
Fact File
Price Range (in lakhs)*
Ex-showroom price  Rs. 21.93 lakh (ex-showroom, Mumbai)
Engine
Fuel                        Diesel
Installation              Front, transverse,
Type                      4cyl, 2143cc, common-rail, turbo diesel
Bore/stroke            83.0/83.0mm
Power                   107.3bhp at 3200-4400rpm
Torque                  25.5kgm at 1400-2800rpm
Power to weight     71.3bhp per tonne
Transmission
Type                       Front-wheel drive
Gearbox                 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Dimensions
Length                    4292mm
Width                     1780mm
Height                     1433mm
Wheel base            2699mm
Chassis & Body
Construction           Five-door monocoque, hatchback
Weight                    1505kg
Wheels                     Alloy
Tyres                       225/45R17
Spare                      Space Saver
Suspension
Front                        Independent, Macpherson struts, coil springs
Rear                         Independent, coil springs
Steering
Type                          Rack and pinion
Type of power assist    Electric
Brakes
Front                            Ventilated discs
Rear                          Discs
Anti-lock                      Yes

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