Mercedes will launch the new A-Class in India sometime in the end of 2013. It will give them time then to set up a vendor base and open a new line to manufacture the A-Class here. Now while that itself is big news it isn't as monumental as what follows. What everybody is expecting to see is a 3-box version of the A-Class to compete against the forthcoming A3 sedan from Audi. Reality is that Mercedes are making a very bold move by launching the A-Class as a hatchback, exactly the same car I drove in Portoroza, Slovenia. It is a path breaking plan and Mercedes needs to pull this off if they want to go back to being leaders of the premium luxury segment, not just in India but globally too. Is our market ready for such ambition? Can a very expensive hatchback, and we believe it will be priced somewhere in the Rs 17-20 lakh segment, survive in our market? The most important question however that needs answering is what I traveled to Slovenia for, just how strong a product is the A-Class? This question got more important ever since I drove the A3 in July, one of the best cars Audi has manufactured for the volume segment.
The A-Class from the beginning was designed to be a stylish and youthful car, one that would help turn its image of being a manufacturer catering largely to those in their mid 40s. With that in mind Mercedes drew up an entirely new car that has nothing to do with the previous generation A-Class . The end result is a car that is tremendously stylish with the energy and vivacity often associated with the younger generation. It's a car that will take Europe by storm. In Slovenia alone I got the thumbs up from dozens of hot hatch owners zipping through the countryside, all of whom slowed down to get a closer look. It also attracted an older audience but the more enthusiastic reactions seemed to come from those under 30.
The A-Class subscribes to a new design language which is marked by a strong front visual, a dynamic line flowing from the front fender chiseling its way past the rear fender and a very low slung stance. That stance is accentuated by the sharply sloping rear window which is angled dramatically and a thick C-pillar that gives the A-Class a very solid persona. Incidentally that sharply raked rear window does create a few ingress and egress issues, which more senior consumers would find problematic, especially since you also have to bend low and lower your head to step into the car.
The A-Class is 4.2 metres long and over 1.7 metres wide and at its tallest point is just 1.4 metres tall. The exterior dimensions normally influence the int eriors and what you get in the A-Class is a hatchback with loads of legroom and enough space to seat four passengers very comfortably. One, this is because of the width of the car, it is simply not broad enough. It is just 10mm broader than the C-Class but then even the C-Class isn't comfortable enough to seat three in the rear seat. Secondly because the transmission tunnel is a very wide area that reduces footwell space for the driver and passenger, though it does not intrude into the rear cabin. There is adequate headroom and this is a clever bit of design I think because it's only the rear window that slopes down acutely, not the roof so you get enough headroom even for those measuring six feet and probably a few inches taller with the design still looking coupe like.
On the interior design front this is an astonishingly well built car. I'd also add good looking but one look at the images should do more justice to it than anything I can put to paper. But what comes across more remarkably is that this is the way Mercedes should be building cars. For long quality issues and poorly finished products have done their image a lot of damage. The A-Class can change that remarkably. Even the material quality used in the cabin is top notch, for instance I loved the carbon fibre like weave on the dashboard that clearly separates it into two distinct areas. The texture of that weave, the feel of the aluminum used for the air-con vent bezels, soft touch leather are a far cry from the traditional wood and leather trim that most Mercs are prone to.
Using new age materials to define premium luxury is definitely a huge step ahead for Mercedes and one that I think will give them a much needed edge when it comes to attracting a younger buyer.
Big news again, there is a new Comand system with a new interface that is vibrant and easy to use. It's displayed in a large hi-def screen which looks good and works quite nicely. It's also the one bit of tech that's flashy and does a lot more stuff in addition to just displaying maps and controlling the entertainment. It's the closest you can get to having a full fledged iPad there.
Moving on to the drivetrain, the A-Class is front-wheel driven with a range of new four-cylinder motors, both petrol and diesel. The India-specific engine is a diesel in the variant known as the 200CDI, it displaces 1796cc and makes 136PS of max power at 3600-4400rpm and 300Nm of max torque between 1600-3000rpm. The nicest bit about this engine is the refinement, it's a traditional Mercedes trait to have smooth refined power plants and this particular diesel does not buck that trend. It is not just smooth and lustrous but also is immensely quiet when operating. The associated diesel clatter isn't audible and the engine sounds and feels like Bangkok silk passing through your fingers.
Mercedes also offers a range of new petrol engines that are highly efficient but we may not see these in India. The new petrols also have a fair bit of new technology embedded into it, principally what Mercedes calls Camtronic (see box). This tech is aimed at making the engines complaint with various emission norms around the world and improving efficiency. Camtronic in fact has seen to it that consumption has dropped by 10 per cent. Overall efficiency as claimed by Mercedes is in the region of around 18kmpl, but I'd discount that by at least 20 per cent in Indian driving cycles. Of all the Mercedes' I have driven none have returned what company figures claim, blame it on my sometimes heavy foot or the traffic but it's always difficult to achieve the figures officially quoted.
You also get a start stop system which is activated automatically but can be switched off. It's a bit of an icky system and needs some more fine tuning, anyway I doubt the system will come to India as our traffic conditions will surely fry its chips. The A-Class also uses the same software that's used to control various systems in the mind blowing SLS AMG supercar.
But put all talk of refinement and efficiency aside, the A-Class I am eagerly looking forward to is the AMG version. It will have a full blown 4-cylinder engine churning out in excess of 300 horsepower, all-wheel drive and an exhaust note that will be nominated for a Grammy! That is definitely the car to aspire to own, the wait for that however is going to be long since that car is nearly a year away from production.
Now let me not digress from what will otherwise be the more accessible and popular hatch, the A-Class gets a dual clutch transmission with seven forward ratios. There is also a 6-speed manual but that is not the transmission of choice for India. In the automatic you get Tiptronic function through paddles positioned behind the steering wheel. The dual clutch system is derived from the more exotic sports cars in the Mercedes range namely the AMGs but interestingly it first made its appearance in the B-Class.
The A-Class also has a new chassis and suspension layout that has been drawn up from scratch. This retains the front wheel drive architecture that was present on the older car. It will not be the first front wheel drive vehicle Mercedes introduces in India, that distinction will go to the B-Class. The A-Class is part of the modular front architecture or MFA, a front wheel drive architecture which will also spawn the CLA, a stylish 4-door coupe, a compact 3-box sedan and a compact SUV in the future. The monocoque of the A-Class presents some new ideas, principally moving away from the MPV-ish design that it was into proper hot hatch territory.
A MacPherson setup at the front and a multilink rear is standard across the range but further tuning by AMG can be found in the Sport variant for enhanced dynamics. The A-Class sits quite low, 18cm lower than before, and while it may not present any problems in Europe it most definitely will in India. I assume then that the car will be tuned accordingly for our conditions, so expect the ride height to increase. This will also mean that suspension stiffness might increase if the dynamics are to be kept intact. The A-Class presently has a low centre of gravity, while the design also permits a very low coefficient of friction, its 0.27Cd is best in class so far, both factors key to enhancing stability and agility.
The electrically assisted steering has a variable ratio which allows it to get light at low speeds, especially when parking, or weights up as speeds increase on the motorways. It's a fairly precise and direct unit but that said it lacks feel and has no soul. In corners you can chuck the A-Class carelessly and the stability management will keep you intact, but there is a fair amount of understeer that kicks in quite early. You also get a lot of body roll, an aspect that Mercedes hasn't entirely sucked out of its system. Yet it does not have any adverse effects on the handling, put the A-Class accurately into a corner and it will follow though without a hitch. There have been very few Mercedes cars I have enjoyed as much and the A-Class is one of that very rare breed despite it being a FWD.
The thing is I applaud the fact that Mercedes is going to make such a strong statement in our market. It's not going to be easy because let's face it the A-Class is going to be expensive, at its expected price point you could easily buy a large premium luxury sedan from the Japanese manufacturers. So this game has to be played very carefully, if Mercedes gets the price wrong it will build a wall to dissuade any other manufacturers from ever taking any such step. That means the hopes of an entire fleet of hot hatches such the Focus, Scirocco, Golf, 1 Series etc depends on the outcome of Mercedes venture.
Interestingly Mercedes wants to manufacture the A-Class in India and that means localising content. This will keep the pricing low but will it be low enough to attract the masses that Mercedes wants to accumulate under its wings. Increasing lending rates, a weakening rupee and higher input costs aren't helping and the future of the A-Class in India looks bleak before its even set foot here.
So why should you buy it? Because this is a stylish vehicle, it's a great driver's car, it's a premium product that will appeal to your sense of wanting a car that's highly unique, very personal but also appeals to your sense of practicality. It's a car that is just as comfortable in the city as on the highways. It's a car tailored for an individual not a family and that sort of buyer profile is increasing.
Why not? Because as the classic argument goes, at this price you could buy a large sedan. But then you'd have parking issues, and just what would you do with the boot that will stay empty almost every day of the year. Oh and the day is not far when the size of your vehicle will determine the amount of tax, insurance and congestion fee you pay.
It's A-Classic case of should you buy her a diamond ring or for the same price a kilo of silver. They're both precious metals, and you just get so much more silver don't you, a whole ingot perhaps! Some purchases then are just never about being practical, no?