Posted 08 February 2013 - 10:54 AM
Our Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Forget everything you’ve read about the Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
The first- and second-generation models were practical and relatively affordable, but they were not much fun to drive and looked like the kind of cars a new-age Noddy would drive.
A blast in the new Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport shows things have changed dramatically with the third-generation car.
The hot-hatch version of the new A-Class range clearly demonstrates Mercedes can build exhilarating cars that don’t have dirty great V8 engines lurking beneath the bonnet. We were beginning to wonder whether it could…
The A-Class range goes on sale on March 1 and kicks off with the 90kW 1.6-litre A180 petrol at $35,600. This is more than $5000 more than the last entry-level car, but comes with a heap more standard gear.
There is a lightly turbocharged 115kW 1.6-litre A200 petrol at $40,900, the same price Mercedes charges for the 100kW (and 300Nm) A200 CDI 1.8-litre diesel.
Hovering above these two is the current hero of the range, the Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport, which uses a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine that makes 155kW at 5500rpm and 350Nm at 1200-4000rpm. Hit 4000rpm and you unlock a short burst of 10 extra kilowatts thanks to a transient overboost function. It does the 0-100km/h sprint in 6.6 seconds, and thanks to stop-start technology, the A250 Sport has an official fuel consumption rating of 6.6 litres per 100km.
It will be the king of the line-up until a tarmac-ripping twin-turbo all-wheel-drive A-Class monster, the 250kW/400Nm A45 AMG, is unleashed this September.
The milder Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport doesn’t have AWD, instead sending all its power to the front wheels, without the services of a limited-slip differential.
As you might have guessed from the glowing intro, this is no bad thing. The A250 strikes a brilliant balance between delivering jollies and being comfortable and practical enough that you can easily drive it every day.
It is more like a low-sitting Ford Focus ST (with more kit and a fancier interior) than the wild Renault Megane RS265, which, for most of us, is too harsh and too loud for regular driving.
The A250 Sport is $49,900, which sounds like a fair chunk of money when you think of small performance cars like the Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ and the ancient but still damn fast Subaru WRX. It lines up with a rear-drive BMW 125i, but is a much sportier and better-specified machine.
However, as you might tell from the gargantuan badge on the nose, this is a Mercedes-Benz and that will be a big plus for many. It also has a premium interior, which is packed full of features that are often confined to the option lists.
While the Ford and Renault are manual only, the A250 Sport is automatic-only (even in Europe where manuals are still extremely popular). To be technically correct, it has an automated manual gearbox, a dual-clutch unit with seven gears.
A manual option would be great, but the dual-clutch unit is able to shift quickly in manual mode so you still get a sporty experience. It also shifts without fuss when left in automatic mode.
The direct-injection engine is strong enough for a front-driver, but is not wildly powerful. It has ample torque to pull the A250 Sport out of bends without hesitation, to the point it can easily cope with being left in higher gears.
There is enough power to go fast, but the A250 doesn’t accelerate with explosive force.
Some people might want more power but the current mix is good given this is a front-driver. You can accelerate hard without worrying about the experience being spoiled by torque steer. The stability control system will prevent most wheel spin, but it intervenes in a subtle way so it doesn’t come across as a kill-joy.
Mercedes employed AMG to work some of its magic on the A250 Sport and while it is not a full-blown AMG, the influence is evident.
Changes to the regular car include a more direct steering ratio, sports-tuned suspension, a louder exhaust, perforated front brakes discs and ECU changes for more focused engine and transmission performance.
The exhaust work, which includes removing the centre muffler and changing the rear muffler, means the Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport makes some noise, without being a raucous boy-racer.
It doesn’t have the rasping intake of the Megane RS, or the lumpy intake of the Focus ST, but has a subtle meatiness on acceleration. Mercedes didn’t copy the Volkswagen turbo ‘thrap’ sound that comes with gear changes when the driver is pushing hard and that’s a shame. Instead it made the most of the over-run sound that comes when the driver lifts off. It doesn’t match the artillery barrage of the SLS, but is something at least. Overall, it could be a bit more aurally exciting.
The new Mercedes-Benz A-Class platform, AMG’s tweaks (custom shocks and springs, thicker anti-roll bar and different front camber) and relatively low-riding body (compared with previous generations), mean the A250 is a gem in the twisty sections of our test route near Healesville, northeast of Melbourne.
This car is so well balanced that you can really carry lots of pace through the corners. It is composed even when being thrown around with handling that is benign but far from boring. The chassis is especially impressive and the A250 Sport changes direction better than any Mercedes has done before. It is the kind of handling you expect from another German luxury brand whose name rhymes with BMW.
There is very little body lean in the corners. The seats are not extreme buckets and yet they provide ample support for the driver in the kind of situations that can leave you hanging off the side of the seat in some other cars.
The A250 Sport, which sits on 18-inch AMG rims, has a ride quality that is about as firm as you could get without spoiling everyday ride quality. There is an underlying harshness that is felt over bumps and potholes, but it isn’t rock hard. It could be a little too firm for some, but there are plenty of other A-Classes to choose from.
The steering is fast-acting and therefore feels sporty. It’s possibly a little too light, but this is a Mercedes after all.
Mercedes says 50 per cent of its A-Class orders are for the A250 Sport and while some buyers will be lured by the promises of exciting driving, some are no doubt attracted by the extra features and up-market interior.
That’s understandable because the cabin does give an impression that this car should cost more than it does.
The chrome-styled air vents; the red highlights on the dash, air vents, and seat and steering wheel stitching; the premium sporty steering wheel; and the well laid-out centre stack all contribute to an interior that makes the driver feel like they are piloting something special.
There are some hard plastics on the lower parts of the dashboard and centre column, but the plastic surfaces generally look and feel good. Mercedes has included ambient lighting around the cabin and the Mercedes-Benz type on the doorsills glows (in all A-Class models).
The A250 Sport gets a carbonfibre-style trim section on the dashboard – sort of like what carbonfibre would look like without the shiny resin.
The standard sport seats are trimmed with the fake Mercedes Artico leather and a suede-like material. Real leather seats are optional. Actual leather, rather than vinyl, should be standard at this price point. That said, the standard trim looks and feels like leather anyway.
Mercedes does include bi-xenon headlights as standard, along with a panoramic sunroof.
Some things are missing though, such as keyless entry and start. The A250 Sport is a bit retro in that there is no Start button. The driver has to actually put the key into the ignition and turn it to start the engine. There will be some drivers who would prefer the convenience of the transponder key and the Start button, while others won’t mind.
Some absent-minded people will even appreciate not losing the key during the drive, which can happen when it is free to be placed anywhere in the cabin.
Like the other A-Class models, the Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport is a five-door hatch. It has enough rear headroom for tall adults to sit comfortably and an adequate boot.
The exterior is accentuated with an AMG body kit, lowered suspension, bigger wheels and red-accented brake calipers, but the front is dominated by the A250’s exclusive ‘diamond’ grille which carries over from the concept car.
This dazzling studded effect, which radiates from the badge, is a real standout and looks like nothing else on the road. It is either awfully kitsch or monumentally cool depending on your taste and this reviewer is certainly not a fan.
The exterior styling of the A-Class is busy. There are plenty of lines going on, but the sleek profile gives it an attractive and sporty appearance, even without the Sport treatment.
It comes across as a fun, sporty car, unlike the past two generations, which projected an image of practicality.
All-up, the Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport is a pleasant surprise that finally proves Mercedes can build an exciting small car.
It’s more expensive than some sporty models such as the Golf GTI and Focus ST, but comes with more standard gear and is as good as – if not better than – both going by our brief test (although a back-to-back duel is called for). While it may feel strange to say it, the A250 Sport is also more enjoyable to drive than the equivalent BMW 1 Series. Yes, it is that good.
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