Call me a stick in the mud. The Mercedes-Benz A-Class has never been on my list of desirable cars fixed with a three-pointed star.
Launched in 1997, the sub-compact was a relative latecomer to the well-established C-, E-, and S-Class line-up, with its front-drive layout breaking with years of engineering tradition. Its tall, narrow body seemed designed for European cities but out of place in Australia’s open spaces.
It didn’t help that the first A-Class suffered an infamous inversion while attempting a swerve-and-avoid test, prompting Mercedes to suspend sales while it implemented a fix. It’s a wonder in some ways that the A-Class is still with us, but Mercedes clearly believed it had to maintain a foothold in what became the lucrative sub-compact executive class.
And so we come to the fourth generation of the so-called Baby Benz, following the launch of the original hatchback body style, joined for the first time by a four-door sedan.
Baby Benz rebooted
The A-Class has become more complete with each successive generation, growing out of the toddler tantrums of its early days and acquiring a broad breadth of capabilities.
Along the way it’s grown dimensionally and lost a little of its styling quirkiness, but compensated with other attributes including refinement, performance and safety.
Stylistically, the new A-Class is a handsome ‘Mini-Me’ knock-off of larger cars from the Benz garage, aping their design language and styling cues.
In fact, squint in side view and you’d swear it’s a scaled-down C-Class Estate, its metal skin seemingly shrink-wrapped over the compact frame, with subtle hints of musculature evident in its softly sensual shape.
Executive Traveller got behind the wheel of the new A250 4MATIC model ($54,800 RRP, $62,840 as tested), which followed the launch of its A200 stablemate and landed around the same time as the A180 model.
There are more A-Class models in the pipeline too, including the AMG-fettled A35 junior hot hatch (November) and the full-bottle Mercedes-AMG A45 (early 2020), but right now the A250 4MATIC hatch is the trump card.
Positioned as the most powerful non-AMG variant in the line-up, the A250 and A250 4MATIC (all-wheel-drive) share the same architecture as the A180 and A200 but benefit from the fitment of a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, versus the other models’ 1.3-litre turbo.
A tech-feast inside
In common with the rest of the range is the A250’s stand-out interior, which has really lifted the game in this segment in terms of design, technology and quality.
Mercedes has clearly made a determined move to endow its smallest and most affordable model with much of the cutting-edge technology that’s still being rolled out to its larger and more expensive cars.
The signature interior design piece is a line of five satin-chrome turbine-style air vents that stretch across the handsome stepped dash, atop which sits two impressive looking 10.25-inch digital display screens.
The main touchscreen is the key interface with the advanced MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) infotainment system, featuring a mind-boggling array of adjustable colours, layouts and menus, all rendered in crystal clarity.
Alternatively, the system also features an impressive voice recognition function system that can do everything from phoning home, to setting a destination, or changing the hue of the interior ambient lighting – all without taking your hands from the wheel or eyes from the road.
Packing a punch
Mechanically, the A250 4MATIC builds on the already-impressive package of its little brother, the A200, but replaces that car’s 1.3-litre turbo engine with a larger capacity 2.0-litre turbo.
The larger four-pot punches out a muscular 165kW and 350Nm and, in combination with a seven-speed twin-clutch transmission, fires the A250 4MATIC from rest to 100km/h in a hot hatch-rivalling 6.2 seconds.
It gets around bends handily too, thanks to its standard multi-link rear suspension and Benz’s 4MATIC all-wheel drive system – both optional extras on the A200.
The combination of bigger engine, all-wheel drive and sophisticated rear suspension marks the A250 4MATIC as something of a hot hatch sleeper.
The Benz box tickers couldn’t leave it at that. Our test car was equipped with a range of extras that included metallic paint ($1190), Aluminium Line Trim ($290), Communications Package ($2490), Driving Assistance Package ($1790), Seat Comfort Package ($1290), and a Vision Package $990), pushing its as-tested price uncomfortably close to C-Class money.
One option not ticked, but which we think worth considering, is adaptive dampers (although you can’t have the tricky shocks without optioning both the Seat Comfort Package and the AMG Exclusive Package).
Regardless, out on the road the A250 proves superbly refined, with excellent soundproofing, effortless performance and generally very good road manners. The steering is fluid and accurate, and the car feels nicely balanced, and impressively sure-footed in corners.
The eager engine is muscular enough for most occasions in standard mode, delivering a satisfyingly chubby torque curve from low in the revs, the gearbox shifting effortlessly to the taller gears for better fuel consumption.
But switching to ‘sport’ sees the feisty four-pot rise to the whip, bringing out a satisfyingly raspy induction and exhaust note and sharpening throttle and gearshift responses accordingly.
In this guise the A250 can be pedaled with real enthusiasm, the all-wheel drive system providing reassuring grip even in slippery conditions. The one real criticism is the dampers – while comfortable and well sorted for urban and freeway duties, they lose points on our blotted B-roads where they allow a tad too much body movement.
Other than this, the only other niggle with the A-Class is its interior accommodation. While impressively generous for front-seat passengers, it is disappointingly tight in the rear.
A star is (finally) born
While performance enthusiasts requiring more focus and aggression will hold out for the forthcoming AMG-tuned A35 and A45 models, the A250 4MATIC strikes an ideal compromise for most drivers.
Its impressive tech, comfortable ride and about-town manners are matched with very respectable performance.
Like the spider who Scottish King Robert Bruce observed never giving up in its efforts to spin a web on his cave wall, after some 20 years and four generations, the baby A-Class has finally reached my list of desirable cars featuring the three-pointed star.