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Petite feat

May 6, 2005
Petite feat

The second-generation Mercedes A-Class has arrived – with more equipment and a cheaper price than a Holden Commodore. But can it live down its reputation, asks JOSHUA DOWLING.

For such a small car, the baby Benz made a big impact when it went on sale in 1997.

Here was Mercedes-Benz, a proud maker of expensive luxury sedans, sticking its famous three-pointed star on the nose of an odd-looking, egg-shaped, small hatchback which – tut-tut – mere mortals could afford. Suddenly, the Mercedes-Benz club was no longer exclusive.

At the time, the Herald's fashion writer Maggie Alderson described the A-Class as a "funny little car that looks like a running shoe on wheels".

But more scathing criticism was just around the corner. Well, a corner.

While most of the world's media were pondering the damage an affordable small car might cause to Mercedes's highly polished image, a Swedish motoring journalist flipped an A-Class on its lid during a routine swerve test at 60kmh to avoid an imaginary moose.

The now-famous moose test forced Mercedes to halt production and recall about 3000 cars just one week after the model went on sale in Europe. It cost the company an estimated $250 million in extra development. "A small price to pay to maintain our reputation," a quick-thinking spokesman said at the time. In reality, it was small change considering $1.7 billion had already been invested to develop the A-Class.

The controversial mouth and face of British motoring, the BBC's Jeremy Clarkson, later laughed at his colleagues for missing the biggest scoop of the decade and accused the world's motoring press of "being on the toot" while the A-Class controversy broke.

He pointed out that perhaps, just perhaps, Mercedes might be vulnerable to a mistake given that it was its first ever front-wheel-drive car. He was right.

Australian media described the A-Class as "probably the most significant car of the late 20th century" because "for the first time, [it] overcame the safety problems of small passenger cars".

At the height of the embarrassing episode, a German newspaper put a Trabant through the moose test and found that the humble 1950s-designed, Eastern European-built, wheezing two-stroke smoke machine out-performed the A-Class in the 60kmh swerve manoeuvre. The newspaper, the Thuringer Allgemeine Zeitung, published the result on the front page: "Come and get us, moose! Trabi passes A-Class killer test" it said.

In January 1998, after four months of development, Mercedes demonstrated how it had fixed the A-Class.

Former Fomula 1 champion Niki Lauda and a select group of journalists – including Robert Collin of the magazine Teknikens Varld, who prompted the controversy after rolling the A-Class in the first place – were invited to test the miniature Mercedes in a 60kmh lane-change manoeuvre on a test track near Barcelona. Predictably, they all gave it the thumbs up. Mercedes wouldn't be silly enough to make the same mistake twice.

Mercedes engineers stiffened the suspension and fitted an electronic program that slowed the car down if it was travelling too fast to safely negotiate a corner. The fix added an estimated $2000 to the cost of every car.

Mercedes went on to sell 1.1 million A-Classes around the world, exceeding initial sales expectations, even before the moose test disaster. So confident is the company that it has overcome the episode, it even sells a soft toy moose as an official accessory at dealerships in Germany.

At the Australian launch of the second-generation A-Class this week, Mercedes-Benz Australia chief Horst von Sanden admitted that the debacle almost killed the A-Class. But instead the company persevered. He likened the learning experience to the revolutionary high jump technique pioneered by sporting hero Dick Fosbury, the "Fosbury Flop".

"To begin with," said von Sanden, "people often laughed at Dick Fosbury's unorthodox high-jumping style. But he had the courage to follow his own idea and eventually it carried him to Olympic victory. "The flop became the state-of-the-art in high jumping and has now helped the best jumpers raise the bar to the 2.45 metre mark."

Mercedes believes the A-Class is revolutionising small-car safety in the same way – and has paid the price for doing so.

Now the baby Benz is back in the news, in its second incarnation – and with an even sharper price. The original A-Class made headlines for its sub-$40,000 sticker. The new A-Class has snuck under the $30,000 barrier with a price of $29,900 for the base model three-door. With more standard features than Australia's biggest selling car – the Holden Commodore – it could hardly be accused of being a pauper pack. For the record, the last time Mercedes sold a car for this price was in 1984, the 240d, when a radio was optional.

Mercedes believes the sharper price and expanded model range will bring even more new customers to the brand. It hopes to increase sales by 50 per cent annually with the new model. Almost 7000 A-Classes have been sold in Australia over the past six years, 80 per cent to customers who had never owned a Mercedes before – more than half of whom were women.

There's certainly plenty of choice. For the first time, a three-door is available as well as a five-door and, in Australia, there are four engine options: a 1.5-litre, 1.7-litre, 2.0-litre or a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, which is due at the end of the year.

While the $29,900 A150, pictured, will attract most of the spotlight, Mercedes says that the A170 and A200 will, combined, account for 70 per cent of sales of the new model, and that it expects just 10 per cent of buyers will opt for the sub-$30,000 model.

Depending on your point of view, the $30,000 A-Class is either a bargain (when the features are compared to a similarly priced Australian-made sedan) or a bit steep (when compared to other small cars). Most 1.5-litre three-door hatches from Korea and Japan cost half as much as the mini Mercedes.

Mercedes justifies the expense with the A-Class's long list of standard features and impressive safety credentials. While it has not yet been independently tested by the European New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), Mercedes is confident the new

A-Class will be the best in its class for occupant protection.

One of the keys to the original A-Class's safety credentials is the "sandwich" like construction of the floor. Essentially, in a front-end smash, the engine and other underbody components are designed to be pushed under the A-Class's floor (rather than into the cabin and potentially causing injury to legs, as is the case in conventional cars) and, therefore, underneath the vehicle's occupants. Mercedes has carried over this patented design philosophy with the new model and developed it even further.

Don't be fooled by the plastic headlights and bumpers, there is more high-strength steel in the new body than the old (up from 54 per cent of total content to 67 per cent). Despite this, the new A-Class tips the scales at approximately the same weight as the old one thanks to the extensive use of alloy. Mercedes says the new A-Class can have an accident at up to 15kmh before requiring major repairs.

With that in mind, what's a $30,000 small car – albeit one with a Mercedes badge – like to drive? Pretty good. Then again, it would want to be.

The most noticeable difference between the A-Class and other small cars – and our ever-present sedans – is the tall driving position and the better visibility that it brings. It's similar to the view from a Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V, however, the view of the road around you is much better than that of the soft-roaders, particularly the rear and the rear-three-quarter view.

The rear window has been enlarged and is much lower than that of the original A-Class, which makes reverse parking a cinch, even without electronic parking sensors that seem to be popping up (or beeping off) on an increasing number of new cars these days. The large window area makes you feel you know what's around you at any time, while the long, sweeping windscreen and open layout of the dashboard create an impression of space.

The quality of the cabin materials has taken a step up, too, particularly the seat fabrics – yes, even on the base model – and the designers have found more places for handy storage cubbies. For example, the interior door handles double as pockets for a mobile phone. The doors also have long, deep storage pockets and there is a decent-sized pocket under the radio and air-conditioning controls. A deft touch – the pocket has a rubber mat so loose articles don't slide around.

The five-door model gets a centre console with air-conditioning vents for rear passengers – believed to be a small car first. The three-door doesn't get the rear vents (presumably it's less likely to carry rear passengers) but instead it has a larger storage console.

Many of the cabin controls are from more expensive models in the Mercedes range. For example, the radio's volume dial is the same as that used in the million-dollar Maybach. Good news for A-Class customers but Maybach owners may be slightly less excited about this piece of trivia.

The best news, in Drive's opinion, is that all new A-Classes have a full-size spare wheel.

In the cabin, chrome trim around the instruments and on the numerous levers and handles ensure that there is a feeling of luxury. The seats are also a big improvement, with much better side support and comfort.

All five occupants get a three-point, lap-sash belt with an adjustable head-rest to prevent whiplash. Mercedes engineers deliberately made the head-rests on the rear seats dig into the shoulders of back-seat passengers to force them to lift them up and place them at the correct height. They rest in a low position when not in use in order to give the driver a clear rearward view.

The five-door A-Class tested had an optional folding glass roof, which was a nice touch, though an expensive option. The only blot: the blind still lets in enough sun to be annoying on a clear, hot day.

On the road, both A-Classes tested had light steering and a tight turning circle. On the open road – and Sydney's bumpity-thump inner-urban goat tracks – the ride was sharp-ish but nothing that would prompt a call to the chiropractor.

The 1.5-litre A-Class needed a few extra revs before letting the clutch out to avoid stalling but once on the move it was certainly energetic enough to get on with city life. Negotiating hills with four on board may be a bigger challenge, however. The 2.0-litre was smooth and had ample power for such a small car. It almost felt sporting; I can't wait to see how the turbo version drives when it goes on sale later this year.

Regardless of what you think about a $30,000-something small car, you're sure to see plenty of them in Sydney. More than a third of all small cars sold in Australia end up in Sydney. And almost half of all the original A-Classes sold over the past six or so years have been sold here.

Given that parking spaces are getting smaller and are increasingly difficult to find – and that Sydney isn't exactly short of people who are conscious of their image – Mercedes may have a winner on its hands.

The new line-up

A150 Classic three-door $29,900

A170 Classic three-door$34,400

A170 Classic five-door $36,900

A170 Avantgarde three-door $37,400

A170 Elegance five-door $39,400

A200 Avantgarde three-door $40,400

A200 Elegance five-door $42,900

A200 Turbo three- and five-door TBA

Automatic adds $2500 to all models except the manual-only A150.

How they compare

So, just what do you get in a Mercedes-Benz for $30,000? More than you bargained for, believe it or not.

In fact, as this comparison shows, Mercedes-Benz crams more into its most basic A-Class model than Holden fits to its biggest selling model, the Commodore Executive sedan.

Incredibly, air-conditioning is still an option on the biggest-selling car in Australia which, in case you didn't notice, is one of the hottest countries on earth. The Holden only gets two airbags, too, and no stability control, despite being vastly more powerful, with more than twice the output of the A-Class's engine.

Here's how the new three-door Mercedes-Benz A150 and Holden Commodore Executive sedan compare.

A Class A150 $29,900

1.5-litre engine (70kW)
Dual front and side airbags and curtain airbags (eight in total)
Electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes
Remote two-stage locking, with auto locking above 15kmh
CD player with six-speakers
Heated, electrically adjusted convex mirrors, both sides
Trip computer, digital speedo
Power front windows
Steering wheel audio controls
Umbrella holders for front seats
Warning triangle and first aid kit
Full-size spare wheel

Holden Commodore $33,160

3.6-litre engine (175kW)
Dual front airbags (two in total)
Anti-lock brakes
Cruise control
Remote two-stage locking
Power side mirrors, convex on passenger's side only
Trip computer, digital speedo
CD player with six-speakers
Power front windows
Steering wheel audio controls
Electric height adjustment on driver's seat
Sunglasses holder with front and rear reading lamps
Automatic headlights
Full-size spare wheel

The moose test: then and now

Drive was curious about how the A-Class would perform in the moose test, an abrupt 60kmh lane change. So we took one to Oran Park's test track and enlisted the services of Ian Luff, a race driver with 33 years' advanced driver training experience.

Luff did more than a dozen runs and passed the car with flying colours. So confident was he about the handling, he did one pass at 80kmh and it still stuck to the road.

"Believe it or not, it's sensational. The dynamics are superb, but if you over-cook it, the electronics pull it into line. With each run I got more aggressive to try to provoke it, but it felt rock solid." It lifted a rear wheel in the more aggressive attempts but Luff said this was not a concern. "A lot of front-drive cars do this and it shows how much grip the front end has; it's doing its job."

Prices and details correct at publication.