With A-class, Mercedes offers luxury in compact form

Mercedes has launched its most affordable model in India — the A-class. With this car, the carmaker has focused on owner-drivers as opposed to its traditional approach of catering to those who are chauffeured around.

The styling is Merc’s conscious attempt to appeal to a younger set of people. The in-your-face grille with its 302 diamond-shaped bits, the flared headlamps, and the bold cuts and slashes that run along the side of the car point to a youthful, fresh design that’s far removed from the stately Mercs of old.

The new A-class has a steel monocoque suspended by an all-independent MacPherson-strut layout up front and a multi-link setup at the rear. The 1.6-litre turbocharged, direct-injection petrol engine sits transversely in the nose and drives the front wheels via a seven-speed, twin-clutch transmission.

For a hatch, it’s rather large. It’s 4292mm long, 1780mm wide and 1433mm tall. The rear seats are more spacious than you imagine. It’s just that headroom is tight and the small windows and black insides add to the cooped up feeling at the back.

The cabin is thoroughly modernand you won’t find a single bit of cheap plastic anywhere. There’s a nice youthful air about it, especially with the SLS AMG-style triple air-con vents, the standalone tablet-like screen-based driver interface, the sculpted steering wheel and the chequered-effect dials. The single-piece front seats are superbly snug, and every knob, switch and stalk works with a precisely measured sense of tactility. Even the driving position is fantastic, despite the slightly offset pedals.

There are a couple of issues though — it’s not the easiest hatchback to drive in traffic thanks to the steeply raked windscreen and small rear window limiting your visibility. There’s a decent amount of kit — our test car had Bluetooth connectivity, seven airbags, ESP, bi-xenon lamps and USB and iPod connectivity. Even the massive panoramic sunroof that stretches beyond the B-pillar is part of the standard equipment list on the petrol version.

As for the boot, its 341-litre capacity is reasonably big by hatchback standards. The A 180’s engine is probably the weakest link in the package. The 1595cc, four-cylinder, turbo-petrol motor makes 122bhp and 20.4kgm of torque, and these figures seem quite paltry when you consider the A 180’s 1375kg kerb weight. However, it’s quiet at idle and, at cruising speeds, has a reasonably strong mid-range and pulls well to its redline too.

The engine only starts pulling enthusiastically once it’s spinning closer to around 2500rpm. From here on, there’s good grunt and the A-class will propel itself to a top speed of 202kph, the seven-speed gearbox snapping smartly through the gears. Driven flat out, 100kph from a standstill comes up in 9.76sec, which is reasonably quick but this motor doesn’t have that creamy smoothness usually associated with Mercs.

The seven-speed double-clutch gearbox is pretty obedient and allows you quite a bit of freedom when downshifting at high speeds. The electrically-assisted steering may not be the most feelsome around, but it makes up by being quick to react and weighing up properly at speed. What also lets you really push the car hard are the phenomenal brakes, which are fantastic on feel and stopping power. What we didn’t like, though, was that it doesn’t have the tomb-like insulation that bigger Mercs have – we did notice a fair bit of road noise entering the cabin at speed.

Though car buyers in India may find the A-class far too expensive for its size, it’s a car that’s got almost everything we like about big Mercs — solid build, high-quality interiors and a decent ride, all with a huge dose of youthfulness.