It's not like Mercedes-Benz to get left behind, but there’s no denying the Aussie branch of the world’s oldest car maker has stood idly while BMW and Audi raked in the cash, and the entry-level buyers, with their 1 Series and A1 respectively.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Benz didn’t want to climb down into the bargain basement, except that it used to have a car called the A-Class. It’s been missing from local dealerships since 2008, and was never exactly a hit.
Now it’s back, and this time it’s threatening to kick not only its traditional rivals, but poorer German cousin Volkswagen right in the teeth, with styling that’s far less like a shrunken bus and more like a hot hatch and pricing that threatens to change the Mercedes demographic forever.
Indeed, on the day Mercedes announced pricing on the A-Class, the highlight being a base sticker of $35,600, traffic on its website exploded by 400 percent.
Consider that most traditional Benz customers can remember not only the arrival of the Internet, but the phasing out of the carrier pigeon and you can see this is a whole new market being targeted – with 60 percent of A-Class buyers predicted to be new to the brand.
The range goes on sale on March 1 and due to a strange thing called an embargo, we can’t tell you what the A200 we drove was like. We can’t even tell you we quite liked it. Suffice to say that it feels like a lot of car, and badge, for the money.
So far half the inquiries in the local market have been about the AMG-engineered A250 Sport, and it’s easy to see why. Only the Sport model gets the diamond grille, a touch that was not originally part of the product plan, but was so popular on the Concept Style Coupe that it was bolted on.
The AMG fettling of the Sport model includes sportier suspension, bodykit, ditching the run-flat tyres found on the rest of the range and the addition of its own Direct Steering system.
While we’re not allowed to say it’s better than the standard car, you can pretty much bet that it is, although it still lacks the meaty, sinewy feedback of other AMG systems and, without driving them back-to-back, it also lacks some of the tactile fun of the Golf GTI this car is clearly aiming to take on.
That’s going to be a tough contest, because while Benz says its $49,990 price is line-ball with a GTI specced to the same level, we’re talking about shopping an uber prestige brand against a merely classy VW.
And the A-Class, with its red chin blade and matching interior flourishes, just about brains the GTI on looks.
But does the A250 get anywhere near the legendary loveability of the GTI?
The 2.0-litre turbo makes 155kW and 350Nm (up 70Nm on the Golf), hits 100km/h in 6.6sec, and feels quicker. Sadly, there’s no manual gearbox option, but the 7G-DCT transmission is buzzy and busy in Sport mode, encouraging a nice crackle pop on the overrun.
It will be a fairly close-run thing, but on initial feel the Benz just seems to lack that final few tenths of involvement, and joy, that the VW delivers in spades. It’s hugely capable, and probably just as quick point-to-point on a bendy bit of road, but there’s a slight mechanical feel to the experience, rather than a visceral one.
But I must reiterate, this is a Benz we’re talking about, a sub $50K one, and anyone who says that won’t influence their buying decisions is deluded.