TIME has truly been kind to the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. The horror of the infamous elk-test, in which a previous generation A-Class rolled over, is by now a faded memory. In fact, after its initial bad publicity, first generation A-Class clocked nearly 1,2-million sales in seven years. Good sales or not, it was a bit of a loss leader for Mercedes-Benz, something it is keen to avoid with this new version.

New A-Class sticks closely to the design and packaging formulas of its predecessor, but is claimed to be better in all aspects.

It retains the so-called “sandwich” double-floor design. The cavity between the two floors is essentially there to house some of the car’s mechanicals and, in the event of a crash, deflect the engine downwards, rather than leave it to slide straight on into the passenger compartment. Because more of the car’s drivetrain can therefore be accommodated under the floor, the A-Class maintains its predecessor’s compact appearance. However, it is 62 mm longer and 45 mm wider than the previous “Long” model. But the wheelbase, strangely, has shrunk by 25 mm. What all this means is that although the newcomer is longer, its boot space and, especially, rear legroom are both less. Mercedes-Benz claims that rear kneeroom is up by 30 mm, but we suspect this is compared with the previous short-wheelbase version. Even so, you’re unlikely to feel cramped whether you’re seated at the back or the front. Passenger elbowroom has improved by a significant 97 mm. The rear seats can fold entirely flat to extend the cargo space from 224 dm³ to 1 120. An interesting option available on the new A-Class is called Easy-Vario-Plus. This allows for the removal of the two rear backrests and headrests, as well as the entire front passenger seat, giving the car huge load-carrying ability.

It is when you’re seated in front that perhaps the new car’s biggest improvement will become obvious. Although the A-Class’s quality was improved during a substantial facelift in 2002, this new model takes it to a much higher level. High-grade plastics are used not only on the top part of the facia (as some rivals do), but also lower down. There’s a solidness and impression of real quality that was missing on the previous model.

Whereas the old ‘A’ had a wavy “youthful” facia design, the new one is more grown up and much of the switchgear comes from other Mercedes model ranges. Instrumentation is simple and attractive – four chrome-rimmed analogue dials, split by a multifunction digital read-out that is controlled via buttons on the steering wheel.

Our test unit had the optional Avantgarde trim (a R9 000 option), which adds, amongst other features, aluminium trim panels, leather/fabric upholstery combination, chrome detailing, front foglamps, projection beam headlights, different alloy wheels and side skirts.

Standard (Classic) trim is comprehensive enough (certainly so at R199 000). Included are Speedtronic cruise control, height adjustable steering column, tyre pressure sensors, radio/CD front loader, Isofix attachments in the rear seats, Thermatic air-conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, as well as electro-hydraulic power steering.

Much emphasis has been placed on safety. Features include adaptive two-stage front airbags, tensioners for the front and outer rear seatbelts, adaptive belt force limiters, and newly developed head/thorax side airbags in place of the outgoing model’s sidebags. ABS brakes with BAS are fitted, and the A-Class features Mercedes-Benz’s latest ESP stability system.

Harsh lessons, mostly about stability, were learned with the previous model. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that the new model has a significantly revised suspension system. Mercedes-Benz even says the newcomer has sporty handling. More about that later…

New A-Class has a parabolic rear axle (instead of trailing link) that, according to Mercedes-Benz, ensures more precise wheel location as well as containing body roll during cornering. Also making its debut is a new selective damping system that adjusts shock absorber forces as driving conditions change. During normal driving, the shock absorbers will be set relatively soft for a comfortable ride, but will stiffen when the driver attempts hard cornering.

Mercedes-Benz didn’t offer a diesel version of the previous generation A-Class in South Africa, so it is fitting that our first test of the new generation model should be of the A180 CDI. The nomenclature is misleading, because the displacement of the turbocharged and intercooled common-rail engine is actually 2,0 litres. The engine has four valves per cylinder, and pushes out 80 kW at 4 200 r/min and 250 N.m of torque from 1 600 to 2 600 r/min.

An important feature of the new engine is its seven-hole injection nozzle, which replaces the previous six-hole design. Each hole diameter is reduced by around 20 per cent and, as a result, the flow rate is also reduced. This means that the fuel is distributed more evenly in the cylinders and ignites more rapidly.

However, because the greater throttling effect of the smaller nozzle holes increases the injection time (not good for performance), the engineers at Mercedes have increased the injection pressure from the previous 1 350 bar to 1 600 bar, thereby shortening the injection time. As in all common-rail engines, this high injection pressure is available at all times. It is a surprisingly rough sounding engine at idle, but it spins smoothly, and quickly, to the red line.

Power is sent to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox.

Gearshifts are effortless. Because of the good low down torque, you are unlikely to stall the A180 when pulling away, but accelerator pedal modulation was initially problematic for some testers.

It is not possible to switch out the car’s traction control system, but thankfully the electronics do allow for some wheelspin to take place before cutting the power. This allowed us to get some momentum going during acceleration runs, and the resultant 11,44 seconds 0-100 km/h time is on par with the A180’s rivals. It went on to clock a top speed of 185 km/h. Of more importance to most buyers is the engine’s frugality – the fuel index figure worked out at 6,64 litres/100 km, or just over 15 km/litre. Good stuff indeed.

The brakes, too, were impressive. Ventilated discs are fitted in front and solids at the rear. They are backed by ABS and BAS. During our emergency stopping routine (100 km/h to zero, repeated ten times), the A-Class achieved an average time of 2,93 seconds with no fade or fuss. Stability was also very good during these braking manoeuvres.

To drive, the A-Class is a bit of a mixed bag. The high seating position (about 200 mm higher than a normal saloon) is loved by some, but loathed by others who don’t like the top-heavy feel it induces. And because of the vehicle’s high second floor, it does initially feel as if you are “levitating”, to quote one tester. Still, the seats are comfortable, and the driving position spot-on. The only glitch is a sliding centre armrest (optional item), which is in the way of the driver’s elbow when not needed, and poorly shaped/positioned when the driver wants to rest his/ her elbow on it.

If you look at the A-Class as compact MPV (which it essentially is), then the handling will be acceptable. But compared with regular hatches, its unique design is a negative. No matter how sophisticated the electronic systems, they can’t eradicate the feeling that the car is going to fall over under hard cornering. This sensation is made worse by steering that is both vague, and “twitchy”. Will the average buyer care? Unlikely. What is likely to be more of an issue is the car’s ride quality. On smooth roads, and especially at higher cruising speeds, there isn’t a problem, but on poor city roads the firm suspension results in a relatively bumpy ride.

Test summary

With a powerful and economical turbodiesel engine, and much improved interior quality, the AClass is better positioned than ever before to lure buyers into the Mercedes-Benz fold. Its predecessor brought three-pointed star motoring within reach of more people, but did so by appearing disappointingly cheap in some areas. There is a sense that the newcomer has been upgraded to “real” Mercedes-Benz status. Keep in mind that it is more compact luxury MPV than compact premium hatch, and you won’t be disappointed.