What's in a name? More than one idea, it seems. If you have thought of a Mercedes-Benz A-Class at all, you'll probably have in your head a small, stubby MPV with a high floor and something clever about the way the engine would be pushed under that floor in a big crash. It was a showcase of Mercedes design intelligence.
Those in tune with car design thought the A-Class very cool, if a bit crude in its detailing. The car's second generation had a similar architecture but a properly Mercedes aura of quality, refinement and finish. Trouble was, the A-Class was perceived by the buying public as not cool at all.
Youthful, trend-aware types just weren't interested. They would rather have had an Audi A3.
But the new A-Class is a completely different sort of car from its forerunners. Youthful types seeking a slightly sporty hatchback with lots of iPod interface possibilities will, it is hoped, be drawn to the new A-Class.
On to the basic hatchback form is imprinted a long snout bearing the wide grille of a Mercedes sports car, and a surprising piece of upwardly flipped sculpture along the flanks.
This draws the eye from the high base of the windscreen, the result of having to share the understructure with the taller B-Class.
All the available engines are turbocharged with direct fuel injection. The numerical naming policy no longer tells us anything about engine size, but it's enough to know that the petrol 1.6 comes with 90 or 116kW, the petrol 2.0 has 211bhp and the two diesels (1.5 and 1.8 litres) produce 81kW, with the larger engine used with the seven-speed, double-clutch automatic transmission. That engine can also be had with 136bhp and either transmission type.
Confused? I'll major on two engine/gearbox combinations: a 1.8 diesel with a manual gearbox, 101kW and an A200 CDI Sport designation; and a pair of A250 seven-speed autos. The A200, running on so-called Comfort suspension despite the Sport tag, proves smooth, quiet and lively, although big, racy wheels make the ride more fidgety than it needs to be.
The A250s, both with the quick-shifting, seven-speed, paddle-shifter automatics, gain AMG nomenclature from M-B's tuning division. The lesser version is called AMG Sport, and has firmer, lower suspension and steering whose response speeds up as you turn, making it feel keen but as though the "sportiness" is synthetic. The A250 Engineered by AMG (that is its name) reverts to the standard car's steering but with more weight to its action, and has further firmed suspension.
This A250 is a proper hot hatchback, great fun to throw around bends, crisp in its responses. Quick, too, if not quite as rapid as the mad A45 AMG with 260kW promised for 2013. So Mercedes-Benz has just made its first hot hatch. For its next trick, the fastest. Who would have expected that from an A-Class?