Would the Mercedes-Benz A-class have played well in America, one wonders? The entry-level Mercedes is a brilliant technical concept, with a sandwich floor that allows the fuel tank and spare wheel to sit under the passenger floor and that also swallows the engine in a frontal impact. But the desire to sell more cars sits, to me, uneasily, with the luster of the three-pointed star. In short, Mercedes has been devaluing one of the most respected hallmarks in the world in a Faustian swap for market share.
The A-class itself is actually pretty good, if you want a really roomy small car that has fabulous resale and don't care too much about sporty driving. I drove a 170CDI LWB Elegance which, translated, is the 1.7-liter, 94-horsepower, four-cylinder common-rail direct-injection turbodiesel in a lengthened frame, with the most uplevel trim package. (The LWB, for long wheelbase, is 6.7 inches longer than the regular A-class.) In the UK, it's a $22,000 proposition, without the UK's sales tax. That's a lot of money for a small car which has good, if hardly scintillating, performance.
Inside, the car suffers more than any Mercedes from cheap componentry, which seems out of keeping with the brand, if not the price. The LWB version seems almost as big as an S-class, and the rear seats move forward, allowing the futuristic-looking device to swallow almost as much luggage as the Mercedes top liner. This thing has more legroom in back than almost anything this side of a full-blown luxury car, which is a remarkable achievement. Women, I am sure, would appreciate the lofty driving position, which is on par with a small sport-utility's.
The A-class drives quite nicely, although changes made to the suspension after the infamous Moose testwhen a Swedish car magazine rolled one during its accident-avoidance maneuvermake for a firm and slightly choppy ride. The steering is fine, but it ultimately handles like a big, top-heavy, front-wheel-drive machine. Which is to say, it will understeer at whim. The engine is, like all good modern European turbodiesels, a revelation to anyone here who considers them smelly, slow, and noisy. On the contrary, they are quite fast, quiet at highway speeds, and return excellent gas mileage. (The A170 will reach 113 mph and return 48 mpg on the European combined cycle.)
Whether the A-class is a good vehicle or notand for most people, it actually is, particularly if they live in a big cityI don't think it would have made sense here. It's pricey for a small car, and Mercedes doesn't need anything else to diminish the brightness of its star. Even if it had another badge on the front, the market for upscale small cars is limited, as BMW has shown by setting its Mini Cooper sales target at a lowly 20,000 vehicles a year.