2005 Mercedes-Benz A-Class

    When it debuted seven years ago, the A-class should have been feted for taking a radical new look at how passenger cars were designed: Instead, Mercedes suffered a huge public embarrassment because the A-class failed a Swedish magazine's collision avoidance procedure-the elk test-causing an expensive and time consuming chassis rethink.

    For the second generation A-class, Mercedes has persisted with the car's sandwich construction where the engine and transmission go into a space beneath the occupants in the event of a frontal collision. As well as being a safety feature, the construction allows for a really roomy interior for a car with such a small footprint.

    Essentially, although the new A-class is bigger-nearly 10 inches longer and two inches wider than the outgoing model-it looks similar to the old car, but benefits from a lot of major chassis re-engineering, including adaptive damping and a new rear suspension. Power has been increased, too, from the base 95 hp 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine to a range topping 2.0-liter turbo four that makes 193 hp. There are four gasoline engines and three diesels, mated to five- and six-speed manual and continuously variable transmissions.

    Inside, the A-class offers more space, whether in three- or five-door forms. More importantly, the interior looks a whole lot classier than the outgoing car's, which never really looked as upscale as it should have done.

    The new A-class is a honed version of the existing vehicle, but that's no bad thing: the car offers a tremendous amount of interior room in such a small package and a distinct driving experience. And while its unique construction may not have been adopted by anyone else, it makes a lot of sense for a hybrid.