Sportier A class is key to Mercedes growth goal
Coupe-styled sedan slated for U.S. launch in 2014
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- Mercedes-Benz has given its new A class a sportier, and more conventional, design that amounts to an abandonment of the outgoing model's quirky one-box styling.
The new five-door hatchback is 160mm (6.3 inches) lower than the previous A class launched in 1997. Mercedes hopes the change will win more customers in the premium compact segment, which is dominated by the Audi A3 and BMW 1 series.
The A-class hatchback will arrive in European showrooms in September and will launch in China next year. A four-door sedan with coupe styling called the CLA will go on sale in the United States in late 2013.
The A class is based on a new architecture called MFA (Mercedes Front Wheel Architecture) that eventually will underpin five variants. One, the B class, already is on sale.
In addition, Mercedes also plans a small crossover and a yet-to-be-confirmed cabrio.
The variety of body styles will expand the car's appeal, while the shared components will allow Mercedes to make a profit on the model, said Jorg Prigl, Daimler's vice president of compact cars.
"The A class and the B class share some 80 percent of their parts, but most of them are not seen by the customer," Prigl said at the car's press launch here.
The five-passenger A class has a conventional exterior and the interior's fit-and-finish is likewise reassuring. The center-mounted infotainment screen adds a touch of modernity, and Mercedes has gotten rid of old-fashioned wood trim that it has used in the past.
Cabin space is average for the segment, but it offers more legroom than the 1 series, with less tunnel intrusion on the floor of the rear passenger area than the rear-wheel drive BMW.
But visibility is hindered by the small rear window and large C pillars, while the trunk is marginally less roomy than those of rival models.
Mercedes will offer three optional styling packages: Urban, Style and AMG Sport.
Buyers will have a choice of three four-cylinder gasoline engines with a displacement of 1.6 or 2.0 liters. Each will feature direct injection and turbochargers, with output of 122 hp, 156 hp and 211 hp, respectively.
Diesel enthusiasts will have a choice of three engines, with displacements of 1.8 liters and 2.2 liters. The diesels are rated at 109 hp, 136hp and 170 hp, respectively.
All six engines will feature start-stop technology, and each will be mated to a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual clutch automatic.
The Mercedes-designed dual-clutch transmission isn't as sporty as the gearboxes used by BMW and Audi. But its independent suspension deserves praise for minimizing body roll and responsive handling through curves.
Mercedes is expecting strong demand for the A class, with 50 percent of buyers newcomers to the brand. The company expects sales of premium compact cars to grow by more than 4 million units in the next 10 years, with growth outperforming the market in China and Eastern Europe.
Mercedes wants a handsome chunk of that pie to help achieve its aim of replacing BMW as the world's biggest luxury brand by 2020.
The A class is built at the automaker's Rastatt, Germany, factory, and in a new plant in Hungary. Mercedes has also contracted Finland's Valmet Automotive to build more than 100,000 units from 2013 through 2016.
The bottom line: Mercedes has abandoned the minivan-like styling of the A class, which perhaps was a little too distinctive for buyers.
The end result is a car that will look more at home in a Mercedes showroom.
Target buyers: 25 to 40 years old, solid income and stable lives; 50% male
New technology: Camtronic system improves fuel economy by 10%; cockpit features complete iPhone integration
What's good: Sporty handling, collision avoidance system, broad engine range, emotional design
What's bad: dual-clutch gearbox has some hiccups, average trunk, poor rear visibility
Launch date: September
Base price: 24,000 euros in Germany ($29,690) for the A180
Platform: MFA (Front-wheel drive compact)
Where built: Rastatt, Germany; Kecskemet, Hungary; Uusikaupunki, Finland
Main rivals: BMW 1 series, VW Golf, Audi A3
You can reach Joaquim Oliveira at email@example.com.