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Alongside the 24 hours of Le Mans, Indy 500, Formula 1 at Monaco and the Dakar, the Rally of the Thousand Lakes is a must-do on any motorsport enthusiast’s bucket list. Watching a rally in Finland is nothing short of epic; participating, I can only imagine, must be the petrolhead’s version of dying and going to heaven.
Here in Pune we have one lake. And the road around it is now completely tarmac. But close one eye, plant your foot firmly on the accelerator pedal and you could imagine yourself on a rally stage; car getting light over the many blind crests, co-driver measuring out pace notes, drops threatening to convert a sedan into a hatchback and the scenery, particularly in the monsoons, being totally mesmerising. It’s our playground, a road with practically no traffic, brilliant of surface and used whenever our rally cars need to be set up for a tarmac event. We even planned to hold a rally here – the One Lake of Pune Rally – but were thwarted by logistics. It is where the Mercedes A-Class has just slapped a wide smile on my face. Usually you wouldn’t take a Merc out on a Sunday morning drive, particularly one over a demanding and unforgiving road, a road where the bumps can be vicious and in the most awkward of places. A road, now that it is wet, needs to be treated with a healthy dose of respect. Yet this is no ordinary Merc. Heck, this is the most un-Mercedes-like Mercedes you’d ever encounter. It’s even called… Sport!
Welcome to a new world order where a hatchback costs nearly thirty lakh rupees and yet finds buyers. It’s a segment few in our price sensitive market would have seen coming, a segment even fewer would have expected the most conservative of the German big three to dip their toes into first. Yet the maker of cars for “uncles and fathers” has not only birthed the new compact luxury segment but claims it to be sold out and is clamouring for more allocations from the parent. Say hello to the ground-breaking Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
It definitely doesn’t look like a car for somebody’s uncle or father. This is young, dynamic and deserving of the adjective ‘stunning’. It is unmistakably Mercedes but whereas its competitors have resorted to a painfully same-same design language across their model ranges, the A-Class retains its own distinct identity. The wide silver-finish grille has a nice mechanical look and feel to it and with the three-pointed star set front and centre it immediately conveys sporty intent. The positioning of the LEDs in the headlamps too is becoming somewhat of a Mercedes signature and that’s a positive thing. Overall proportions are compact, sporty, muscular and in this shade of red sure to command double takes. Step in and it feels like a proper Mercedes, such are the refinement and quality levels. Perched low and snug in the sporty seat the driver is faced with a lovely sporty steering wheel with perforations at the ten-to-three grips. Goodbye wood-trimmed steering wheels!
This is an interior to appeal to the iPad generation, so much so that the central information display is sized and shaped exactly like an iPad. Measuring seven inches this is a high-resolution screen complete with a full (and rather good) navigation system and the COMAND control system is pretty easy to use enabling quick and simple pairing with my phone and music player. The rotary vents evoke the SLS AMG while soft-touch plastics and plush leathers leave you in no doubt that this is an expensive car (which it is – we will come to that later).
Get going and that expensive car feel continues in the well-suppressed NVH levels and suspension refinement. The real party trick though is that the A-Class lives up to the ‘Sport’ suffix in its name. Although with the drive selector in Eco mode, it can feel a tad sluggish, throttle response sharpens up dramatically in Sport mode and allied to the turbo-charged petrol engine the A180 does get a move on. Turn-in is crisp, steering feedback is rather good (Mercedes tends to do this very well, even on the comfort-oriented E-Class) and mid-corner grip is absolutely first-rate. The chassis is well balanced and you can throw the car hard and fast into corners, over blind crests that fill this rally stage, and even lean on the brakes hard and late without the car losing shape. There are discs on all four corners and very good feel through the pedal, not to mention excellent retardation.
As we make rapid progress, the lake shimmering to my right as the sun peeps through the clouds, a wide smile spreads across my face. In my head I can almost hear my co-driver measuring out pace notes though in reality it is our photographer Gaurav asking if I’ve gone nuts. Little does he know that I remember this stage quite vividly and thus can commit aggressively to blind corners. Along with memory you do need a capable car though and the A-Class is more than up to the task, Sport mode slackening the ESP cradle allowing a bit of wheelspin so I can get on the throttle a tad earlier and play around.
That said there are limitations. This is a front-wheel-drive car and you are never going to get the tail to swing out and power oversteer like the 1 Series will permit in wet or damp conditions. And then there’s the engine which disappoints me the most. It might be badged A180 but under the hood is a 1.6-litre four-cylinder direct-injection turbo-petrol; the same basic set-up as engines running in World Rally Cars, you might be excited to hear. What will not excite you is 122bhp of power and 200Nm of torque. Allied to a 1395kg kerb weight you’re looking at a 87bhp/tonne power-to-weight figure and a rather laidback 0-100kmph time of 9.2 seconds. Thanks to the very nature of turbo-charging there is good low-end grunt and the engine has urgency and potency when you floor it but outright flat-out performance is not her forte. Blasting from corner to corner on the short straights, particularly when it is uphill, is tackled with ease; building up speed on the longer straights throws up the limitations of the engine. Doubly frustrating then considering the chassis seems well up to the task of handling more power. At least it is mated to a seven-speed twin-clutch automatic gearbox that is definitely quicker to react than the conventional auto box and responds with enthusiasm to taps on the steering wheel paddles. It even blips the throttle on downshifts for some aural excitement though come to think of it would have been really nice if Sport mode also allowed the exhaust note to rise by a decibel or two.
I wish this were the end of my critical comments but I do have to highlight the most un-Mercedes-like aspect of the A-Class and that is the ride quality. While the 17-inch rims undoubtedly look great they mean lower 45-profile tyres and a most un-Mercedes ride that is far too firm for our roads. Less than perfect surfaces has the A-Class jiggling and jolting occupants and it can get particularly uncomfortable for rear seat passengers who won’t be particularly happy having been squeezed in at the back in the first place. The tight door aperture makes getting in at the back a bit of a squeeze, space isn’t lavish, the seat back angle too upright and head room just about acceptable. The panoramic sunroof lets in some welcome air into the otherwise overwhelmingly black cabin – sporty for those up front, claustrophobic at the rear. Even the boot space is compromised by the (space-saver) spare tyre strapped in and thus eating into usable space. All criticisms I would never have imagined levelling at a Mercedes.
But then again this is no ordinary Mercedes, a Merc that you’d jump into the back seat and be chauffeured to work in. This is a Merc you’d want to drive, aim it at your favourite road on a weekend, and have a bit of fun. This is a happy car. This is also an expensive car.It might be the perfect size for a city car but at twenty-two lakh rupees (ex-showroom Mumbai) it stops short of being a car that you can treat with the carefree abandon that a city run-about deserves. The A-Class, heck this entire compact luxury segment, is rife with seemingly endless contradictions – contradictions that get blown into the wind as the sky opens up, the mist lifts over the lake, the road glistens its meandering way up into the hills and I smile as the flying finish comes into sight.
Engine In- line, 4-cyl, 1595cc
Transmission 7-speed DCT
Power 122bhp @ 5000rpm
Torque 200Nm @ 1250-4000rpm
0-100kmph 9.2 seconds
Top speed 202kmph