Class Act

Still waters run shallow.

A-Class Saloon
(c) autoexpress

The ideological direction change enacted by Mercedes-Benz for the 2012 W176 A-Class not only precipitated the dying gasp of the German marque’s engineering-led ethos, but went on to vindicate its adoption by becoming a huge commercial success for the carmaker.

This much we know, but the scope and reach to which Mercedes has developed its successor gives eloquent voice of its ongoing significance to the three pointed star. Since its spring 2018 launch, the newest A-Class in five door format can be said to be a perplexing device, in visual terms at least. While its predecessor was notable for a highly expressive, overstyled appearance, the current iteration appears by contrast, demure to the point of near-invisibility.

Mercedes-Benz stylists, within the constantly shifting tectonic plates of their trademark Sensual Purity design principle, have already decreed that the previous voluptuous surfacing is terminally passé, and that a new, calmer rationale is currently en vogue. What is apparent however, is that the A-Class has not necessarily benefited from this creative U-turn in the manner some observers might have predicted – or indeed wished for.

Which brings us to the latest derivation of the increasingly fecund A-Class family, the V177 A-Class Saloon – not to be confused with the as-yet forthcoming, CLA-badged four-door, which seems set to take product planning to farcical levels of needless complexity. The three volume A-Class has been added to the product plan to cater to the United States and Chinese markets, where hatchbacks are allegedly akin to the plague – even with the talismanic three pointed star affixed.

Earlier this week, Autocar’s German correspondent, Greg Kable reported upon his driving impressions of the vehicle, which is now available in mainland Europe, but won’t trouble UK roads until early next year. Kable draws comparisons with Mercedes’ W201 (190) series, suggesting the V177 is some form of spiritual successor, which I suppose it is, if you’ve lived your entire life in aspic.

By way of reminder. The eternal 190E  (c) carsguide.au

Drawing comparisons with one of the marque’s technical and creative monoliths does not paint the newest edition in the most flattering of lights, although in mitigation – Mercedes being Mercedes, it is likely that when W201 was being instigated, just about every mechanical layout was investigated and prototypes built. That is simply how they used to go about things at Sindelfingen.

This being so, the idea of a front-drive layout wasn’t inconceivable, the likelihood being that it was felt the more traditional layout would allow for more economies of scale on the hardware side and was less likely to alienate traditional Mercedes customers.

But we are not in Kansas any more – or whatever its Baden Württemburg equivalent might happen to be. The issue with V177 has little to do with its adoption of front wheel drive. Its problems lie simultaneously deeper and shallower than that.

While the A-Class hatch’s looks are nondescript to the point of banality, the saloon at least offers an improvement in basic proportions, suggesting (to these eyes) that the design was optimised for the three-volume car over the hatch. It’s damning with faint praise really, because while the saloon might be slightly better resolved, it’s still no paragon. Like W177, it lacks definition and conviction but above all, integrity. In fact, like its five-door sibling, without the badging, one would be at a loss to determine what it was.

While we’re on the subject of comparison, dimensionally the V177 adds a good 130 mm to the hatch’s length, meaning the resultant car is significantly longer, wider and taller than the 190E – a matter which if anything, simply further emphasises Sindelfingen’s engineers’ achievement with the latter machine a good thirty five years ago.

a-class
(c) evo

But in today’s reality, relics like the W201 are about as relevant to the three pointed star as the current contents of Mr. Wagener’s sock cupboard. But a careful reading of Autocar’s review suggests a thoroughly mediocre car, which neither performs or cossets particularly well, enlivened by a sci-fi bells and whistles interior, some go-faster external addenda, the requisite oversized wheels and that eternal, forgiveness is all star.

But no matter. This is neither a car, nor indeed a Mercedes for the ages. Daimler AG are not in that business anymore, so this one will do quite nicely for now. At least until something else comes along.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

21 thoughts on “Class Act”

  1. The sheer scope of the Mercedes range is bewildering. It has the effect of making one not really care what car one might be choosing so long as it is about the right price and about the right size. After that the customer may have quite personal requirements such the sun-roof option, electric seats or heated steering wheel (it´s a random list) to guide their selection. The Mercedes-ness becomes incidental. I used to believe that the amount of value in a Mercedes was not proportional to its price. So, if you spent 30,000 euro on a Mercedes you got more than if 30,000 euros were spent on an Opel, Ford or Peugeot. That´s not the case now. A 15,000 euro Mercedes Benz is as good and no better overall than 15000 euros spent on any other marque. Quite soon very few people will remember the cars of the late 80s and will wonder why M-B is supposed to be special. The car under discussion here today is very plainly just another car in a way the Renault Talisman or Volvo S40, for example, are not.

  2. You hit the nail on its head by describing this latest A Class derivative as a ‘thoroughly mediocre car, which neither performs or cossets particularly well, enlivened by a sci-fi bells and whistles interior, some go-faster external addenda, the requisite oversized wheels and that eternal, forgiveness is all star’.

    It seems that, in today’s market, ‘technological advances’ translates as ‘infotainment’, ‘touch screens’ and ‘virtual cockpits/ dashboards’. This is saddening to an old saddo like me (I like my tech to count in the driving or packaging departments), but reflective of the Apple/ Samsung/ Google penetrated world in which we live. Car manufacturers are increasingly trying to get owners or driver to command their car with ‘smart-speaker’ or ‘smart-assistant’ like ‘Hey Mercedes/ Renault/ insert brand name here’ voice-interface.

    It seems to me that, EV efforts (which most manufacturers seem to be making an inordinately big meal of fulfilling) and autonomous driving aides aside (why is everyone so excited about this as an advance? Is the human race in such a hurry to make its role redundant in this world), technological advances in car engineering seem to have ceased because consumers do not see the benefit in them. Instead, there is this facade of progress in the veneer of cabin-tech.

    Yes, I’m definitely becoming an old saddo.

    1. When did we reach peak mechanical engineering? Or is it that if you look in the product descriptions there is detail on engineering developments that marketing departments choose to ignore?

    2. Richard, fair point – the public gets what it wants/ deserves in that respect. Mazda (for one, and I notice it because it’s a marque I admire) does still seem to make a thing of engineering refinements in its marketing.

      But, doesn’t the industry, especially the more profitable players in it, have a duty to progress the ‘product’ in ways in which are important for the long term health of the industry, but which aren’t necessarily on the consumer’s agenda?

  3. Bloated. Isn´t the car bloated-looking? The rear bumper is a mess of apertures. Almost every other car in this price range is more attractive – and that Mercedes will sell a lot of these indicates Mercedes is the brand for people who don´t care much about cars, a kind of modern and European Chevrolet.

  4. For all the superficial glamour of their interiors, which now rival or exceed Audi in terms of showroom appeal, there is a depressing expediency and cynicism to both the design and engineering of the current Mercedes-Benz range. Eóin nailed it in the last paragraph of his piece above. I would expand it thus:

    “Merely OK will do, because our new, younger customers will be so delighted by all the bells and whistles that they will fail to note the mediocrity of the underlying engineering or carelessness in the design. Those that remember what the company used to stand for are a declining group and, anyway, they expected our cars to last for ages, so didn’t change them frequently enough to be of any real importance or interest to us.”

    I experienced this attitude when my R170 SLK reached the end of its lease period and, rather than trade it in against another, I bought it outright. The car had been rather unreliable, but the after sales service had at least been pretty attentive and sorted out the problems under warranty. As soon as it became obvious to the company that I wasn’t playing the PCP game, they completely lost interest. A goodwill claim for a crankshaft sensor that failed after 28,000 miles was met with a flat rejection.

    Autocar’s verdict on the new A-class listed its demerits as a coarse engine, hesitant transmission and a choppy ride, and yet still they awarded it four stars. Is a magazine purportedly aimed at those who are interested in cars as machines for driving, rather than mere consumer goods, so easily dazzled by the car’s interior, the only area where it really excels? One can’t help wondering what they would have awarded the car if it had carried a Peugeot or Kia badge? Perhaps Mercedes-Benz’s advertising spend is too precious to risk on an adverse verdict?

    Every time I look at Eóin’s first picture above, my eyes are drawn to the truly awful bonnet shut line. It looks like if was slapped on as an afterthought and no attempt has been made to integrate it into the overall design. Duff details like this are even more apparent now that the company has abandoned the wanton use of random slashes and creases in its designs. Likewise the front wing to bumper seam that is misaligned above and below the headlamp, a detail that Richard described wittily as “Good from afar, but far from good”.

    Finally, to S.V., welcome to the club!

    1. Two: I stole the “good from afar but far from good” from Mr Stephen Bayley. One: the bonnet shutline on its own suggests and entirely different kind of design, something really functiionalist like a Wartburg Knight. Three: to be fair, here I would guess some very severe regulations are now in force.

  5. Richard, GM somehow forgot the ideas in A. P. Sloan’s book My years with General Motors. Mercedes and, perhaps, BMW, seem to be applying them.

  6. Richard, I’m afraid I’m disinclined to accept that safety regulations can excuse that bonnet. Audi is subject to exactly the same regulations and can integrate the bonnet shutlines beautifully into the design:

    As to pure functionalism, even the Wartburg Knight makes a much better job of integrating the bonnet (and boot) shutlines into the design:

    Time for my tranquilizers…

  7. Agreed about the 353/Knight. The estate version was almost handsome:

    I think Wartburg may have found inspiration from across the border. The Neue Class BMW was launched four years earlier, in 1962:

    1. I found this image (lower left) in a book of Langweilige Postkarten – The 353 looks very Neue Klasse:

      The Wartburg’s horizontal tail-light clusters are probably coincidence rather than quick work or a pre-cog of the late ’65 2000 – previous smaller engined Neue Klassen had vertical clusters. They appear on this round headlamped prototype sat serenely by the Horsel:

  8. Both Mercedes and BMW are perplexing companies to me. Both introduced brand new DI 2.0t 4 cylinder petrol engines around 2012. The M270 for Mercedes, the N20 for BMW.

    Fast forward a mere four years, and BMW binned the N20 and introduced the B47/8, while Mercedes are binning the M270, replacing it with the M260 as we speak.

    Mercedes, in conjunction with Renault-Nissan who paid the actual bills, built a factory in Tennessee on Nissan’s back lot to make the M270 back in 2013. The engine is supplied to Mercedes for all the C Class saloons they turn out in Alabama, and Nissan/ Infiniti for use in their Q30/QX30 crossovers.

    Then Mercedes, in conjunction with Nissan/Renault, built a giant new factory in Aguascalientes, Mexico – they apparently have separate production lines but a common roof. This is where at least some of these new A Class saloons are coming from, apparently with a detuned M260 at 188 bhp compared to the M270 at 208 bhp in the old CLA. An uprated M260 will no doubt plop into the C Class. Or will they try to fool Americans with the same old M270 rated at 241 bhp made by Nissan?

    If you’re not confused by now, imagine how Nissan must feel. They invested in an engine plant to churn out 200,000 per annum M270 variants four or five years ago, and now Mercedes has a brand new engine of nominally similar spec. I can find no information as to whether Nissan Tennessee is re-equipping to build the new M260 ( which is two-thirds of the new M256 inline 6). If they are, no doubt Ghosn and the boys are wondering at the waste of making an engine that lasted only five years – their general modus operandi is to fiddle with a basic engine for two decades and get it right.

    But Mercedes, with the attention span of a gnat and the need to fill every niche with some damn thing or another accompanied by announcements of grand bloviation, has upset the Nissan invstment applecart. I’m sure they’re delighted.

    All right, well, Canada is getting the A Class hatch and saloon, the Americans only the Mexican-made saloon. So we’ll get German or Hungarian made hatches. They’d better be good, better than the very nasty CLA of which I drove both FWD and AWD versions, but throwing away 20 hp in this market by using the new M260 engines seems a false economy. Frankly, it is recent immigrants who keep the lesser Mercedes cheapos selling, perhaps because of reputation back home. We already have the utter dud of the Brudack-cycle VW petrol 2.0t in the Tiguan, A3 and new Q3. Hell, the 1.5t Honda turbo eats that one for a snack in refinement, power and especially frugality, and it gives away 500cc!

    What are the Germans up to? Beats me. They cannot even give you remote start, citing German green laws. At -20C, a stiff wind and snow, I couldn’t give a rat’s a*se about German sensibilities. Everyone else offers the option – Honda has it standard.

    I’ll probably drive this new A Class to see if it’s any good, but frankly I know it’ll be overpriced. A CLA FWD with no options whatsover and leatherette seats costs Cdn $42K before taxes, and it’s a noisy rough-riding little drone with a clackety DCT. That’s the same price as a Honda Accord with every single option – a vehicle that beats the CLA in every metric including fuel economy. Some people just want a badge before value.

  9. Excellent stuff there, Bill. And everyone else connected with this post for that matter.
    To me it really does seem to be generational and also huge snob value these days with the star. Ask an older member of society (or a younger one with taste) and they’ll rattle on about the engineering an lasting impact of an older Mercedes. These days, if it can’t do Mach 3 and be able to shuffle your playlist at that speed, it’s not worth sitting in.

    1. Back in the good olden days of yore, Mercedes´ cachet depended on the fact they were stunningly well-made and horribly expensive. This was the time when a flight to London from Dublin cost a week´s wages. These days that just isn´t true about most MB cars – their price range is deep into mass market territory. The care are very far from uncommon. How long can the snob appeal last?

  10. How long can the snob appeal last? Good question, and difficult to answer. As H.L. Mencken said: “No one in this world…has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” To prove his point, A-Class customers seem to be happy to pay a premium of roughly £8k for a Renault Megane in a different (and certainly not smarter) suit. It’s not as though the Megane is an especially good starting point, rated by Autocar as a distinctly average three stars.

    The halo effect of the S-Class is still strong, moreso since the mainstream makers abandoned the large saloon market and lost any aspirational status they previously enjoyed.

  11. Right on cue, Mercedes-Benz is just about to launch this, the new, second generation B-Class MPV :

    MPVs are never the most exciting vehicles, but this must have taken all of 20 minutes for the design department apprentice to knock up. Its engineering highlight is, apparently, torsion beam rear suspension, which replaces the multi-link independent setup on the current model, “to increase boot space” (and, no doubt, profits).

  12. Surprised they bothered to build a new B Class, MPVs not being the thing of late. It’s not even looking that promising either, even accounting for the disguise. Reminds me of a bloated (good word Richard) FIAT Croma, not the Typo Quatro version, the slightly odd fastback/ estate thing that came out after that. Form a orderly queue somewhere over there.

    1. Well spotted, S.V. I thought that shape looked vaguely familiar:

      Oops, sorry wrong picture:

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