A-Game

Mercedes has brought its predator face to the C-segment and is devouring all before it. Is the A-Class becoming an unstoppable force?

Predator. In yellow. (c) Mercedes.com

There is a certain point in most career arcs where things begin to go somewhat awry. Sometimes it’s a blip, a momentary reversal or poorly judged decision, quickly righted. But for others, it’s a full-blown meltdown. After all, success can frequently be its own undoing. This is certainly true of Germany’s three upmarket car brands, who it can probably be safely said to have been in the throes of a full-blown stylistic mid-life crisis for some years now.

It is perhaps therefore fitting that being (arguably) the first to have lost sight of themselves, it is the house of Swabia that is showing some early signs of, if not recovery, then at least a relaxation of the creative thumbscrews. Although it is equally possible that we are simply viewing matters (a): in comparison to the even more distressing sights emerging from Munich-Milbertshoven and Ingolstadt, or (b): that we have simply become thoroughly desensitised by the iterative visual tsunami that is Sensual Purity®.

Universal truth alert : Styling sells. However, as universal truths go, it’s also a wildly subjective one. But this being so, how is it possible to justify the sales success of the first generation Mercedes A-Class? You might choose to debate this, but assuredly the most shameful confection to wear the three pointed star, this side of the W210 E-Class. Although the Vaneo makes an equally strong case. Your choice.

We should now be well used to seeing its replacement on our streets, assuming one notices it at all, such is its oddly reticent exterior appearance, in marked contrast to its Brentwood vodka lounge by night cabin ambience. But it’s perhaps a little simplistic to sneer from our lofty DTW eyrie, we must accept the fact that it clearly appeals to a large swathe of the population.

Indeed the joke really is not simply on us, but upon a sizeable proportion of the mainstream C-segment, whose lunch Mercedes has snatched and has no intention of handing back. 153,882 A-Class hatchbacks were sold last year across the European region alone*. And while this figure is unlikely to give the mighty VW group sleepless nights as yet, it certainly ought to be concentrating minds at PSA.

Why so? Because this places the Mercedes in fifth place overall within the C-segment, ahead of Peugeot’s 308 (153,651) and nipping closely at Opel’s kitten heels (158,674). Once that easily achieved metric is attained, it isn’t a colossal leap to its next prey, Ford’s embattled Focus (199,197). Of course there are reasons for the Astra’s sales drop – some of them good ones, but the fact remains that while the A-Class is probably no better wrought a product in real-world terms, market-perception is another matter entirely.

Within its own sub-segment, the A-Class not only outsold its BMW rival, but also Audi’s A3. But with both shortly due for replacement, that’s perhaps to be expected. But anyone who doesn’t view this development as an existential threat to the ‘non-premium’ C-sector is delusional. Which perhaps explains why Mazda for instance has elected to tack left with the execution of the latest 3 model – a decision which may in the fullness of time prove to have been a smart one.

We can hold our collective noses at the A’s banal appearance, but it is now clear that Daimler management were rather astute in repositioning the A-Class programme smack into the heart of the C-segment. Also commercially shrewd was to spin off a number of alternative body styles which enabled Mercedes to offer the A at different price-points to a variety of audiences.

Currently, the A-family runs as follows; A-Class hatch, B-Class MPV, CLA, GLA and the A-Class Saloon, which is predominantly aimed at China and the US, plus long-wheelbase versions of same. If one combines worldwide sales for the entire A-Class programme last year, we get a figure in the region of 409,000 vehicles, which is, in scale terms, impressive. Assuming the A-Class programme as a whole is a profitable one (and we must assume that it is), one can see why Mercedes have chosen to follow this particular path.

Fecundity is one thing however, but overkill another entirely. Offering a conventional five door hatch, three differently configured three-volume saloons (not to mention a forthcoming estate) and later this year, with the advent of the forthcoming GLB crossover CUV, two raised-height hatchbacks, Daimler appears to be taking segmentation to previously uncharted levels.

“Hey, let’s put on a show!” (c) autoblog

Shown at last week’s Shanghai motor show in Concept GLB form, what we see is a further mollification in Sensual Purity’s chisel thrust, with soft, almost pre-millennial surfaces and a decidedly upright SUV stance. Likely to be aimed primarily at the US market, where such vehicles tend to appeal and where the A-Class family has not made as much impact, its success appears as assured as the sales it’s likely to steal from its GLA stablemate.

But back to the argument on style. Can this rather curious blend of reticence and flash meet our lofty nostrums of decorum? The A-Class as currently configured might be inoffensive, but that’s about as much faint praise this correspondent can muster for the likely GLB when it makes its production debut later this year.

The A-family is such an unremarkable and most likely, ephemeral product line that such questions probably don’t matter. It’s good enough for the market for which it’s intended and will more importantly still, further justify Dr. Zetche’s sector domination strategy not to mention Mr. Wagener’s latest iteration of the Sensual Purity doctrine. So everybody’s happy.

Everyone, apart from the mainstream carmakers towards whom the Rastatt sausage factory appears to be turning its now insatiable gaze.

*Sales data: carsalesbase.com

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

18 thoughts on “A-Game”

  1. A couple of my colleagues were enthusing about the current A-Class only last week. Not as owners or drivers of one; they drive a Golf GTD and Toyota Auris. The drift seemed to be that it’s a nice Mercedes to aspire to, whereas I think that by the standard of the past it’s a rather poor Mercedes with its mournful face and drooping DLO line. The best thing it has going for it is it’s not as visually offensive as its predecessor.

    1. Good morning, John. Your last sentence hits the nail squarely on the head: the new A-Class is remarkably similar overall to the model it succeeds, but shorn of the latter’s most divisive features, notably the awkward bent crease on the door skins. It could be (but isn’t) merely a facelift.

      It’s no wonder that Mercedes-Benz have played it safe. The A-Class may be little (if at all) better than other C-segment hatchbacks, but the badge and glamorous* interior are catnip to the market. This is a rerun of the manner in which the 3-Series all but obliterated the Mondeo and Insignia. In the long run, what does this mean for the status of both BMW and Mercedes-Benz as “prestige” brands? Clearly, both companies are too busy counting their profits to worry, for now at least.

      The new GLB is, in design terms, something entirely different. It’s the first Mercedes-Benz in a long time that I really like. It’s a practical form-follows-function design that is happily free of stylistic flourishes. Once you remove the concept car addenda, there’s a clean and handsome form to appreciate:

      * “Brentwood vodka lounge by night” describes it perfectly!

  2. I have also noted how successful the latest A-Class seems to be doing. There seem to be loads of the blessed things on the roads in the UK. I think it managed to be the 3rd best seller in March too, which is remarkable.

    The styling has mellowed to my eyes somewhat and it’s certainly less harsh on the eye than its predecessor. I think it’s the glittering hi-tech look of the interior which is winning so much support, coupled with that badge. Add a Golf and A3 that are due to be replaced and it’s easy to see why MB is making so many conquest sales at present. The fact that VW has delayed the intro of the Golf suggests that someone ain’t happy with its prospects and I wonder whether the view is that the new car lacks some populist wow-factor which the A-Class’s interior certainly has (albeit if optioned in the right way). Ford decided to do something similar with the Focus when they saw what VW had done with the Golf IV (or was that just a story at the time?).

    1. And there I was, willing to bet money that Mercedes’ babo/chav/gangsta demographic would fall out of love with the new model’s more mature looks…

  3. “Brentwood vodka lounge by night cabin ambience” is an incredibly good summary of Mercedes stylistic essence in the age of Gorden Wagener! What would Bruno Sacco say about the idea of praising a 256-colour-ambient-lighting as one of the main features of a new car? I would quite like somebody to ask him!

    I have driven both recent A-class generations as rental cars. Both of them were reasonably capable cars, in terms of basic car functions. What impressed me most positively in both cases was the closer to 4 than to 5l/100 km fuel economy of the small Diesel engines.

    Other than that, the most profound impression they left was how un-Mercedes they both felt. Change the badge for a Hyundai “H” nobody would notice.

    Honest, practical and sustainable design in a Sacco-esque fashion just doesn’t seem to be Mr. Wagener’s thing, even if he’s going a bit soft on the silly creases. (The high window line and the bucket seats make the car very claustrophobic in the back. The app-icon like graphics on the instrument cluster on the old model look as dated now as the glossy bezzle screens on the new one will look in few years. To name just two examples of effect-over-function.)

    What then exactly is “the best (or nothing)” supposed to be, one is left to ponder. More ambient lighting colour choices than the competition, probably. And yes, that’s likely a good basis on which to chose which vodka lounge to go to next…

    1. Isn’t it ironic, then, that the A-class’ small diesel came from Renault?

  4. P.S.: Since it came up, a note on the W210:

    A year ago I embarked on an all-in experiment to answer the question whether a W210 could be a “true Mercedes” after all and bought an E430 T-Model (7 seater) for the price of astonishingly few iPhones. It’s a top spec Avantgarde model in 189 Emerald Black, has the pre-facelift inetrior has virtually no rust (after it has been removed time and again, probably) and is in remarkably good condition. (Exceptionally so for a W210, most of which are in a very sad state of decay…)

    Well, my preliminary answer to the question is: I think the W210 is best understood as an Americanized idea of Mercedes (especially with the V8 engine) that it is not nearly as pleasant to close the doors of as it is on any of the previous models. To me door closing feel is probably the quintessential Mercedes quality and truly, the W210, as most Mercedes built thereafter (G-class excluded, W212 a bit better), simply doesn’t deliver.

    But, coming to the W210’s defense, it has other Mercedes qualities to claw back some of its honour.

    As far as wafting about town or the Autobahn goes, my W210 is still very much on top its game. In terms of driving experience I think it compares quite positively to a current generation E-Class, thanks to the beautifully Sacco-esque interior, the adaptive dampers that are setup as a very successful compromise between comfort and handling and of course the turbo-less engine that under normal conditions doesn’t rev beyond 2 1/2 thousand rpm but is as quick as current day Golf GTI, if it has to. Also, given it’s good cosmetic condition, I think the car commands a rather Mercedes’esque appearance, somewhere between subtle and elegant. Viewed with today’s eyes anyway.

    All in all, to me it is a version of “the best or nothing” I can much easier comprehend than the current day Wagener-lineup.

  5. I think an appreciation of the qualities one associates with a “true” Mercedes-Benz are very much a function of both age and experience. Anyone old enough to have driven and (in particular) lived with the best of the Sacco-era cars (W201, W124, W126 and W140) can recall the “hewn from granite” heft and solidity of everything from the doors closing to the operation of the minor controls. It was this, rather than a multitude of “features” that used to distinguish Mercedes-Benz from lesser cars (even if the company was a pioneer in technology, particularly of the safety related variety).

    Those young enough to have grown up in the era of the PC, iPhone and iPad perceive quality in quite a different way. For them, it’s no longer about mechanical precision, engineering integrity or (especially) longevity, but rather about connectivity, interactivity and computing power. Put a typical millennial behind the wheel of a 190E and they would most probably regard it as austere and archaic. Its solidity and longevity would be regarded as anachronistic in an era where rapid advances in technology quickly make obsolete what was leading edge not long ago. Why build anything to last indefinitely, when changes in technology will quickly make it hopelessly outdated and inefficient?

    So, the trick interior lighting and large touch screens are far more relevant signifiers of quality to most A-Class buyers today. An acquaintance of mine (incidentially, more than ten years my senior) has recently bought one and is absolutely delighted with his purchase. It is, of course, his first Mercedes-Benz, so his frame of reference is entirely different to mine.

    1. These old Benzes had a very peculiar quality.
      They did nothing really good but also nothing really bad. They simply were obedient servants that needed time to grow on you.
      In the mid-Nineties I had the opportunity to drive around in a C124 320E-24 with manual five speed sports gearbox (first on a dog leg) for about half a year – surely not the 124’s finest example but an exceptionally competent car that I didn’t want initially but seriously missed when I had to hand it back some 50,000 kms later.
      Things like the air con that never needed any adjustment once I’d found my preferred temperature setting, the arms offering the seat belt, the wooden but precise steering, perfect instrumentation and vault like build quality are things I really remember with respect.
      That’s something completely gone in modern cars, not only in Benzes. Just look at a current A6’s stupid HVAC touch screens and the general slip in quality in current Audis’ interiors in comparison to a B6, C5 or D2.

    2. Most importantly for Mercedes: Who actually buys a new car these days?

      For Germany it probably goes something like this:

      (Millenials pretty much universally don’t.)

      Most new Mercedes cars in Germany are tax incentivized corporate cars chosen by the employees. A typical German Mercedes purchase/leasing decision maker is someone with a somewhat successful corporate career, pre-dominantly male, somewhere between late thirties and late fifties. Typically this is a demographic slightly less interested in the newspaper’s Feuilleton, where the merit of Bauhaus and Bruno Sacco may be celebrated, than the sports section. (Not that there was anything wrong with the sports section!)

      Was this different in the past? I suppose it was.

      For the (more important) emerging markets:

      I suppose we should forgive the first generation emerging market middle class family to have more important considerations on their mind than Dieter Rams?

      No, people want to show that they have made it! Which is indeed no small achievement.

      Also, given that in these markets cars are often bought on credit (or leased?) and people (this is very hard to comprehend for a German) have tendency to live slightly beyond their means, working hard to pay the loans back may just well correspond with an urge to indulge in the more simple pleasures of motoring. Like adjusting the interior lighting colour for example; instant gratification!

      A W201 would only start to reveal its true qualities after the first decade, when, with a little care, it would still be as good as new. Which to the leaser isn’t a concern anyway…

      Long story short: Mercedes of the past were built for the Feuilleton reading, European and North American private owner. Mercedes of today are built for the corporate leaser and emerging market credit purchaser, united by their hunger for instant gratification, a little bling bling and unmistakable status symbols. And maybe Mercedes has just been very clever to deliver exactly that. No more. No less.

      (Sorry for the long posts. I suppose the alleged demise of Mercedes-Benz is an issue very complexly intertwined with a quite central aspect of German national identity. I have been desperately trying to make sense of it all for a while now…)

    3. An insightful and eloquent analysis, Max. Wish I had written it!

  6. “the most shameful confection to wear the three pointed star”

    Now there’s a challenge:

    That Kangoo thing? The L 206 (Daimler’s ruining of a decent Hanomag née Tempo)? The re-badged Datsun Navara?

  7. I wonder how much Wagener himself had to do with this vehicle? That’s because from what I read he lives in San Diego California where he sent himself to observe how the sun there reflects off physical objects like cars. The light there is unique apparently. Yet I observe little sign that these little A Class apologies invoke the least majesty of Benz’s glorious past unlike his over-the-top convertible of several years ago that was a poor remembrance of prewar speedboats. They are cars designed in misty rainy weather, juiced by electronic frippery for easily impressed human units seduced to buy only by brand name.

    Stationed in the US between the HQ of Daimler in Germany and the vast Chinese market is either a recipe for drawing together various international design ideas or a place to induce schizophrenia, considering that Wagener is likely on an airliner to somewhere or other every other week and may not have a grounded perspective, merely a jumbled tangle of ideas from the collage of constantly changing themes flitting past his eyes. Besides, a mere A Class is beneath his stupendous talent other than to sign off for rubber-stamp approval by Daimler executives.

    Personally, I refuse outright to purchase things like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, electronic spies that learn people’s habits and voice, then re-order toilet rolls and frozen peas for the family, secondarily ensuring that you are not fomenting a revolution against the established order. MBUX is thus a non-starter with me. And it’s standard, with something as handy as a heated steering wheel for winter relegated to the pricey options list. Useless in other words, considering all the other cheap cars have it built-in these days

    As cars, are these A Class and derivatives any good? A bit beside the point these days apparently. It’s got four wheels and an engine, what more do you want? Like any old fart with a brain, I decry the way society is trending, but as zombies trundle down the sidewalk in my own little city, faces buried in smartphone oblivion, I realize Daimler has got it right. Dumb cars for dumb people seduced by brand name, not reality. If it sells, the corporate bean counters are happy, and the dulled-dowm humans who buy them give a big thumbs-up after they press Submit on their 15th FB post of the day.

    1. I feel the urge to put a more positive spin on it. But I struggle to think of one…
      In the past a Mercedes was built to last. Today a Mercedes is dressed to impress.
      And the market can barely be interpreted any other way: that’s just what people want.

      My hope nonetheless: I think eventually people will grow tired of all the shiny bling bling.
      And suddenly, before we know it, simple and honest quality will be en vogue again. A-men.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.