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