The boardroom at Mercedes-Benz was wracked with turmoil when the German maker first considered adding a compact luxury car to its line-up. But the original Mercedes 190 was an instant success, and what is today known as the C-Class is one of the anchors of its line-up.
That meant far less debate when the company eventually decided to roll out a procession of even smaller models. If anything, the new CLA sedan and GLA crossover have become even bigger hits in the critical North American market.
Until now, however, Mercedes hasn’t been willing to also let its pint-sized A-Class model make the trans-Atlantic jump. But it appears that this reluctance is starting to vanish and American motorists may soon find another downsized offering in Mercedes showrooms.
It’s not hard to understand that reluctance with early versions of the A-Class. The original, 1997 model had an awkward stance unlikely to click with U.S. motorists, especially in an era when small cars didn’t have much traction in the market. Despite cheap fuel and the current surge in demand for utes and pickups, luxury brands have done surprisingly well with small offerings like the Mercedes CLA.
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In 2011, with the introduction of the latest generation B-Class and, one year later, the current A-Class, Mercedes-Benz was expecting to see some growth of the compact segment. “But not to the extent that it turned out to be,” said Jörg Prigl, Daimler’s vice-president Product Group Compact Cars, during the first drive event of the rejuvenated A-Class.
For 2012, Mercedes engineers focused on making the redesigned A-Class – known internally as the W176 – a sporty car, Prigl explained. “For the car’s mid-life facelift,” he added, “we decided to develop a more comfortable vehicle to attract a larger audience.”
Among other things, the 2016 Mercedes A-Class now gets adjustable dampers, allowing owners to switch between a comfortable, cruising mode, or a more sporty ride.
The newly updated A-Class still isn’t quite ready for introduction into the U.S., but hang tight, Mercedes officials suggested. The next generation, currently under development, will probably be introduced here. And rather than squeezing a U.S. version into one of the maker’s European plants, it’s likely to roll off an all-new assembly line parent Daimler AG is building in Aguas Caliente, Mexico, as part of a joint venture with the Renault/Nissan Alliance.
Currently that plant produces Nissan products, but the expanded facility will produce both Infiniti and Mercedes products. Both makers will rely on the updated small car platform developed by the Germans. The A-Class is one of five different models based on the current version of that “architecture,” a list that also includes the B-Class, the CLA coupe-like sedan, the CLA Shooting Brake – or wagon – and the GLA.
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That diversity helps justify the cost of developing a small car platform, especially as Mercedes-Benz has never sold as many cars in the compact segment. Volume jumped from 226,000 in in 2012 to more than 463,000 units last year, and the German maker expects the five models will collectively set another new record this year.
Better yet, around 66% of European A-Class buyers were new to the brand, a figure in line with what Mercedes has seen in the U.S. with its CLA and GLA models. They’re also attracting a much younger buyer than the maker’s dealers have typically seen.
What are U.S. buyers missing with the 2016 Mercedes A-Class? A more modern exterior featuring a distinctive, diamond-pattern grille, for one thing.
I drove several models, from the base A160 gasoline variant, to the 220d 4Matic, as well as the A 45 AMG 4Matic. The A160 features a 102-horsepower 1.6-liter engine paired with a 6-speed manual transmission. Considering the car’s curb weight of just over 3,000 pounds it proved to be acceptable for people who like a dynamic feel, but don’t need to be first off the traffic light when it turns green. Realistically, it would be under-powered for the U.S. market, however.
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The 2.0 -liter 4-cylinder turbo engine in the Mercedes AMG A45 4Matic would likely get more traction. It makes 375 hp with 350 pound-feet of torque, good for launching from 0-62 mph in 4.2 seconds.. At the moment, it is the hottest hatch on the European market.
While Americans will have to hope and wait for the next complete makeover to see if any version of the A-Class will reach the U.S., they soon will see that AMG engine work its way into the CLA and GLA models when they are up for their mid-cycle updates.
(Paul A. Eisenstein contributed to this report.)
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