Psychologists don’t call this limited-horizon thinking “Nissan Almera syndrome”. But they should. The Almera was just some car. White goods you bought by the pound or the foot. It did nothing badly, but it did nothing well, either. It was for people who saw no need to eat fancy food or to holiday outside Britain. It was a bucket of beige, a non-car for those frightened of the exotic.
Of course, it was not alone. There was also the Toyota Corolla. A fridge with windscreen wipers. A car for people who daren’t look at the sunset lest they become aroused. Chicken korma people.
Happily today in Britain both the Almera and the Corolla are gone, buried with the ghosts of Terry and June in a cemetery on a bypass, under a perpetually grey sky, beneath a headstone that no one will ever visit. We’ve moved on. We all want Range Rover Evoques these days. Or mini MPVs or maybe a swashbuckling coupé. The meat-and-potato hatchback is dead.
Except it isn’t. It’s lower than it used to be and more sleek. It’s replete with styling details to arouse the curiosity. It’s no longer the girl from down the street. It’s an internet bride, a brogue with scarlet laces. The Ford Escort has become the Focus, all independent rear suspension and tricksy diff. The Vauxhall Astra has stepped out of its mackintosh and slipped into a pair of open-crotch panties. Even the new Volkswagen Golf looks as if it knows where Tate Modern is.
And now we get to the Mercedes A-class, the latest frumpy-dumpy hatch to have been force-fed a diet of vodka and Red Bull. The original had two floors, one a few inches above the other. With straight faces, Merc’s engineers explained that in the event of a crash, the engine would slide into the gap and thus would not turn the occupants into paste. And I don’t doubt this was true.
So why does the new car not have such a feature? If it was such a bonzer idea, why drop it? Could it, I wonder — a bit rhetorically — have something to do with the fact that the real reason the original had two floors is that it had been conceived as an electric car and needed somewhere to store the battery?
Happily Mercedes has now realised electric cars have no future and, as a result, one floor is enough. It has also realised that it can’t just sell a packing case with wheels any more. Today we live in a skinny latte world and instant coffee won’t do. A hatchback, therefore, has to have some zing.
So the new A-class has all sorts of styling creases down the flanks, a titchy rear window and a massive bulbous nose with the grille from what appears to be a truck stuck on the front. It now looks like the sort of car they might have used on the moon base in Space 1999. And I tested the 250 AMG version, which has massive wheels as well. I want to tell you it looked a bit silly, a bit garish, a bit overstyled. But I can’t because, actually, it looked tremendous. Many others also thought so.
Inside, it’s good, too, chiefly because it feels like a much bigger Mercedes. However, there were a couple of issues. I have new shoes. They are Dr Martens and I like them very much but they were too wide for the gap between the wheelarch and the brake pedal. This meant that every time I pressed the accelerator, I slowed down.
And there’s more. When you push the driver’s seat fully back, your shoulder is adjacent to the B-pillar. This means you can’t drive with your arm resting on the window ledge. I’m surprised by how annoying that was.
There was another surprise as well. This is an AMG-badged car, and that is the same as a three-chilli warning on the menu at your local Indian restaurant. You expect, if you turn your foot sideways to press the throttle, to have your eyes moved round to the side of your head so you end up looking like a pigeon. But no.
The turbocharged 2-litre engine spools up nicely enough and the rev counter charges towards the red zone but the speedo confirms what your peripheral vision has been suggesting: you aren’t picking up speed at anything like the rate you were expecting. A quick glance at the technical specifications reveals the reason. There’s no shortage of power but most of it is used to move the excess weight. This is a heavy car. You feel that weight in the corners, too. No AMG Mercedes is built to generate 6g on roundabouts — you need a BMW for that — but this one feels inert and out of its depth. So it’s not that fast in a straight line. And it’s not that exciting in the corners. And the gearbox isn’t much cop, either.
Perhaps the AMG badge is to blame. Perhaps it’s writing cheques the car isn’t even designed to cash. Perhaps, beneath it all, it’s designed to be a quiet and unruffled cruiser. On a smooth road, that’s certainly the case.
But introduce even the slightest ripple and you’d better be sitting on a cushion at the time because the ride in this car is terrible.
I’m told that on standard wheels, with normal suspension, the new A-class is pretty good. But in the AMG trim it is — and I’m choosing my words carefully here — effing unpleasant. Fast Mercs in the recent past have got quite close to the line in terms of unacceptable stiffness. This one crosses it.
But towering above the ride in the big bag of mistakes is the fuel tank. It may be large enough if the engine under the bonnet is a diesel, but when it’s a turbo nutter petrol bastard, you can’t even get from London to Sheffield and back without filling up. God knows what it will be like when the 350bhp four-wheel-drive version arrives next year. That won’t be able to get from 0 to 62mph without spluttering to a halt. The standard car, I don’t doubt for a moment, is all right. It’s certainly getting rave notices from all quarters. But this hot one? No. It’s surprisingly poor in too many areas.
And it’s not like you’re short of alternatives. If you want a prestigious badge, Audi will sell you a fast A3 that won’t break your back or cause you to spend half your life putting petrol in the tank. But my recommendation is that you forget the badge and buy an Astra. I drove the VXR recently, and while it may have only three doors, I was extremely surprised by how good it was. And how comfortable.
Strange, isn’t it? The Astra. It used to be a byword for everything we thought we’d left behind. But after a bit of a makeover, the girl from your own village is better than the generously breasted temptress from Stuttgart.