With MINI and Fiat taking the retro approach and Mazda and Ford going for youthful and fun, how do you make your new small car stand out in the marketplace?
If you're Mercedes-Benz about to sell the latest generation of A-Class compact in the U.S, you go down the high technology route and cut a dash with sleek styling, scalloped curves and an interior full of gadgets.
Of course, the A-Class line itself has been on sale in Europe since 1997, and the latest car will mark the third generation. The first A-Class was a novel concept let down in execution. At little over an inch longer than the 2011 Fiat 500, it had similar interior space to the contemporary E-Class.
Unfortunately, stability concerns highlighted when a Swedish magazine rolled the car in avoidance testing resulted in some quick chassis safety fixes that spoiled the ride and handling, and reliability gremlins typical to Mercedes of the era plagued the car too. Nevertheless, it was an innovative and reasonably successful car.
2011 Mercedes-Benz A-Class E-Cell battery electric vehicle (Europe only)Enlarge Photo
The second generation A-Class was a little larger and considerably better built, but otherwise very similar in concept. Mercedes-Benz made use of the car's "sandwich" floor in an electric variant, the A-Class E-Cell, with batteries stored between the passenger compartment and floorpan.
The Concept A-Class takes the range in a different direction entirely. Having seen the success of sportier compact vehicles from other marques such as the Lexus CT 200h, BMW 1-Series and others, Mercedes has traded the high-rise driving position and clever use of space for a more agressive and youthful vehicle, and the concept is laden with technology.
The simple and sporting interior is dominated by two large red dials and an enormous gear selector that wouldn't look out of place in the cockpit of one of Boeing's latest. Said selector controls a new dual-clutch transmission, connected to a new 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, putting out 210 horsepower. Other engines are likely to be available.
A rotary selector on the center tunnel is a likely method of control for Mercedes' COMAND ("COckpit MANagement and Data") multimedia and telecommunications system. On the dashboard sits a tablet PC, continuing the trend for further integration of consumers' personal gadgets and their cars.
The exterior is heavily influenced by some of Mercedes' larger models such as the SLS and CLS, though we think the rear end has hints of Audi...
The Concept A-Class is due to appear at the 2011 New York Auto Show
in just a few weeks. The actual car may not reach us for a while, but it certainly makes downsizing look more appealing.