21 January 2000

CUTE A170 BOXES CLEVER

In this months Country Car,

Geoff Ashcroft tries hard

not to get the gleaming

Mercedes A170 all mucky

and heads off to Bucks for

a side order of chips

NOTHING unusual about a five-speed manual gearbox, you might think. There is when its accompanied by only two pedals. But then this is in the Mercedes A-class – a most unusual car.

Mercedes threw caution to the wind with the A-classs unconventional design – and even threw the rule book out too, when it introduced its optional £495 five-speed manual gearbox with automatic clutch system. A dry-plate clutch still resides, but is operated by an electric motor.

Backing off the throttle while applying hand pressure to the gear lever causes the auto clutch to operate, making the left leg redundant. Its clever, but instinct moves the left leg to operate a clutch pedal when a gear lever is pushed about – the result was accidental left foot braking on more than one occasion.

The common-rail, turbo-diesel equipped A170 CDi tested by farmers weekly is a smooth, crisp performer, capable of about 68mpg on the extra urban cycle. An intensive mix of fast motorway and enthusiastic country lane driving returned about 44mpg – though the fascination of the two-pedal manual gearbox, perhaps, did little to encourage economical driving.

Somewhat tardis-like in its proportions, the car looks compact against a saloon, but exhibits a deep, spacious interior with plenty of legroom up front and behind. Its just boot space that suffers when passenger carrying is a top priority.

Seats can be removed and swapped about in a plethora of combinations, pleasing those with a fascination for origami. Lift, fold, twist, pull, click. Now, to get them back in…

Cured of its initial stability problems, the A-class is a joy to drive. Electronic gadgetry now keeps the car in check with a host of active safety devices, while passive safety accounts for the cars sandwich chassis concept, where engine and box slide down into the load bearing floor structure, claimed to minimise occupant damage should a frontal collision take place.

The verdict: Quirky design offers stylish appeal and a surprising amount of practicality for a small car. TD engine is strong and willing, though auto clutch system should be swept aside for a true auto box. &#42

MERCEDES DATA

Model: A 170 CDi Avantgarde

List price: £17,890

Engine: 90hp, 1.7-litre turbo diesel

Top speed: 109mph

0-62mph: 12.5sec

Test fuel consumption: 43.2mpg

Left and above: despite modest dimensions, A170 has more interior space than youd expect. Auto clutch system takes a bit of getting used to.