The original A-Class was a strange thing. An attempt to bring the Mercedes magic to the masses its tall boxy styling, though practical, was not a thing of beauty. Unfortunately the high center of gravity meant that it infamously failed the Swedish "moose test" and had to have its suspension modified. This caused the ride to be unacceptably hard for its target market of middle-class mums and the poor quality of the interior finish did nothing for MB's reputation. My parents had one and it was not the auto maker's finest hour. The new A-Class launched at the Geneva show could not be more different.

It's as if Mercedes took on board everything that used to be said about the A-Class and embraced it with a vengeance. Rather than a tall and skinny MPV the A-Class is now a low and wide hot-hatch. MB seems quite proud of the fact that it rides a full 180 mm (7 inches) closer to the ground than its predecessor.

The need for enjoyable and "sporty" handling was built into the project with the engineers from AMG being on-board from the start - indeed the influence of the AMG division seems to be an increasingly important factor across the auto-maker's entire portfolio.

The exterior styling is quite aggressive at the front with the current MB house style snout and splitter/air intake combination. The body curves over smoothly to a more generic and "Mazda-esque" rear hatch but the upward slashes over the rear wheel-arches are much more successful here than on the taller B-Class. It's a handsome car with greater visual "weight" than class competitors whilst still boasting a very slippery Cd (Coefficient of drag) of only 0.26.

Great care has clearly been taken to make the interior feel like a "real" Mercedes and while you won't find actual machined aluminum and carbon-fiber there are the best approximations that MB could come up with for look and feel without becoming pastiche. The layout is exactly like the vehicle's bigger and more expensive brothers and the A-Class features the fullest integration of it's systems with the iPhone available in any vehicle at this time.

The wide appeal that Mercedes is aiming for is clear from the range of the engine choice. There are three turbo-charged petrol 4 cylinder engines at 115 hp (86 kW), 156 hp (116 kW) and 211 hp (157 kW), and three turbo-diesel 4's at 109 hp (81 kW), 136 hp (101 kW) and 170 hp (127 kW).

As is the case these days the options lists are long and varied but standard packages named "Urban" (i.e. base) and "Style" (i.e. regular) are offered. A new six-speed manual box is standard - a interesting development for MB, or the 7-speed dual-clutch auto can be specified. One thing that is standard and unique at this vehicle level is a radar-assisted collision warning system as well as PRE-SAFE seat-belt pre-tensioning in the event of a crash.

The most powerful petrol and diesel variants are available as the 250 Sport and 220CDI Sport, an "Engineered by AMG" version that is designated by 18" alloy wheels, a trick "diamond effect" front grill, a special front axle and suspension set-up and red accenting on the front apron, brake calipers and in the interior. The 350 Nm (258 ft/lbs) torque of the top diesel suggests that it might be the most entertaining drive of the lot. There is also the inevitable whisper of a properly crazy full AMG model with 300-350 hp in the works.

This is a desirable vehicle with wide appeal - families, young professionals, household second cars etc. It should particularly appeal to women for the simple fact that it provides comfort, cachet and connectivity without lacking in the performance and handling department - things that women enjoy just as much as men (that's probably a completely redundant sentence these days but I'll take my chances!).

View gallery - 30 images