The original Mercedes-Benz A-Class subcompact that debuted in 1997 bore the phone booth-like proportions of the company’s minicar, the Smart FourTwo, which made it seem unsuitable for the U.S. market where Mercedes has cultivated a higher-end image than in Europe. Appropriately, considering the dearth of phone booths in 2011, the next A-Class model would lose that silhouette in favor of a low-slung roofline that vaults the car into an entirely different market than that inhabited by the outgoing model.
This genuinely premium styling and racy, aspirational detailing make this future A-Class suitable for U.S. consumption, where, not coincidentally, Mercedes desperately needs to sell some small efficient models to offset the gas mileage of its big cars to achieve federal CAFÉ fuel economy standards.
While the concept model is a three-door hatchback reminiscent of the Volvo C30, look for the production model to squeeze in another pair of doors to become a five-door along the lines of the current Audi A3. The top-of-the-line model will enjoy power from a 210-hp turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder driving the front wheels through a dual-clutch computer-shifted manual-type transmission.
The production A-Class model will include radar-based forward collision warning technology as standard equipment. Brake assist technology, which instantly applies full anti-lock maximum braking force the second the driver touches the brake pedal in a situation the car has identified as an emergency, is also included standard.
The most striking aspect of the A-Class concept is a stunning grille featuring a constellation of metallic silver hexagons against a black background. They are meant to evoke stars in the sky and the effect is unexpectedly striking and met with a strongly favorable response from often-jaded journalists, so look for this to appear on some future Mercedes, if not the A-Class. The effect is abetted by LED headlights on the concept car, a technology that will probably be too costly for the company’s entry-level model, even in the U.S. market with Mercedes premium image.
DAN CARNEY is a veteran auto industry observer who has written for MSNBC.com, Motor Trend, AutoWeek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Better Homes and Gardens and other publications. He has authored two books, "Dodge Viper" and "Honda S2000" and is a juror for the North American Car of the Year award. Carney covers the industry from the increasingly strategic location of Washington, DC.