SANTA BARBARA, CA - Mercedes-Benz has no plans to import the new A-Class commuter car into the U.S. any time before the next century, but there's at least one on the road, and it does not belong to Mercedes.
It's a long way from the land of moose (remember the Swedish reporters who tipped the A-Class over during a moose-avoidance test last fall?), but the freeways of Los Angeles can still prove to be a testing experience - as we discovered. Okay, we didn't run into any moose while driving the new A-Class, but we did encounter some mooseheads.
Observant trade visitors to the SEMA aftermarket show in Las Vegas late last year noticed a modified A-Class sitting on the Majestic Universal booth alongside a heavily customized Chevrolet Caprice made up to look like a '57 Nomad. It was an enormous contrast in styles.
Majestic is an up-and-coming aftermarket company based in Gardena, CA, that has, until now, specialized in two distinctly different areas. It designs and manufacturers spoilers and other aftermarket goodies for small Japanese cars that are sold mainly in the U.S. It also heavily customizes American cars, largely for export to Japan. There might not be much demand for modified minivans in this country, but hot-rod style minivans are a craze in Japan.
Now Majestic plans to move into Europe. Following last year's Frankfurt motor show, Kevin Iimuro, owner of Majestic, decided the best car to begin his foray into Europe would be the brand new A-Class. Prototype work on the body kit was done in Belgium on one of the first A-Class cars sold in Germany. With the tremendous number of overseas visitors to the SEMA show, he decided it made sense to display it in Las Vegas before the car makes its way back to Europe.
This particular A-Class is the only one in the U.S., except for the few Mercedes is sure to have secreted away at some test track or in its design studio.
Judging by the reaction to the car during a brief half hour of driving, Mercedes should consider selling it in the U.S. now. This writer has not seen as much head-turning since driving the infamous AMC Pacer back in 1975, when it was first introduced. If VW can sell 50,000 New Beetles in the U.S. this year, Mercedes should easily be able to sell 25,000 A-Class cars here based just on its looks and its cachet.
In some ways, it was not much fun driving the car because of the attention. People would speed up and then slow down to gawk and wave at the unique-looking car. At least half of the other drivers seemed to be aware of the A-Class. The only car I've driven recently that came close to drawing the same attention was the Plymouth Prowler.
What's it like? It certainly feels different than a regular small car - more like a small minivan, but way better than any sport/utility vehicle (SUV). Because of its higher stance it doesn't feel as stable through corners.
That's not to say it's unstable, but psychologically the higher ride height leaves that impression. Performance-wise, the 102-hp, 1.6L four-banger provides the car with plenty enough pep for freeway and city street driving, at least with the five-speed manual gearbox.
Because you sit high, visibility is good. Interior space is okay, at least in the front. Rear seat passengers suffer from restricted headroom and the seat backs are extremely vertical.
This particular A-160 model had a sunroof that knocked an inch or so off the headroom. Storage space behind the foldable rear seats is good, considering the diminutive size of the vehicle (it's 8 ins. [20 cm] shorter than a two-door Chevrolet Metro).
The interior has a simple modern feel to it, more like athan any Mercedes-Benz before. Amazingly, the A-Class includes two cup holders - which presumably proves that this only-in-the-U.S.-at-one-time convenience has finally caught on in Europe.
Has Majestic done anything to modify the A-Class's handling? Not much. The converted car has Brabus shocks and coils along with 18-in. (46-cm) Brabus wheels instead of the stock 15-in. (38-cm) wheels. These modifications have naturally stiffened up the car. Brakes are unmodified, and the ride height is essentially unchanged.
Beyond this, the Majestic conversion consists of a four-piece ground effects kit manufactured out of the same plastic material used by Mercedes-Benz for the original bumpers.
Oh, we nearly forgot. Was a moose-avoiding maneuver performed? Yes and no. A Cadillac driver suddenly slowed down while merging from one freeway to another, aExplorer in front had to swerve, and the A-Class performed a fairly rapid lane change to avoid hitting the "moosehead" driving the Cadillac.
So much for the dramatics. After all, if an Explorer can avoid tipping over you'd certainly expect Mercedes' latest small car to do the same. Wouldn't you?