The hot hatch that heralds Mercs for the masses

PRESTIGE, performance, desirability and exclusivity have long been the hallmarks of cars bearing the three-pointed star but, starting on Friday, you can scratch one of those from the list.

PRESTIGE, performance, desirability and exclusivity have long been the hallmarks of cars bearing the three-pointed star but, starting on Friday, you can scratch one of those from the list.

The arrival in Australia of Mercedes-Benz's A-Class range means the German manufacturer is no longer priced out of reach of the ordinary buyer, with a range kicking off for less than $36,000 and a lightweight hot hatch from less than $50,000.

The latter, the A250 Sport, tops the A-Class range until the arrival in September of the A45, which will be the first four-cylinder production model ever to wear the company's performance-focused AMG badge.

Until that time, the A250 Sport will soak up some of the pent-up demand among the marque's wide fan base for a small hatch that's big on chutzpah and fun factor.

Mercedes says it is holding "hundreds" of orders for the A-Class, with about half of the orders for the A250 model.

The company will clearly aim to steal customers of arch-rival BMW's 1-Series and Audi's A1 but it may be Volkswagen feeling the pinch most, with the A250 playing in the same sandpit as the revered Golf GTI.

While not going toe to toe with the best hot hatches currently on offer here - that will be the A45 AMG's job - the A250 offers decent bang for $49,900, with 155kW of power and 350Nm of torque from its turbo-charged four matched to a seven-speed dual-clutch auto. That's good enough for an official dash to

100km/h of 6.6 seconds, while using an average of 6.6 litres/100 kilometres of 95 RON premium unleaded. Initial response can be a little doughy at lower speeds, especially in fun-killing "economy" mode, but once rolling the A250 ducks deftly into corners with a fun little engine blip and then surges out sweetly. Engaging sport mode triggers a more aggressive throttle response and gearshift pattern that amps up the fun factor.

A nice spread of torque means the gearbox isn't overworked and while the engine isn't as aurally dramatic as a Golf GTI, it makes the right sort of noises under provocation.

The steering on the sinuous roads in the ranges to the north of Melbourne is direct and progressive, although lacking enough weight to give meaningful feedback. The ride is firm enough to feel what's going on but the 18-inch low-profile tyres rarely crash or thud. Inside, the A250 Sport feels properly luxurious but part of that is down to the $2490 "exclusive package" fitted to our car, which includes real leather upholstery with contrasting red stitching, an artico (fake leather) upper dashboard, powered and heated front seats with memory function and dual-zone climate control.

Our car also has the $2990 "command" package, including a Harman Kardon 12-speaker audio system and an 18-centimetre sat-nav screen that is neat and colourful but looks a lot like an after-market unit at first glance.

Standard safety is as impressive as you would expect from a Mercedes, with nine airbags, a forward collision warning system, a drowsiness alert, a bonnet that pops up to minimise pedestrian impact, a reversing camera and automated reverse parallel parking.

While the A-Class range - which kicks off at an eye-opening $35,600 for the A180 model - will certainly open the door to a wider scope of buyers than ever before, the A250 Sport also widens the choice for well-to-do families seeking a cheeky and fun second car to park alongside the E-Class or S-Class.

Or you can always wait for the A45 AMG, which will punch out a mighty 265kW and 450Nm when it arrives in September in return for about $60,000.

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