Mercedes subcompact, reimagined

  • 11-Jun-2011 04:11 EDT

Chrome stars mounted on a black background form the grille, combining with all-LED lighting for a signature appearance for the future Mercedes subcompact line.

Eighteen years after Mercedes-Benz ventured into the minicar segment with the original Vision A93 concept car, which foreshadowed the A-Class production model, the company has rethought its approach to the subcompact segment.

The original concept sought to maximize cabin space and safety, trying to assure customers that two characteristics associated with the Mercedes brand were preserved even in the very small model.

The Concept A-Class that the company showed at the 2011 New York and Shanghai auto shows recalibrates that approach, seeking to emphasize the company’s heritage as a provider of premium, sought-after products, with safety incorporated into the car’s high-end gadgetry.

Where the current A-Class is a practical, upright design with a high H-point, the Concept A-Class points the way for the next version of the car to be low-slung and racy, with a silhouette and proportions reminiscent of the Alfa Romeo 147 or Volkswagen Scirocco.

The long-hood-low-roof combination is a proven approach for lending a sporty air, and that overall scheme is fleshed out with expressively sculptured sides that clearly trace their lineage back to BMW designer Chris Bangle’s “flame surfacing” design language.

“We use the term ‘captured energy’ to express the sheer dynamism exuded by the Concept A-Class,” remarked Gorden Wagener, the head of design at Mercedes-Benz. “Our formal sources of inspiration were the wind and waves, as well as aviation engineering.”

In addition to the sharply chiseled lines, the Concept A-Class also features some adventuresome detailing. While radiator grilles are commonly grates or slats, the Concept A-Class has a blacked out background mesh spangled with glittering stars that are mounted on stems from behind, giving the impression that they are floating above their background like stars in the sky.

Exterior lighting is similarly inspired, with all-LED headlights matched to a fiber-optic daytime running light array of 90 fibers laid out to look like a wing shape inside the headlight. The LED turn signals appear to float inside the headlight assembly, with the intended appearance of an air bubble inside a perfume bottle. Taillights employ an assembly of 120 fiber-optic light pipes.

The sporty proportions are backed by a suitably sporty powertrain, with a 210-hp (157-kW) 2.0-L four-cylinder engine equipped with 2900-psi (20-MPa) direct gasoline injection. The engine is all-aluminum for minimal weight and is matched to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatically shifted manual transmission. In production, diesel power will be available not only in Europe but also in the U.S.

Another preview of production plans is the announcement that the radar-based collision warning system fitted to the Concept A-Class will not only be available on the production model but will in fact be standard equipment. This system will combine with adaptive brake assist to address the issue of subcompact crash safety by aiming to prevent the crash from happening or to at least minimize impact speed.

Rather than targeting the elimination of urban fender-benders, the A-Class’s collision avoidance system seeks to address all kinds of rear-end collisions. The company’s engineers estimate that the system will prevent about 20% of rear-end collisions and will reduce the severity of another 25%.

The cabin in the Concept A-Class draws its inspiration from aircraft—not from the traditionally cluttered cockpit design but from the airframe itself. The dashboard’s wing shape is created by stretching a translucent fabric over the underlying structure. A chrome vapor coating on the fabric lends a shimmer to the surface even as the supporting ribs are apparent in the manner of a canvas-covered aircraft wing.

Naturally the shape of the air vents is inspired by jet engine design, with colored backlighting of the translucent registers that reflects the temperature of the airflow—blue for cold and red for warm.

The large speedometer face is lit in red to resemble a jet afterburner, while the console-mounted shifter mimics a jet’s thrust controller. The effect brings fresh meaning to the company’s heritage of “Silver Arrows.”

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