Many years ago, for reasons lost in the mists of time, I found myself in the driving seat of an original Ford Focus RS, and about three minutes later it became patently obvious to me that I would be unable to carry on in life if I did not have one for myself. In retrospect, the blue racing seats were horrendously gaudy, and the front axle was totally overwhelmed by the 212 horsepower that the turbocharged engine was feeding to it. However, it just had something about it. It was lairy and wayward, but it had such a huge personality that I couldn't help but fall for it.

It was like that mate that we all have, the one who invites you out for a "quick drink". You know you shouldn't go because you'll end up waking up the next morning in a park with no trousers and a stolen inflatable giraffe, but you know you'll have such fun getting to that point that you always go along anyway.

Some cars are just like that. The moment you get behind the wheel you just click with them, and pretty soon you start to dream up ways to get away with murdering anyone who might try to take the keys away. The Abarth 595 is like this, and at the other end of the scale, so is the Range Rover.

"'ll end up waking up with a giant inflatable giraffe..."

Others though, are slow burners, there are cars that I drive that at first I either don't "get", or even don't like the first time out. Then, they slowly start to get their hooks into me. When I first saw the new Alpine, for instance, I thought it ugly and expensive. It wasn't until I got to spend some time with it that started to see past the unusual styling and big-league price tag.

Another car that has been growing on me recently is the latest incarnation of the smallest Mercedes-Benz, the A-Class. When I tested the A180 diesel model on this website a few months back, I said that whilst the interior was fantastic and the technology deeply impressive, I still thought that the engine wasn't great and that the Golf was better value.

The thing is though, later in the summer, I spent some time with the A200 AMG-Line. Instead of the ancient diesel-burning boat anchor I'd driven before, this petrol version has an engine that is as advanced as the Millennium Falcon dashboard. It may say '200' on the back, but it is in fact a myopic 1.3 litre four-pot. Except when you're cruising, when it shuts down two of the cylinders to save fuel.

Now I'll be the first to admit that the idea of a Mercedes with a 1332cc engine is a bit off-putting, but remember when Ford came out with the Ecoboost? A one-litre motor, that thanks to some clever turbocharging made nearly 100 horsepower. We were all very impressed, but the crown has been stolen I'm afraid, because the 1.3 litre engine in the Merc produces a scarcely believable 163 horsepower, and more importantly, 184 lbs/ft of torque. This means that it doesn't feel like a 1.3 litre mouse when you're on the move. It also means a top speed of 140 mph.

The gearbox, a new seven-speed double clutch affair, is the same as the one in the diesel. It's a far better match for this petrol engine though. Yes, seven gears is still too many, and it hunts around a little too much sometimes, but you can sort that by flicking the steering-wheel mounted paddles, which are chunky and quick to respond.

"it dismisses twisty roads with a brutish clout..."

It handled better too. Partly because the punchy little engine is lighter on the nose than the diesel, but mostly because AMG-badged models get a fancy multi-link rear suspension setup that you won't find on lesser models. Together with fatter tyres and the more powerful engine, you end up with a car that doesn't dance through corners like an old Megane R.S, so much as dismiss twisty roads with the brutish clout of a larger, more expensive Merc. It's not the traditional hatchback way of doing things, but it is very satisfying.

This is one of those cars that isn't necessarily advertised as being quick, there's a full-blown AMG version on the way, but on real roads, in crappy UK weather conditions, you can really get cracking in the A200.

On the motorway it's quiet and far more refined than the diesel. I've heard complaints of a harsh ride from some testers, but my old Golf on the same size wheels is far less compliant.

And all the while you're cocooned in this fantastic cabin which makes you feel as though you're in an episode of Knight Rider. You can even go full 'Hoff' and have a conversation with the car. No, really. Ask it to tell you a joke the next time you're in one.

The old A-Class had an interior that felt like it was put together using bits that an E-Class had donated to a charity shop. The new one though, with its iPad-style screens and Icelandic vodka bar mood lighting, just makes you feel special. It really is up there with the Range Rover Velar. Certainly, it makes sitting in all the other cars in the hatchback class seem like sitting in a cave. On the Moon.

"it makes other hatchbacks seem like sitting in a cave. on the moon."

Then you discover the 'augmented' sat-nav, which uses a front mounted camera to project an image of where you're going onto the screen and overlays it with the route instructions. And the live traffic system that picks up if another Mercedes vehicle ahead of you is in a slow-moving jam and alters your route to prevent you getting stuck. Pretty soon, you start to wonder how you ever lived without it all.

And if you're not careful, not long after that you'll find yourself in a Mercedes showroom looking at paint swatches and options lists, and if you get carried away with the box-ticking you'll then be presented with a bill for nearly £35,000. This is a ludicrous amount of money for a hatchback, but when you consider that this car can do things that even an S-Class Mercedes can't, you even start justifying it to yourself...

I'd love to tell you more, but I've got to go and answer the front door now. The bailiffs are here.


Engine: 1332cc Petrol, 4 cylinders, Turbocharged. Transmission: 7-Speed Double Clutch. Power: 163 bhp. Torque: 184 lbs/ft. Driven wheels: Front Wheel Drive. 0-62 MPH: 7.9 secs. Top Speed: 140 MPH. Economy: 53.3 MPG Combined. Price: £34,920 as tested.



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