Big German automakers used to thrive on producing large, luxurious sedans.

Built seemingly to last forever, they were vehicles of aspiration, a cut above volume vehicles from other carmakers.

How things change. Aspiration may still be a part of owning a Mercedes-Benz, BMW or Audi, but now gas mileage and practicality are as important as size and luxury. The 2013 Mercedes-Benz A Class is designed to cover all those bases and more.

A Class: A brief history

Previous generations of A Class were rather different.

First launched in 1997, the original tall, space-efficient A Class quickly had its reputation shattered by rolling during a swerving avoidance test in a Swedish magazine.

Hasty corrections--such as now-standard technology like Active Stability Control--fixed its wayward handling, but turned the otherwise well-designed small car into a tedious thing to drive. Late-90s Mercedes quality was also well below par.

The second generation launched in 2004. Quality jumped up, handling improved, and a three-door model was added. Practicality was similar though: Both original A Class generations featured high cabin length to vehicle length ratios. The original A Class featured interior space similar to the contemporary E Class.

1997 Mercedes-Benz A Class

1997 Mercedes-Benz A Class

2013 Mercedes-Benz A Class

The new A Class is essentially unrecognizable from its forebears.

Now a two-box design rather than a one-box; lower, wider, sportier and altogether more aggressive, it's pitched directly at the Audi A3, BMW 1-Series, Volkswagen Golf and Lexus CT 200h. You can judge the styling yourself from the images.

Words like "sporty" and "dynamic" permeate the official literature. "Efficiency" too--new small-capacity turbocharged engines and a low 0.27 drag coefficient raise economy to impressive levels.

How impressive? Well, we drove two examples--the gasoline-powered A250 BlueEfficiency with the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, and the A200 CDI, a turbocharged diesel, also with the 7-speed DCT.

In optimistic European testing the former gets an official 38 mpg combined, the latter 54.7 mpg. Bank on 30-31 mpg and 43-44 mpg as an EPA-equivalent figure.

While we couldn't take a reading from the A250, the trip computer showed an average of 47 mpg in the A200 CDI by the end of an 80-mile journey through the UK's beautiful Peak District.

2013 Mercedes-Benz A Class

2013 Mercedes-Benz A Class

How it drives

Both our test cars were in 'AMG Sport' trim. That gets you 18-inch wheels, lowered sport suspension, and fancy interior trim with hugely comfortable sport seats.

Ride quality wasn't bad considering the rolling stock, but felt restless over some of England's bumpier country roads. Larger Mercedes still rule in these conditions.

Handling was precise--there's not a lot of body roll, the steering is accurate (if rather light) and levels of grip are high. The brakes are good too, with a satisfyingly firm pedal and good stopping power.

Both engines are impressive. The A250 makes 211-horsepower from its turbocharged 2.0-liter, and officially reaches 52 mph in 6.6 seconds. The dual-clutch gearbox is swift, but not quite as eager to respond to your demands for gears as the Volkswagen equivalent.

It also hunted around uncomfortably on a few hills, and in gentle driving the early automated down-changes--to improve engine braking--became irritating, particularly as the car jerked with each change.

The gearbox is much happier with the 1.8-liter, 136-hp diesel unit. Up- and down-changes are nearly imperceptible.

Performance is still strong too--9.2 seconds to 60 mph, and 130 mph flat-out. Extra low-down torque from the diesel motor makes rumbling around at low speeds fairly effortless. A little diesel noise makes its way into the cabin, but little enough so as not to intrude.

Both engines also feature stop-start technology to improve city economy. Apart from a little extra noise and vibration on re-start, its operation is pretty faultless, even with the auto gearbox.

Coming to the U.S... sort of

Mercedes-Benz confirmed a while back that its baby will arrive in the U.S, though it has since announced that cars based on the same platform will appear--a CLA shooting brake and GLK crossover.

The engine from the A250 is most likely to arrive, but a diesel isn't out of the question. We've no doubt that U.S. buyers would happily accept a range consisting of only four-cylinders too--performance is more than up to scratch.

While the new A-Class isn't as overtly practical as older models, it's now a genuine competitor for its rivals and has a compelling blend of quality, performance and economy.

Perhaps its greatest achievement is combining those talents with the sort of qualities previously associated with Mercedes' largest vehicles--downsizing is here to stay, folks.


Follow GreenCarReports on Facebook and Twitter.