“Whoa!” That was a common reaction to the appearance of the 2016 Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport 4Matic model we just had through our Sydney garage.
It wasn’t because it looks a lot different to the pre-facelift version that came before it. In fact, unless you’re a Mercedes-Benz anorak, you’d probably struggle to pick the differences.
And it wasn’t because of the fact that the A250 is now all-wheel drive, rather than front-wheel drive as it was before the facelift.
It was wow-worthy because it was the A250 Sport 4Matic Motorsport Edition, an eccentric looking version of the brand’s $53,500 (plus on-road costs) hot hatch. That price is up compared to the previous model, but there’s extra standard equipment now.
The Motorsport Edition references the brand's Formula One efforts as part of its collaboration with Malaysian fuel company Petronas.
It adds $4490 to the price, and it has a range of extras including 19-inch AMG black alloy wheels with Petronas Green flanges, as well as Petronas Green highlights on the front and rear bumpers, side mirrors and on the ends of the added, slightly garish, rear wing.
The Petronas Green love continues inside, with highlights on the seats, seatbelts, air-vent surrounds, floor mats, and there’s stitching in that colour on the dashboard, too.
Under the skin there are changes as part of the Motorsport upgrade, too, including suspension with adaptive damping. It’s the first time an A-Class has had the switchable softness, and it’s something that – combined with all-wheel drive, changes the drive experience of the baby 'Benz dramatically.
Where the previous front-drive model without adaptive dampers could crash into sharp bumps, bounce about over smaller inconsistencies and lift-off oversteer in corners, the new AWD version is a lot more… sedate.
There’s a drive mode control system – Dynamic Select – which allows you to choose between Comfort, Sport, Eco and Individual modes, the latter of which allows the driver to set their preferences for the character of the engine/gearbox, steering, suspension, air-conditioning and stop-start system.
Under the bonnet resides a tweaked version of the existing 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, now with 160kW of power at 5500rpm and 350Nm of torque from a low 1200-4000rpm. That power figure is up 5kW on the previous model, and it claims to be quicker from 0-100km/h - now 6.4 seconds, where the front-drive model claimed 6.6sec. It still uses a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, and there’s no manual option available.
Fuel use is claimed to have dropped, too, despite the extra mechanical weight of the all-wheel-drive system (the 4Matic version’s kerb weight is a porky 1505 kilograms compared with the old front-drive model’s 1445kg mass).
With Sport mode chosen, you get the most out of the engine and gearbox. The transmission will hold gears to allow you to explore the upper reaches of the rev range, and between 3000-5500rpm is where this thing likes to get the job done if you’re being enthusiastic. It will overrule you in manual mode, though, upshifting at redline.
Further to that, the engine could sound better. When you compare the A250 to an A45, for example, you are left feeling a bit underwhelmed. The engine is buzzy at higher revs, but at least the exhaust has a nice burble on the overrun and between gearshifts there is a nice little burp from the back end.
While it is the pick of the modes for performance, Sport mode doesn’t offer the most precise steering. The electric steering feels heavier and thus a little more involving, but when you’re applying lock through tighter turns it lacks fingertip precision. In fact, this mode makes the car exhibit some understeer.
If you select Individual mode and choose all the Sport selections except steering – opt for Comfort there – the A250 really lives up to its Sport suffix.
The lighter resistance to the steering means it has more bite at the nose and is more agile when you make mid-corner corrections, and you still get the benefits of the drivetrain being primed for punchiness and the suspension being at its most sporting.
You can feel the all-wheel-drive system helping pull you through longer sweeping bends. The AWD system has resulted in the A250 feeling more planted and more technically impressive, more surefooted and likely more appealing to the vast majority of buyers who don’t necessarily want to balance a car through a corner using the accelerator as much as the steering wheel.
It’s also a shame Benz didn’t do more in terms of sound insulation. The A250 is properly loud inside over coarse-chip surfaces. Part of that could come down to the Motorsport Edition model’s 19-inch wheels wrapped in Dunlop Sport Maxx 235/35 rubber.
That wheel and tyre package means you still feel some of the bumps in the road surface, even in Comfort mode, which is a massive improvement over the non-adjustable suspension of the pre-facelift model. It isn’t pillowy by any stretch of the imagination, but it does a much better job of isolating those in the cabin from their surroundings.
In that mode the engine is duller in its response, but still willing enough to allow snap overtaking moves.
If you’re just tootling around town, the dual-clutch gearbox isn’t as user-friendly as it is when you’re touring the open road. At low speeds there is some hesitation from a standstill, which is exacerbated by the engine’s stop-start system. The engine can be slow to fire and get revs up, and when you combine that with some lag from the transmission, it requires a little patience - particularly when you're switching between D and R when parking.
The interior of the updated A-Class hasn’t moved forward in leaps and bounds, but there are some nice touches to the cabin including ambient coloured lighting in the headrests and cupholders.
It remains well sorted for storage, with two small cupholders between the front seats and a larger bottle holder in front, and decent sized door pockets all around. The boot is still on the small side at 341 litres – enough for a couple of small suitcases, but there’s a clever mesh net under the parcel shelf to stop your shopping from moving around – and there is no spare wheel offered, only a repair kit.
All A-Class models get an 8.0-inch media screen that sits atop the dash, which is a big step up from the old 5.8-inch monitor of the pre-facelift model and brings the original small Benz in line with the CLA, GLA and B models.
The graphics have taken a big step up, with the menus – including the drive select and car settings screens with animated A-Class graphics – adding luxuriousness and maturity to the cabin. The Comand media interface in the A-Class range remains much more intuitive than the newer dial and pad system fitted to the likes of the C-Class.
However, when you use the navigation, there’s a childishness to the Garmin Map Pilot interface and menus. It is surprisingly easy to use, but certainly doesn’t look like it belongs in a Benz.
There’s the expected Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, and the A-Class gets two USB inputs to connect your devices or keep them juiced up. This model was an October 2015-built example, but all A-Class models built from December 2015 will get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard. It could be worth waiting for one with that feature, as it’ll undoubtedly add to the resale value.
In terms of space, the A-Class would be suitable for a weekend away with four adults on board, but trying to fit five could cause a few fights.
The rear seat has adequate shoulder room and leg room for two regular-sized adults, but the transmission tunnel eats in to space, and toe space in general is at a premium. Headroom isn’t terrific for taller occupants, as the standard sunroof eats into space a little.
Thankfully, though, there are rear air-vents, and parents will be happy with the fact there are two ISOFIX child-seat anchor points.
On the topic of safety, all A-Class models have nine airbags as standard (dual front, front side, driver’s knee, rear side and full-length curtains), and that’s just a start. There’s also blind-spot warning, forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking, an active bonnet for pedestrian protection, front and rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera.
Buyers of the A-Class get the option of a Silver service program (including fluids and filters) or the dearer Platinum plan (with brake pad and rotor cover), with a three-year plan available for either. For the Silver three-year plan, the A250 Sport costs $1980, while the Platinum plan costs $3780. There’s a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty.
While the Motorsport Edition may not be to everyone’s tastes, the 2016 Mercedes-Benz A250 certainly has more mainstream appeal thanks to the additional sure-footedness of the all-wheel-drive system and the new equipment that has been added.
Click on the Photos tab above for more images of the 2016 Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport 4Matic.