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Sportier, larger, roomier, more premium – these are all given, but ‘grown up’, in Benz’s words specifically, suggests an about-face for a range born of maturity in small cars, but went for the youthful jugular in successive second and third generations.
Certainly, ‘grown up’ seems strange for a new model range whose marketing figurehead is pop princess Nicki Minaj. And seemingly contradictory when the average age of Aussie A-Class buyers – half male, half female, it transpires – is actually 47. On face value, this makes little sense, before you consider the hip-pocket benefits twenty-somethings might enjoy at the ground floor of tri-star badge ownership (of sorts) with mum’s or dad’s name on the rego and insurance paperwork.
The A-Class still targets youth, sniper-like. But it’s also making a bigger play in gen-four. It casts a broader net of conquest and aims to swoon buyers of all ages away from various ownership segments. And many of the lures lie in strategic and sweeping changes to the A-Class format, even if the basic formula is familiar and friendly. That’s the underlying message we got from sampling a number of variants at the new range’s recent international launch in Croatia.
First up is appearance. In the flesh, what’s not immediately obvious is the growth in size that’s only marginal in width (+16mm) and height (+6mm) if more significant in length (+120mm) and wheelbase (+30mm); something the largely unchanged proportions seem to successfully mask. But the real departure in form is the design language applied, particularly with the new-look and so-called ‘predator face’ – bluff nose, slim-line headlights, an altogether more serious expression – and a more slab-sided contour through the body, replacing the fussy crease-heaviness of the old car with a far smoother and arguably more sophisticated look.
The design language itself is perhaps more traditional in terms of the degree of restraint and key motifs have been retained, some for the better (the diamond grille) and some for the worse (the fake dual-exhaust outlets), yet the combined effect is patently more contemporary. It remains to be seen how much of this ‘sensual purity’, as Benz designer-speak calls it, filters up through the broader tri-star range.
It’s what the A-Class robs from further up the Benz tree, however, that’s the most dramatic and intriguing change. And it smacks you in the eyeballs the instant you climb inside the front row.
The so-called Widescreen digital dash display is a knockout. It’s lifted in part, much like the ornate multifunction steering wheel, from the flagship S-Class, though whereas the limousine makes concession to convention by inserting its monstrous dual-screen display into the dash fascia, the A-Class ‘floats’ its eye candy atop the dash plate in a more sensational manner.
But there’s more. Imported from Benz’s top shelf of trinkets are those turbine-style circular air vents, the nifty thumb controllers on the steering wheel, and pinch-zoom-and-scroll functionality not just for the infotainment control on the centre console, but also on the touchscreen – the left screen within the Widescreen display – itself. It’s customary for such techy flashiness to trickle down through grades of model ranges before eventually arriving, at times diluted, in an entry-level range. That Benz has dropped some of its shiniest bells and whistles straight from the penthouse to the ground floor is a bold and unprecedented move for a premium German carmaker.
That’s before you start digging in MBUX, short for Mercedes-Benz User Experience, the marque’s new multimedia interface to be eventually rolled out across the broader range portfolio that’s making its debut in the penny-pinching end of the Benz showroom. But before we do…
The Widescreen display approach anchoring the cabin design like a trophy has huge wow factor, and hands on it’s as slick and techy to use as it looks. But throwing convention out the window is risky business. You have to wonder how a dual-screen tablet the size of a skateboard is going to age with time and, interior design-wise, it’s a tough place to backpedal from. Remember those LCD display screens that were cool for five minutes back in the 1980s?
Still, I’m the first critic to bring out the knives when carmakers become lazy with the user interface, and subjective tastes notwithstanding, Benz’s designers have certainly earned a solid A for effort. As far as bold statements go, the A-Class yells loudest from the inside out. And if you’re excited about the Widescreen effect, the good news is that all Aussie versions will get the tree-topping dual 10.25-inch display, rather than the dual 7.0-inch or mixed 7.0-inch/10.5-inch specifications Europe adopts to light- and middleweight variants.
MBUX bundles in a whole gamut of forward-thinking applications and features. And while our quick taste of the holistic system at the A-Class launch was too brief to test Benz’s claim that the system can learn and adapt to a (long-term) user, some of the individual features seem to work well.
While adding speech recognition to the steering wheel, console touchpad and direct touchscreen interface of the infotainment might seem like verging on overkill, the isolated intelligent voice-control tech is very cool. Essentially, it’s Siri for your car, if prompted by the phrase “Hey Mercedes”. In use, it’s a little clunkier than the smartphone system, and is perhaps more party trick than essential functionality, but it does respond to all manner of commands, from inputting sat-nav directions to changing the 64-colour ambient mood lighting.
Less techno-folly and feeling more like genuine connectivity progress is the excellent navigation guide enhancement: a forward-facing camera feeds live footage of the road ahead onscreen, then overlays visual instructions – cues, arrows, et cetera – onto the virtual road. It works an absolute treat by removing the vagaries about where to turn and when, and which lane you’ll need to be in at any given moment.
Other MBUX tricks? There’s a host of connected services being rolled out with MBUX technology, some using online connectivity and others using car-to-car data transfer, which allows a host of neat features such as warning of impending incidents ahead (caused by another vehicle), locating fuel stations and empty parking spaces, and Big Brother-type trickery such as output messages to a personal device if the A-Class suffers an impact or is being towed, and ‘private car sharing’ that monitors others’ usage of the vehicle. Don’t hold your breath, though – not much of this will be functional at the A-Class’s Aussie launch this year.
This time around, the Aussie A-Class line-up is an all-petrol affair, with the middleweight A200 arriving in August and the flagship A250 4Matic and entry-level A180 following in the wheel tracks around December. Poor sales of the diesel version of the hatchback mean that the A180d offered elsewhere won’t make it Down Under.
The A250’s reworked carryover ‘M260’ 2.0-litre turbocharged four produces 165kW – five kilowatts up – and 350Nm, is backed by a massaged version of the outgoing version’s seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, and will be 4Matic all-wheel-drive only. Although, the cars we drove at the international launch in Croatia were Euro-spec front-drivers.
The smaller turbo four fitted to the A200 is newly developed and backed by a different (Getrag sourced) seven-speed dual-clutch. It makes 120kW/250Nm and is, in Benz’s words, “1.33 litres”. And despite much discussion and little clarity at the launch, it’s unclear whether it’s officially a 1.3 or a 1.4, as it’s described both ways in the company’s literature. Whichever the case, it’s the first series-production Benz with fuel-saving cylinder deactivation and it’s expected, albeit unconfirmed, to be the same unit detuned to around 100kW for fitment in the entry A180.
Things get slightly confusing when it comes to driven wheels and suspension. Essentially, the quasi-1.4-litre 180s and 200s get torsion beam rear suspension – low-rent tech for the hatch’s high-tech pitch, we reckon – while the 2.0-litre 250 gets a more sophisticated multi-link design. However, you can option an AMG Exclusive pack that not only upgrades the passive Comfort suspension to adaptive damper equipment, but also replaces the torsion beam with IRS. Further, the 4Matic all-wheel drive is also optional in Europe on the 250, whereas it’s standard issue in Oz.
And so it transpires that, spec-wise, the Euro-spec cars we drove in Croatia aren’t entirely indicative of the versions that will make up the bulk of variants Benz Oz is likely to sell. The A200 available during our testing had the AMG fettling fitted, so the jury is out on how the torsion beam-suspended versions ride and handle. Similarly, the A250 Sport hot-hatch test cars were front-drivers, leaving a question mark over how Oz-certified all-paw models fare by the same measures.
Still, signals are very good indeed.
The A200 is a measurably more refined, more disciplined and more upmarket driving experience than the outgoing versions. This is the adaptive set-up, mind you, but its comfort setting eliminates a lot of the old car’s one-dimensional terseness at around-town speeds, with a more settled nature that also rounds off sharp road imperfections. At pace, it’s more settled, more resolved, which in tandem with more isolation from environmental and road noise really steps up the premium vibe. Even on the large 19-inch wheels and low-profile tyres fitted to every test car.
The powertrain, too, is a gem. Its modest 120kW and 250Nm returning a claimed best of 8.0sec for the 0–100km/h sprint means it is no rocketship, but the engine is smooth, willing, surprisingly flexible and a perfect fit for the A200’s mid-pack role as a premium all-rounder. Dig in and the little 1.33-litre works hard for its keep, though the vastly improved and impressively silken dual-clutch does a great job of plucking the engine’s sweet spot, be it at a cruise or during more spirited driving.
It’s certainly a more dignified, more polished and downright ‘more Benz’ character in the overall driving experience. An A-Class that no longer feels like a compromised pretender with a three-pointed star on its snout.
Step into the A250 Sport and the experience takes a further step up. With 165kW – an extra five kilowatts, then – and a carryover 350Nm under foot, the A250 is a 6.2sec 0–100km/h prospect, so certifiable hot-hatch territory if, by measure of some contemporary rivals, not exactly fire-breathing. But as a mature, eager and multi-dimensional premium hatchback, it’s packed with confidence in flexibility and a real class act no matter how it’s driven.
There’s no fire and brimstone, no pops and crackles to the soundtrack, though this is a Benz-branded offering that’s muscular yet polite. And with AMG set to offer both a confidently hot A35 mid-ranger and – rumour has it – a pumped-up A45 promising loftier heights of hardcore performance, the A250 Sport fits a key all-rounder role and it plays the role better than its forebears.
There’s a little more weight to the controls, more confidence in its swagger, than the A200: the steering is weighter and clearer, the body control more assertive. But tooling around the Adriatic seaside hamlets, from billiard-smooth motorways to rough and unkempt urban rabbit holes, it’s impressively composed, comfortable and quiet when need be, yet satisfyingly urgent and cooperative when you push on. Again, it’s the polish in execution that you expect in a Benz that oftentimes lacks in the marque's more affordable offerings.
Gripes? The seats certainly look more purpose-fit than they feel. And the shallow footwell in the front passenger side means jamming it rearward for decent leg room, which greatly impacts room in the second row. Also, the active lane keeping, which automatically brakes ‘inside’ wheels to actively deviate the hatch’s trajectory away from centrelines or kerbs, is abrupt and intrusive.
The dual 10.25-inch display can become overwhelmed with data – as is the case with rival systems from Audi and BMW – but thankfully you can choose between Modern Classic, Sport and Understated formats before prying into its dizzying display customisation, and it’s the third mode that’s appealingly minimal in visual glitz. If anything, the sheer depth and complexity of the car’s myriad bells and whistles are such we only managed a quick taste during the two-day test program.
The highlights? The configurable head-up display is about the best I’ve seen in any car at any price. But the real game-changer is the so-called augmented reality of the sat-nav system, which uses a forward camera to replicate the view through the windscreen into the touchscreen, then overlays a virtual ‘ghost’ of directions and information – house numbers, street names, lane choice advice, arrows for turning direction – into the footage. It’s completely new, perfectly executed and utterly brilliant.
In practice, the ‘Hey Mercedes’ intelligent voice control is a novel party trick if not a comprehensively accurate one. Clever in theory, perhaps, though trialling of commands returns about 30 per cent successful execution, 70 per cent confusion and failure to comply.
While it could change the mood lighting colour, close the sunroof blind or find the nearest Macca’s or Croatian pole-dancing club – yes, seriously – prompted by casual speech, it often confused commands with navigation input, failed to display the current audio playlist on playback, or simply chimed in when unprompted. It also harnesses its full capability in tandem with online capability that, Benz Oz says, won’t be available Down Under until late 2019 or thereafter.
We did try the semi-autonomous driving mode, good for about 30 seconds as a best case and about as effective and impressive as that in an S-Class – it’ll even change lanes autonomously with a flick of the indicator. We didn’t sample the conceptually neat Car Sharing feature, part of the new Mercedes Me connectivity services, which allows up to 25 friends or family members to drive the hatch without a key, using a remote permission system via a smartphone app.
The new A-Class does feel all the part like a technological collision between motoring and the smartphone. And in the best possible sense. How much of it is truly game-changing or mere folly remains to be seen, but after spending a couple of days in a hatchback so ambitiously re-imagined, like the transition between mobile phone and smartphone revolution, you do come away feeling like there’s no turning back.
What’s brave and commendable is that Benz chose its price-busting entry-level range with which to debut features you’d expect to materialise in exclusive flagships. My gut feeling is that on sheer geeky tech factor, the A-Class will win more punters over than those the bells and whistles may likely detract.
But strip away the wow-factor window dressing and Benz has achieved something perhaps more important in its fourth-gen hatchback. It is at once much more youthfully appealing than its predecessors, and yet it’s also more mature, more refined, more premium and, yes, much more grown up. That’s a really tricky balance to strike, and on first impressions, it really seems as if a proper Mercedes-Benz hatchback has finally arrived.