With technology plucked from a space ship some 25 years ahead of time, does the all-new Mercedes-Benz A-Class have enough substance to win over buyers? Paul Maric finds out.
It's not often I say this about a new model, but you're going to be blown away by the all-new Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
The exterior has received a much-needed nip and tuck, but it's the massive array of technology and the huge step forward in build quality that has me excited – especially in this sub-$50K category.
Launching in Australia this week with a single A200 variant, Mercedes-Benz debuts the new 2019 A-Class with the brand's all-new MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) operating system that propels it into the tech future.
Pricing starts from $47,200 (plus on-road costs), with a cheaper A180 variant coming early next year and a more powerful, all-wheel-drive A250 4MATIC launching later this year.
While the A200 pricing represents a hike of $2900 over the outgoing model, it brings with it a stack of new technology and features – some that you won't find on any vehicles in this segment.
Standard features include: LED headlights with adaptive high beam, keyless entry and start, wireless phone charging and 18-inch alloy wheels, autonomous emergency braking, parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring and a rear-view camera will also be standard fit, along with a 225W audio system with nine speakers, nine airbags and a larger 51L fuel tank.
More importantly, the entire A-Class range (including the cheaper A180 variant due next year) will be fitted with the brand's twin-screen interior set-up. That includes two high-resolution 10.25-inch screens that sit side-by-side and include touchscreen functionality on the central infotainment display.
The resolution on these comes in at 1920x720 (200dpi), which means it's virtually impossible to see individual pixels. For tech buffs out there, it's driven by an NVIDIA Parker 128 graphics card with 128-256 CUDA cores capable of 59,300 DMIPS and 500 gigaflops, along with 8GB of DDR4 RAM and a 6 Core, 2 Denver and 4xA57 CPU.
Before we look at the rest of the car, I want to run through the functionality of the MBUX system. The high-end RAM and CPU allow it to work seamlessly with no lag. Even when used as a touchscreen it flicks between menus with no lag, while zooming in and out on the maps is equally seamless.
Built into the operating system are a number of themes for both displays. These themes alter the colours and layouts of controls, with the main driver display capable of showing a number of different configurations, from a full-screen map to a full-screen driver-assistance screen or trip computer.
Ahead of the driver is a new head-up display that can also be configured to offer three different segments of information with variable brightness and height, along with speed sign recognition.
There's also a function called 'Hey Mercedes', which allows the user to issue that command at any point and then ask the operating system to perform commands. This could include opening and closing the sun blind, through to increasing/decreasing the temperature or changing the radio station.
Built into the system is artificial intelligence that over the period of around six weeks learns your habits and begins to tailor the system for your needs. So, if you go to soccer practice on Mondays after work, it will suggest that as a destination on Monday afternoons. If you always call your partner on the way home from work, they will be at the top of the suggestions list when you enter the phone menu.
If you share the car with another driver, which is the case with most families, it will learn the habits for each user individually, so you'll never be mixed up with your other half. It's these advancements in automotive technology that are aimed to make life easier for your daily commute.
And, if you ever get confused about the litany of technology on offer, the new Ask Mercedes application takes care of any questions. Using augmented reality, you can point your camera at the dashboard of the car and it will offer a number of touchpoints for you to learn more or ask questions about a function. On top of all this, there's also Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (requires a cable, unlike the wireless BMW system).
Anyway, you can mark my words – this is the most advanced car in this segment. It's arguably one of the most advanced cars on the market, let alone this segment. And the best part is that it doesn't feel overwhelming. It's easy to learn, so you won't need a degree in computer science to change the radio station.
The changes made to the A-Class body include an extra 120mm in length, 16mm in width and 7mm in height, along with an extension of the wheelbase by 30mm. The net result of that is a bigger boot (up 29 litres to 370 litres) and 3mm more knee room, 8mm more head room and 22mm more shoulder room.
From the outside, it's not hard to see the extra aggression and simplified lines. The front-end features thinner headlights and a more aggressive design. It certainly won't be mistaken for anything else in traffic. The side profile is a little less complicated with a simpler design that uses fewer lines and creases. It's the same story at the rear, where the tail-lights have been pushed outwards to allow for a better entry aperture.
Beneath the boot floor is a subwoofer and some safety equipment. There's no spare tyre because the car is equipped with run-flat tyres that allow the car to be driven safely at a reduced speed instead of changing the tyre immediately. The second row folds in a 40/20/40 split-folding configuration with a central ski port for easy access.
According to Mercedes-Benz, there's more leg and head room in the second row. A friend of mine drives a current-generation A45 AMG and I've been in the back of that a few times and remember it being quite cramped. So an increase of 3mm of knee room and 8mm in head room hasn't quite transformed this into a Caprice. But, it's worth keeping in mind that this isn't the right car if you're planning on regularly transporting people in the second row. It's also worth remembering that I'm around 185cm tall and generally drive with my seat quite far back.
Leg and head room aside, there's a centre armrest with two cupholders and rear air vents and LED lights. Throughout the car you'll find five USB-C ports (two in the second row, two in the centre console and one up front). This is the next generation of USB, and more and more devices are now moving to this standard that offers higher data transfer speeds and more current.
Shift to the front row and this is the equivalent of getting a business-class upgrade. You're met with those big screens and a neatly laid out cabin that is built perfectly. There are no panel gaps, there's not one cheap material used throughout the cabin, and it feels like it's worth twice its price tag. It's topped off by an awesome steering wheel that sits perfectly in the hands and is finished with brushed aluminium.
Our car also featured the ambient lighting package that fills almost every gap with an LED light or strip of lights that can be configured with a combination of 64 colours. You can even set the colours to change frequently or run with a colour theme throughout the cabin. It's epic stuff and looks awesome at night.
It's worth noting the car we tested had a number of options fitted, but gave us a good chance to test out some of these cool features.
Right, so it's loaded with tech and features, but how does it drive? Under the bonnet of the A200 is a 1.33-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine designed in collaboration with Renault, but built by Mercedes-Benz.
It produces 120kW of power and 250Nm of torque, consuming 5.7 litres of fuel per 100km on the combined cycle. During our time with the car, which included a mix of city and highway driving, that figure was 7.1L/100km. The engine sends drive to the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
At low speeds, the engine is quite responsive and offers plenty of poke for getting in and around town. It has a great engine note, too, with a bark and rasp as it climbs through the rev range.
Where I wasn't as impressed was with the low-speed performance of the transmission. On hills, when reversing up hills and on occasion when moving off from a standing start, acceleration would be a little non-linear with an initial surge before tapering off.
This is a common theme with dual-clutch transmissions. While they help vehicles save fuel (around 10 per cent fuel savings in comparison to a torque converter), they don't offer the smooth driving experience we've come to expect from vehicles with torque converters. Mercedes-Benz recommends using the hill-hold function when taking off from a standing start on a hill.
With that said, it's fine once the speed picks up. The engine also has enough punch for overtaking and highway manoeuvres as speeds pick up. There's enough response and the engine is quiet when moving along at highway speeds.
Let's talk about the ride and handling. Mercedes-Benz made a controversial move with the new A-Class when announcing it would use a simple torsion beam set-up for the rear suspension on A180 and A200 models. This saves weight and production costs. We didn't get a chance to sample a vehicle with a torsion beam rear, so we'll need to wait until we get one through the garage.
But, with the optional AMG Exclusive Package on our test car, which comes fitted with multi-link independent rear suspension with adaptive dampers, the ride is absolutely next level. It's not only unlike any vehicle in this segment, but it's unlike most other cars on the market.
That's despite this particular car riding on 19-inch alloy wheels shod with 245mm wide, 40-profile tyres. In Comfort mode it soaks up bumps beautifully and deals well with corrugations and speed humps. Slot it into Sport mode and the adaptive dampers firm up to offer a dynamic ride that transforms the package.
Excellent communication through the steering wheel means it gets on nicely when you find yourself some corners. The front end tips in nicely and there's enough traction on offer to jump on to the throttle. There are limits to what it'll handle, but for the most part the communication and feedback through the chassis are excellent.
The only parts we weren't a fan of with the ride were continuous undulations at highway speeds. Because of the ride softness, it could sometimes seesaw as each peak of the road was hit. Only a minor point from an otherwise excellent ride set-up.
In terms of safety tech, the A-Class doesn't fail to deliver with a host of standard equipment. In addition to nine airbags and AEB, the A-Class features a blind-spot assistant that not only monitors the blind spot while the car is moving, but it will warn and then disable the door exit mechanism if the driver attempts to get out of the car while a cyclist or another car is approaching.
The best bet is that the system operates for three minutes after the car has been shut down – so that it doesn't time out while you stop to check your phone or catch up on messages.
Additionally, technology from the E-Class has trickled down in the form of PRE-SAFE Sound. This technology emits a high-decibel noise into the cabin fractions of a second before an imminent impact where airbags deploy. The concept is that it primes your ear for the explosion noise that associates airbags deploying – it's seriously cool stuff.
Finally, a feature that probably won't affect most Aussie buyers, but a crosswind assistant can limit the amount of sway and instability associated with strong crosswinds. While our speed limits are archaically limited to around 100km/h, you can imagine how much this would come in handy for autobahn users moving along at 200km/h.
The Mercedes-Benz A200 launches with a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty with 12-month/25,000km service intervals and capped-price servicing. Buyers can also pre-purchase a service plan to cover the vehicle for a period of two, three, four or five years.
Our first look at the all-new Mercedes-Benz A-Class has revealed a surprise package that will really redefine this segment. It makes the BMW 1 Series look ancient in comparison and the Audi A3 like a vanilla-coloured appliance.