The new A-Class establishes itself as the hatchback segment’s most advanced car, though not everything is as sophisticated as it should be.
Plenty of us would like to shave 10 years off our age. That’s what the Mercedes-Benz A-Class achieved between the tall-bodied, MPV-style second-generation model and the more conventional hatchback of the last/third generation – dramatically lowering the model’s average buyer age by about a decade.
The fourth-generation A-Class continues its predecessor’s focus more on trying to be hip, rather than being concerned with (higher) hip points.
Taking centre stage is the debut of Mercedes-Benz’s new user-experience interface dubbed MBUX. Standard in every A-Class including this A200 (the base model before an A180 joins in 2019), MBUX takes the car industry’s obsession with Silicon Valley further by mimicking – to a certain extent – the Google Home voice-controlled speakers.
With the car switched on, simply say “Hey, Mercedes!” and the A-Class’s politely spoken ‘lady’ will ask how she can help.
With full online capabilities not yet available in Australia, your A-Class can’t yet tell you the weather forecast or help during your pub-trivia night. But you can request changes to the configurable ambient lighting (if fitted) and cabin temperature, ask her about average fuel consumption, or ask for petrol stations to be located and followed by guidance.
Mercedes says the system features artificial intelligence, so it will learn your favourite radio station or one of your common routes and bring them to the fore. It will even remember if you make a regular weekly call and suggest the phone number another week on the same day.
We spent a week in the A200, though perhaps several weeks – or longer – are needed to form a better understanding between occupant and interface, because we had mixed results from the system’s ability to interpret instructions correctly.
Technophiles will surely be impressed by the A-Class’s new dual-screen layout (which links visually to other ’Benzes including the E-Class and S-Class). Wide in format, generous in size at 10.25 inches, and with stunningly vibrant and sharp resolution, the system is also highly intuitive.
The driver and central screen can be operated, for example, with the corresponding steering wheel thumb-scroll buttons (accompanied by helpful Home and Return buttons) – so left buttons for the driver’s display and right buttons for the centre display.
The driver’s display is configurable, allowing the driver to switch the default speedo to another function/info such as digital ‘analogue’ clock or trip computer. The default tachometer can be swapped for an Eco Driving graph, G-force monitor, navigation map, or fuel consumption.
Furthermore, the driver is offered three display styles: Classic, which brings a blue hue; Sport that switches to yellow; or Understated, which cleverly keeps info to a bare minimum – just a digital speedo and digital clock.
A central info section provides a simpler, numbers-only digital speedo and speed-limit advisory info.
The central display is a touchscreen, though drivers (and front passengers) have the option of operating/selecting functions by using the standard haptic-feedback touchpad.
Pay $2490 for a Communications Package and you also gain an excellent, multi-function head-up display to the high-tech mix (plus a 590-watt Burmester audio system).
The tri-box display looks sharp and is also configurable, so you can prioritise the info you want – from map directions, G-force graph, digital speedo, speed-sign monitor, and adaptive cruise. So, you can have three items of info showing at once, or just, for example, the digital speedo.
When manoeuvring into or out of a parking spot, the HUD also introduces a visual sensor map – colouring segments orange then red as the relevant part of the car gets closer to something. It’s accompanied by an audible warning.
A-Classes don’t have a history of providing the level of interior quality you might expect from a Mercedes, and that includes the previous model – especially in lower-spec forms.
Yet, the new A200 addresses this historical flaw with dramatic effect, because beyond the fancy digital displays there’s a clear premium look and feel to the baby ’Benz’s cabin. That’s applicable even if you have an A200 in virtually stock spec (we tested two versions to ensure our initial, heavily optioned model wasn’t painting a false picture).
Interestingly, the A200’s standard black man-made leather seats provided an extra degree of comfort over the red/black two-tone leather seats available as part of the $3190 AMG Exclusive Package – offering better under-thigh support even though both have extendable cushion bases.
That red adds a welcome dose of colour to the cabin, though, and spreads to the doors, while there’s a liberal use of soft plastics with varying textures – including a pleasant dimpled effect for the central dash section – mixed with brushed-metal-effect trim.
The turbine-style air vents not only look striking, but you also discover, when twiddling them, that they have been beautifully engineered. Even the scalloped stalks (one of which is the ’Benz-trad gear shifter) look stylish.
The optional LED ambient lighting ($490 individually or part of the Exclusive/AMG Exclusive Packages) is also something to behold at night, with a choice of 64 colours.
The main blots? The clacky, low-quality feel to the temperature-control toggles, and the slightly cheap-feeling slide operation of the centre console lid (which covers the wireless smartphone tray). That tray reflects some good storage up front, though – accommodating the largest smartphones – while the door pockets are generously sized.
Changes to the rear of the cabin aren’t as dramatic as the front. While Mercedes says there’s some extra leg room over the last model, it’s still relatively cramped. Toe space is tight, too, and the door pockets awkward to access.
The boot is a reasonable size for the class – up 29L to 370L – and includes a cargo floor mat, side net storage, tie-downs, and a 12-volt power socket.
The mechanicals below the boot area provide a surprise for a luxury car: a semi-independent, torsion-beam rear suspension. It’s unexpected because while this set-up typically brings advantages in cost and space efficiency, chassis engineers tend to favour a fully independent multi-link or double-wishbone rear suspension to achieve optimum ride and handling.
There are plenty of models that ride well with a torsion-rear set-up – including the new Renault Megane RS on its base Sport chassis – though the Mercedes can’t match the compliant, easygoing comfort of the French hot hatch or multi-link-suspended hatches such as the Volkswagen Golf and Toyota Corolla. The A200’s suspension is easily irritated, with surface irregularities regularly intruding into the cabin.
With independent rear suspension and adaptive dampers in play via the AMG Exclusive Package, the A200’s ride improves, if still far from perfect. While not uncomfortable per se, the ride is brittle around town and the suspension can transition from suppleness to floatiness across undulated suburban roads.
There’s a high degree of tyre noise, too, whether you’re on the base model’s 18-inch Bridgestone Turanza rubber or the $1390 19-inch, lower-profile Pirelli P Zero tyres (both with run-flat technology).
Our test cars also exhibited occasional noises that would prompt us to request a fix from a Mercedes dealer: one had a left air vent that tended to buzz under acceleration; the other (heavily optioned) car exhibited rattles and creaks over bumps that prompted us to check for a loose dash section and ensure the steering column adjusters were clicked fully into place (they were).
We can attest that the Pirelli P Zeros of our heavily optioned car benefit grip, though. Even in the wet, they provide a high level of confidence on winding country roads.
To match that to a tauter chassis, it’s vital to switch the adaptive dampers from Comfort to Sport – via the Dynamic Select toggle on the centre console. This brings a transformative dynamic effect.
While the steering provides good accuracy and weighting regardless of mode, Sport mode allows the A-Class to shine with sharper turn-in and much tighter body control.
The brakes are also excellent, so there are some encouraging signs for the AMG versions of the A-Class we’ll see in 2019. A super-tight turning circle is welcome around town, too.
There’s a new petrol engine for the A200 – a 1.3-litre turbocharged four-cylinder developed in conjunction with Renault. The upcoming A180 will get a lower tune, but the A200 serves up 120kW and 250Nm to the front wheels.
An 8.0-second 0–100km/h claim means the slightly cheaper Volkswagen Golf GTI is much quicker to three figures than the A200, though its in-gear performance is strong, turbo lag is minimal, and the engine is a willing revver.
The engine is a bit coarse as revs climb, so refinement isn’t quite on the luxury-car mark, and around town the standard dual-clutch auto’s tendency to hesitate at times will have some buyers wishing a more conventional torque-converter transmission were paired with the engine. The dual-clutcher is better on the open road where its quick-snap gear changes are particularly appreciated.
Official fuel consumption of 5.7 litres per 100km is good if not class-leading when considering the rival Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series. Our trip computer indicated a 7.4L/100km average after a long journey incorporating all types of driving, including ‘commuting’ (well, technically we were driving to work!) and freeway cruising.
The cruise control is effective at staying within proximity of a set speed when changing gradients are encountered. Variable-speed adaptive cruise is available for $3670.
Many buyers will undoubtedly be tempted by the newly announced A250, which, while not yet tested, appears to be the obvious value pick.
For just $2300 extra (priced from $49,500), the A250 brings a (carryover) 165kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo with 4Matic all-wheel drive that isn’t significantly thirstier (6.6L/100km), but is significantly faster (0–100km/h in 6.2 seconds). It also features the multi-link rear as standard.
Plenty of driver aids are standard on the A200, though: active lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring (with vehicle-exit warning), adaptive high beam, speed-limit recognition, autonomous emergency braking, and self-steering parallel/perpendicular parking.
Indeed, in many ways the Mercedes-Benz A-Class justifies its premium positioning with the quality of its cabin and the extent of its standard technology.
We just wish the standard suspension came with similar levels of sophistication to match the rest of the high-tech package. The A-Class would then truly be an A-grade hatchback.
NOTE: The Australian-plated vehicle pictured features the AMG pack, adding styling upgrades and a multi-link rear suspension design. This review takes in the merits of both the upgraded AMG-tweaked option and the base model with its torsion-beam setup.