The Mercedes-Benz A200 sedan is not just a new model, it's part of a bigger plan.
Sedan sales might be slowing worldwide but Mercedes is doubling down.
It is about to introduce two small sedans with differences so subtle most people will struggle to distinguish them.
Meanwhile, the Mercedes CLA sedan due a month or so from now is essentially the same car underneath but with a sleeker, coupe-like roofline, a more tapered rear end, and a larger boot (460 litres versus 420 litres). Think of it as a miniaturised version of Mercedes’ flagship four-door coupe.
It is unusual for a car company to have enough money spare to invest in two almost identical models – especially when sedan sales are on the wane almost everywhere in the world except China.
Even though the A-Class sedan and CLA sedan might look the same at a glance, most of the bodywork is unique, which costs big dollars to design, engineer and create the tools that stamp them into shape.
But Mercedes has embarked on this bold mission because it reckons it has identified a niche within a niche.
While hatchbacks customarily outsell sedans in the small-car class, Mercedes has a more “traditional” buyer base. That’s the polite car industry way of saying “old”.
Buyers in this age bracket apparently see a hatchback as a shopping trolley, but a sedan with a prestige badge is a symbol to their neighbours and peers that they’ve made it in life.
If price is a guide, “traditional” is also a byword for “rich”, for the new A-Class sedan does not come cheap.
Prices start at $44,900 plus on-road costs – or about $50,000 drive-away by the time registration, stamp duty, compulsory third party insurance and dealer delivery fees are added. The A200 starts from $49,400 plus on-roads, or about $55,000 drive-away.
The options list easily pushes the A-Class sedan beyond $60,000 without much effort. Most of the cars on the media preview drive (including the grey car used to illustrate this story) had options that added up to $59,550 plus on-road costs, which equates to in excess of $65,000 drive-away.
Indeed, the starting price of a new A-Class sedan roughly twice as much as the cheapest Toyota Corolla hatch, which has many of the same features – and some the Mercedes lacks, such as radar cruise control and a five-year warranty.
As with most other luxury brands, Mercedes is persevering with a three-year warranty for now, even though the majority of mainstream brands now offer five-year coverage or more.
In the meantime, luxury brands are hoping to dazzle buyers with features rather than have them look at the fineprint in warranty terms and conditions.
The Mercedes A-Class is armed with every other available piece of technology including autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, speed sign recognition, and lane keeping assistance. The list goes on. Radar cruise control is packaged with other safety aids for $1790.
Inside, the new A Class sedan is essentially the same as the hatch (and the upcoming CLA sedan).
The driver’s view is dominated by a high-resolution digital display that covers more than half the width of the dash. It really is one of the most stunning interiors in the business today and I’m not sure how Benz, or its rivals, will top it. No doubt it also explains some of the price premium.
Differences between the A-Class sedan and hatch that the dealer will tell you about, but which you may not have noticed otherwise, are the seats.
The front seats in the hatch are a one-piece sports design with a built-in headrest, while the sedan has a more traditional (there’s that word again) seat design that has a separate headrest and the side bolsters are not as pronounced, making it easier to get in and out of the car.
As with all new Mercedes-Benz cars, infotainment includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and embedded navigation.
The “Hi Mercedes” function works like Siri for Apple products: it gives drivers voice control over things like temperature settings in the cabin and inputting navigation destinations, though it’s far from perfect and takes some practice to master its limited commands.
Visibility is generally good for a sedan, although the thick rear roof pillar blocks a significant portion your view when trying to park or reverse out of an angled parking and onto a busy roadway.
The 360-degree camera overcomes the parking challenges, but isn’t much help when trying to spot fast-moving traffic.
On the road
There are two models in the new A-Class sedan range from launch: the A180 powered by a turbo 1.3-litre four-cylinder petrol (100kW/200Nm) and the A200 powered by a higher output version of the same engine (120kW/250Nm).
Both have the same claimed consumption average of 5.7L/100km and both require a minimum of 95 RON premium unleaded.
In the more powerful guise the engine is perky, although the dual-clutch automatic transmission isn’t as intuitive as others of this type. Smooth gear changes come with subtle adjustment of the throttle.
On the media preview drive this week, Mercedes put on a fleet of A200s as the A180s were yet to land. All cars had added extras, including adaptive suspension, so we can’t yet vouch for the base model delivered as is. However, Mercedes says the majority of buyers add the equipment fitted to the test cars.
We started in the A200 with the optional AMG styling pack which brings 19-inch alloy wheels and normal (non runflat) tyres. It means there’s an inflator kit in the boot and no spare.
If a tyre takes on a nail in the tread, you’ll be able to repair it temporarily with the inflator goo. Hit a pothole and split the sidewall and you’re calling a tow truck because the goo will ooze out.
The comfort over bumps was ok rather than outstanding, even though the cars were equipped with optional suspension designed to numb the worst of our roads. The sportier tyres were also noisy on coarse chip roads, a trade-off for having grippy rubber.
We later drove an A200 on 18-inch wheels and tyres and it was in fact a touch firmer over bumps – and also noisy – despite being equipped with the optional whiz-bang suspension and having a taller profile tyre that customarily would provide better comfort.
Runflat tyres have thicker sidewalls so you can keep driving if you cop a puncture – albeit over a limited distance at a limited speed. The downside is they’re not as comfortable as normal tyres, dearer to replace, and can take longer to locate as a replacement.
Another observation from our test: the lane-keeping assistance was the most aggressive I’ve tested to date. Mercedes said it's more sensitive than previously so that it can meet new safety requirements in Europe, but other vehicles are not this abrupt when lane keeping systems intervene.
Get near a white line and most cars equipped with this technology with give the steering wheel a gently nudge to pull you into line. On two examples of the A-Class sedan tested this week, the lane-keeping system gave the brakes an abrupt jab on numerous occasions. To be frank, it was quite alarming. If this is normal I suspect customers will be bringing their cars back to the dealer to complain. Mercedes says the sensitivity can be adjusted.
If you can make the stretch to $60,000 – the cost of an A-Class sedan with some options – buy the real deal Mercedes C-Class sedan.
It’s a more plush experience than the baby Benz sedan and available for close to $60,000 drive-away in C200 trim without much arm-twisting.
This reporter is on Twitter: @JoshuaDowling