Smartest, sharpest A-Class
Mercedes believes the new 2018 A-Class is so vastly different from all previous generations that they debated giving it a new name. Ergo, this one is revolutionary and for the first time will team up with a sedan version set for South Africa in early 2019. Even in a market fixated with SUVs, this is still an important car for Mercedes-Benz – the challenger to the antiquated BMW 1 Series, the soon-to-be-replaced Golf 7 and the almost-here Audi A3.
How high does it raise the bar?
If we were the other manufacturers, we’d be having a mental breakdown right about now such are the changes swept down to the smallest premium class. Previous A-Class was a mixed bag with intolerable flaws and compromises but this 2018-2022est version is barely recognisable. On the one hand the focus has been on comfort – an area where the previous A-Class fell down – and on the other hand it’s about Artificial Intelligence derived through Merc’s ingenious MBUX system. More on that in a bit
Minimal frontal drag, in aerodynamic lexicon. Designers have bettered a class-beating aero with active radiator flaps, a smooth underbody and some other wind-cheating devices that need complex visuals to demonstrate. And while the shape drew some criticism on TGSA’s social media, it definitely makes the competition appear dull or out of proportion.
Let’s talk revolution.
It starts with wider tracks – good for the Moose test – which leads to more shoulder, head and legroom inside. And while we wouldn’t call the rear spacious or airy, it’s nice to know the bigger boot is now easier to load things in horizontally thanks to the new-look taillights. And there’s been a concerted effort to reduce noise not just by aero, but also with cushy material cladding. You’ll notice it when you close the door for the first time: it now shuts with Merc solidness. Comfort has gone up several notches, not a previous forte, and even on the bigger wheels which I suspect the A-Class’s style conscious buyer will choose, there’s a suppleness to it. Think the A-Class sedan with the longer wheelbase might ride more like a C-Class, but we’re jumping ahead of ourselves.
The engine range is compact
Admittedly Merc is going to fill the gaps with a diesel later this year and with the A 45 AMG early next year so for now it’s either the A200 (120kW, 250Nm) or A250 (165, 350Nm). Merc’s sample range at launch was 80 per cent the former since it’s a reflection of actual sales so we spent the day driving the 1.3-litre turbo 4-cylinder instead of the 2.0-litre 4-cylinder.
Like all small engines, it looks perfectly optimised for the car on paper. Carbon emissions not toxic enough to kill a moth, fuel consumption around 5.0l/100km, a torque curve resembling a fast internet line. But it’s a truly awful engine around town, unbecoming of something residing behind a 3-pointed star on the grille. Applicable to the Renault-Nissan alliance with Daimler.
Rough characteristics, a gearbox that has no clue when to shift up, minimal overtaking power. It’s all there in quantities to spoil. Any small capacity engine from VAG is completely effortless by comparison.
Differences between A200 and A250 occur at the rear, too. The A200 rides on a Torsion beam setup while the A250 receives the fancier multilink. Anyone who immediately dismisses torsion beam for ride comfort needs to know that the A-Class, and the new Ford Focus for that matter, don’t sacrifice a lot, even if you have a mountain pass underneath you. Steering is precise, plus the little extra comfort in the dampers lets you find and sense the grip earlier. While not the rear-wheel drive fun of a 1 Series, it does preface the A 45 AMG remarkably well.
What’s MBUXMercedes-Benz User Xperience – because everything needs to be an experience these days. The two screens come standard which you’d never think in today’s maddening options, and they’re there to reconcile three different sets of info, as configured by you. Now it does require a tech savvy attitude but to its credit it does a good job of keeping your eyes near the road during the steep learning curve, even when you’ve disorientated yourself in a maze of menus and need to press the home button out of complete despair.
Voice is the modern method of command. In the A-Class, that command (in English) is ‘Hey Mercedes’. A polite voice responds much the same way as it would with something like Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home Assistant.
There are teething problems, naturally. While it can do things like put seat heaters on, window demister, open the sunroof blind, play a specific song or look for hotels and restaurants using tripadvisor, it’s nowhere near the stage of replacing tactile buttons.
Pricing and verdict
The A200 starts at R499 900 while the A250 takes that to R593 000. I emphasise the word start. For a bit of fun we sat with the online configurator to see what you could spend on a A200; in two minutes we were up to R600 000 with the AMG-Line Package, Driver Assistance Package, Parking Package and Leather Package.
The engine in the A200 sullies a suave package that’s set a benchmark in so many aspects, and you can now write the design and entertainment above any Mercedes currently on sale. Now you can buy small to get big.