Concept cars might be touting the future of in-car connectivity but for Mercedes’ all-new A-Class hatchback that future is already here. It’s a machine that fuses convenience and connectivity with everyday motoring like nothing before it.
While it may look like an evolution of its predecessor on the outside, and it doesn't move the needle too far in terms of its mechanical make-up, it has revolutionised how those behind the wheel interact with the car, and the world around them.
Vehicle Style: Premium small car
Price: $41,000 plus on-road costs (estimated)
Engine/trans: 120kW/250Nm 1.3-litre 4cyl turbo, 165kW/250 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol | 7spd automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 5.8 and 6.5 l/100km
The A-Class hatch is the starting point for a much broader small car family. The first of three mainstream variants, the A200, will arrive in Australian showrooms in August, and will be topped-and-tailed by the entry-level A180 and A250 Sport hot hatch in December. From there, AMG will double its small car presence with an even more manic replacement for the A45, potentially with a hybrid powertrain that takes its peak power output over 300kW, as well as a more conventional, mid-spec A35 - the latter arriving first in early 2019.
Then there'll be replacements for the more spacious B-Class, CLA (both as a four-door coupe and Shooting Brake wagon) and GLA SUV, as well as three additional body styles with a conventional sedan, a more rugged 'baby G-wagon' likely to be called GLB and a yet-to-be revealed eighth variant, plus a fully-electric EQ A hatch.
But the highlight is the new MBUX - which is short for Mercedes-Benz User Experience - that sits within two 10.25-inch high-resolution screens on top of the dash.
The display concept isn't new, as the Digital Widescreen Cockpit was first introduced on the current S-Class almost five years ago, but the functions within it, and how occupants interact with it, are at the cutting edge of connectivity.
We had a preview of the MBUX system at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year when it was first showcased as part of a static display, but using it in the real world during the A-Class' international launch in Croatia this week highlighted the sheer depth of its functionality and how easy it is to use.
Just as Steve Jobs said when he introduced the iPod, "you don't know what you want until you show it to them". This is the equivalent when it comes to connecting people, cars and the internet.
INFOTAINMENT: MBUX IN-DEPTH
At its core, MBUX links embedded data sources within the car, like GPS and vehicle parameters, with cloud-based services, artificial intelligence and an advanced voice recognition system.
Within the myriad of functions, the main infotainment screen separates phone, navigation, audio, Bluetooth connectivity, climate control and vehicle settings across a horizontal plane, with additional shortcuts to key functions in two small circles below each icon, such as a quick link to your home or work address in the nav, selecting the next track from your media device, or calling your better-half under the phone icon.
While that all seems fairly conventional, it's super easy to use and to personalise. But it goes deeper than that, with the car able to learn from your driving habits and tailor the screen to suit. For example, if you're driving to work it learns what radio station you listen to in the morning, if you call your boss regularly at that time of day and stop at the coffee shop on the way, and will automatically bring up the quickest route, switch over the radio and have your boss' number on speed dial. Clever stuff!
The menus can be accessed in three different ways; via the right touch pad on the steering wheel, a larger touch pad in the centre console or simply through the screen itself. All three have up-and-down and left-and-right phone-like swipe functionality while the console touch pad and the screen itself also have pinch-and-zoom controls.
But you don't have to use your hands at all, as MBUX introduces a voice assistant similar to Apple's Siri, Google Home or Amazon's Alexa that comprehends natural language to perform all sorts of things.
Simply say "Hey Mercedes" and then, for example, "I'm cold" and it will lower the temperature of the air conditioning and increase the fan speed. Say "I'm hungry" and it will suggest restaurants within the area. Want to know if it'll rain later in the day, just ask "Hey Mercedes, will I need an umbrella this afternoon?" And, bingo, it'll read out the weather forecast. More than just clever, it's cool!
During our time behind the wheel in Croatia, the system stumbled a few times but most of the time was quick and accurate. Mercedes claims the more data it receives through the cloud the quicker its artificial intelligence will comprehend a wider variety of commands, even with local colloquialisms.
Another cool feature is the sat nav system integrates a forward-facing camera with augmented reality to place virtual street signs and arrows on upcoming junctions so you know exactly where to turn. It comes up just before each direction, and we found it especially helpful. More than just clever, it's convenient!
That is really only the tip of the iceberg in what it can ultimately do. When the Mercedes Me portal is launched in Australia before the middle of 2019, the nav system will incorporate greater internet connectivity with things like Yelp ratings for restaurants. Owners will also be able to use their smartphone as a virtual key through Near Field Communication (NFC), and even invite friends to drive the car when it's not being used with a non-commercial car sharing scheme.
It not only looks fantastic, setting a new design benchmark for small luxury cars, the overall ambience lives up to the promise of the three-pointed star better than its predecessor with higher-quality materials, more thoughtful small item storage and significantly more space in the back seat and boot.
There, where the previous A-Class was cramped and compromised, the new model genuinely has space for two adults with more knee and shoulder room as well as rear vents. The middle seat is still best suited to small children though with a transmission tunnel that caters for models featuring an upgraded all-wheel drive transmission (like the A250) limiting its space.
The boot, too, is much more practical than before with 29L extra cargo carrying capacity - now up to 370L - and a wider aperture that makes loading larger items easier.
From behind the wheel, there's plenty of adjustment in the seating position with more under-thigh support than before and decent side support in the seats, while the chunky steering falls nicely to hand.
ON THE ROAD
More than just the feel-good stuff, Mercedes has fixed most of the foibles that afflict the current A-Class' driving character. The suspension is more sophisticated in how it rides, the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is much smoother when moving away from a standstill and shifts better on the fly, and there's less wind noise at highway speeds, making for an overall refined driving experience.
The A200's 1.3-litre turbo charged four-cylinder engine, which has been jointly-developed with Renault and produces 120kW and 250Nm, won't win any green light Grands Prix, but it perfectly suits the car's more sophisticated character with minimal turbo lag and a strong mid-range that makes it effortless to drive around town while being relatively efficient with a claimed average consumption of 5.8L/100km.
The A250 increases the fun factor to genuine hot hatch levels, with an upgraded 2.0-litre turbo four that pumps out 165kW and 350Nm and has a digitised soundtrack that drowns out the natural whooshiness with a more emotive exhaust note. It's a quick car, and fun to punt on a twisty road, but the adaptive suspension is both a little too soft in the default Comfort setting, pitching the car over bumps, and too stiff in the Sport mode to live with everyday. The steering also isn't the final word in feedback, feeling sticky and detached across the ratio.
All in all, the new A-Class is improved in every conceivable way and much more convincing in its role as 'My First Mercedes-Benz'.
Where it felt as though you were paying a premium just for the privilege of the three-pointed star in the outgoing model, this one is more refined, luxurious, spacious, safer and drives like a Mercedes should.
For nothing else though, MBUX is ground breaking stuff and legitimately smashes the concept of connecting people with - and through - their car. And that alone makes the A-Class hugely appealing.
- Interested in buying Mercedes-Benz A-Class? Visit our Mercedes-Benz A-Class showroom for more information.