The battle for the best new passenger car is undergoing a change. No longer solely a fight for ultimate efficiency, killer design or being 0.3sec faster to the ton, connectivity and technology is taking over. Enter the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class - a smartphone on wheels.
Like a Panzer cresting the hill into the battle field for the time, this is the current ultimate technological machine, bar none.
Connectivity. It’s a word that’s been thrown about by most car makers but we were yet to really see anything tangible land on our doorstep - until now. Rhe new A-Class is intelligent, learns your habits and makes life easier. While that might all sound a little bit 1984 it’s actually a step back towards private anonymity – current connectivity options like Apple CarPlay track user habits and report back home; the German brand tells us that’s not the case. And its personal assistant will be every bit as smart from knowing if you’re running late to a meeting to preparing a call for someone you usually chat with at that time of day.
And just as it comes with five-seats, four wheels and paint, every model in the A-Class line-up from top to bottom gets the shiny new Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) system as standard, starting with this entry model A200.
This car is all about technology and connectivity and, while brilliant at simplifying efficient point A to B commuting, it isn't the right car if you're not going to use it.
But you don't have to be a computer whizz to understand how the car's technology works because it is simple to use.
Priced from $47,200 plus on-road costs, the A200 hatchback is the first in a bigger A-Class family to go on sale in Australia this month. It will be followed by the A250 4Matic later this year, the absolute base grade A180 early in 2019, and the sedan and fire-breathing AMG A35 and A45 duo after that.
But there’s plenty of kit in the popular A200 that’s risen by almost $3000 over the outgoing model.
Standard inclusions start with leather-like Artico interior trim, twin 10.25-inch display system with MBUX, wireless phone charging, climate control, keyless start, touch pro steering wheel, 9-speaker sound system, ambient interior lighting, 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights with adaptive high beam assist, automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assist, crosswind assist, blind spot monitoring with exit warning and traffic sign recognition.
It’s a comprehensive kit that by itself doesn’t necessitate optional packages to look good – though adaptive cruise control is missing - but the previously popular vision package continues to be offered and adds a panoramic sunroof, multibeam LED headlights and advanced parking assistant with 360-degree camera for $2490.
And, as is the norm for a new Mercedes model, a limited Edition 1 package that adds a distinctive look can be had for $7090. It changes exterior bling for larger black 19-inch alloys with a green flange highlights, AMG body styling, choice of white, grey and black paint options, tinted windows, green highlights on the bumpers, lowered suspension, bespoke brake callipers and a spruced-up AMG-style interior.
Parked next to the previous model the new A-Class looks dimensionally similar from head to toe but it’s grown slightly: 16mm wider, 120mm longer and 7mm taller. Its wider stance and predator-style nose is a more aggressive-looking update on the ageing hatchback that should prove popular but there are practical changes too.
The A-Class debuts MBUX that will eventually filter to other models.
The screen is lightly curved which helps with design implementation and its resolution and colour vibrancy (and accuracy) rivals that of flagship smartphones - it looks brilliant regardless of the ambient light and doesn’t have problems with glare.
It can be controlled via a new touchpad that replaces the previous controller unit on the centre console, touch pads on the steering wheel or, for the first time in Benz history, a touch sensitive screen. You can also talk to it like you would Apple’s Siri or Google’s Assistant but to customise the layout, including the driver’s dash and further settings, it’s easiest to use one of the physical input controls that all work fluidly.
Otherwise everything should be done via speech – not just changing radio stations, but absolutely everything. Don’t worry about pressing the sunroof switch and don’t fiddle with the climate control, MBUX is a fully connected brain.
Say “Hey, Mercedes,” and the system starts listening. It will either ask what you want or you can barge in and continue with the command – a small addition that’s much easier to live with than waiting for an ill-timed response. Let it know “I’m feeling cold,” and the climate control adjusts itself, or ask it to “open the sunroof” and you can guess what happens next.
It goes without saying things like changing radio stations, listening to music and navigating to an address are straightforward, but the natural speech recognition of the MBUX never faltered, even with some slightly twangy Australian points of interest. What will make the system really stand out is an update coming in March next year that adds internet connectivity. With it, Hey Mercedes will suggest where to eat, show ratings from users so you know if the food is any good, and can connect you to someone to make a reservation - all without taking your hands off the steering wheel and eyes off the road.
Deeper learnings, such as how MBUX understands your habits and what pre-emptive suggestions it will make, aren’t within the scope of this test drive as it requires six weeks of interaction to truly know what you need before you ask for it.
Its connectivity via MBUX is beyond what the rung of current connected vehicles offer, and is the stand out feature in its class. We just need to wait until March next year to see its full potential.
The taillights are now twin-piece units unlike the previous one-piece, which means the boot aperture is wider than before and it will be easier to fit large items like a pram inside. The boot itself is also 29-litres larger and space around the rear seat has grown enough that two adults won’t have any issue for comfort back there. Unlike before, a six-foot tall frame doesn’t rub the roof liner.
The wheelbase has grown by 30mm and while not a large increase it gives just enough extra space in the back that it doesn't feel as cramped. The front seats are easy to pop down into for a low hatchback and there's plenty of seat movement available with tilt-and-reach steering adjustment - the sports suspension tuned models sit a further 15mm lower. The base grade comes with manual-adjustable seats that can be upgraded to electric seats with heating.
A more polished interior than before, the A200 ticks most of the boxes buyers will want. It can be jazzed up with the AMG styling package that adds 64-colour ambient lighting and a sporty appearance with flourishes of red and black, but the base Artico non-leather seats don't get hot or clammy and have a soft-touch finish.
The seats upfront benefit ergonomically from four-way lumbar support and over half a day driving it was never tiring while the rear seats are also comfortable and have more kneeroom and headroom than before.
ON THE ROAD
Beyond the heart of the car which is now its software and not its hardware, the engine has shrunk to a 1.3-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol unit based on a block supplied by Renault. The engine is finished by Mercedes in Germany and it’s mated to a new Getrag seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and remains front-wheel drive – all-wheel drive variants will arrive later.
A dynamic test drive proved the car was willing to push to the speed limit such that the car is fun on twisting roads without being a handful. The automatic is well-tuned to both its comfort and sport modes too, either shifting calmly or rapidly with the option to take control via steering wheel-mounted paddles. It might not enjoy tugging four adults along, but it’s more than enough for everyday commuting.
Underneath, three different suspension tunes are available – normal, sport and adaptive. Fixed normal and 15mm lower sports suspension are based on a torsion beam rear-end while the optional adaptive dampers can change from soft to firm setting on a multi-link rear-end.
The adaptive dampers were softest over bumps but didn’t feel as well planted on the road in comfort mode as the normally sprung torsion beam setup. Around corners the dampers hold up more confidently but in this model grade they are unlikely to be a priority, with ride comfort from the normal suspension a good balance for every day.
On calmer roads and highway cruising the engine is quiet and there’s no hesitation from the dual-clutch automatic to get going in traffic but at higher speeds there is some road noise from the large 18-inch alloys. Otherwise, the ride is good and again the normal suspension tune proved the right blend of comfort and stability.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The update underneath, while a nicer car to drive, isn’t as substantial as the technology inside. Incoming AMG models will likely change that, but this is a car immediately aimed at tech savvy users and millennials, with an attractive price point for a solid bit of kit with exceptional connectivity.
However, as always in the technology world, early adopters will flaunt the car’s bells and whistles while impatiently having to wait for the most convincing MBUX update that’s due early next year.
- Interested in buying Mercedes-Benz A-Class? Visit our Mercedes-Benz A-Class showroom for more information.