Mercedes-Benz A-Class (2016) First Drive

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We attended the launch of the facelifted Mercedes-Benz A-Class in Dresden, Germany. Have the creases in the previous model been ironed out?

HIGHLIGHTS

 - Improved ride thanks to Drive Select - Connectivity to Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink  - A45 AMG even faster and has more power  - Mainstream models and A45 AMG coming to SA in Jan 2016

When Mercedes-Benz unveiled the first generation of A-Class back in 1997, there were mixed reactions. How could a luxury sedan manufacturer make a family hatchback/MPV? Some even suggested that this was the beginning of the end for the brand.

While sales of the first-generation Mercedes-Benz A-Class were commendable, the model was never taken seriously by those who would otherwise consider an Audi A3 or BMW 1 Series - in other words, younger buyers. The new model, launched in 2012, changed the formula. Here was a fashionable premium rival to the BMW 1-Series and Audi A3. The market response was terrific, with 463 000 units sold globally in 2014 alone. There was a hardcore AMG model too, featuring the world's most powerful 2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. This car became a great success and image builder for Mercedes-Benz as it opened up new markets and lured a younger generation of buyer. And unlike its predecessors, this A-Class was purchased purely for its design too. Interestingly, South Africa was the 10th biggest market for this car.

Not that the current A-Class has been without its faults... The ride was firm and on uneven roads such as ours, it could be unpleasant especially with the sportier models like the A250 and A45 with their bigger wheels. The gearbox could also be a little hesitant at low speeds, resulting in a frustrating drive around town.

What's New?

Now Mercedes-Benz has given the A-Class a significant upgrade, and it will reach us very soon. First up, there's the looks. A slight change in the front and rear bumpers, and some tweaked rear tail lamps result in a mildly upgraded exterior. The real changes have occurred underneath and inside. Sift your way through the marketing spin and there's plenty to think about, but the best way to get an understanding of how much has changed is by driving the car.

The ride has improved considerably with the addition of Dynamic Select with adaptive damping. The default mode is Comfort, but you can select Sport and Eco which respectively either sharpen up responses or optimise the vehicle for efficiency. Finally there's an Individual mode which allows you to set up the car to suit you best. The 7G-Tronic transmission has also been reworked to offer better gearshifts. For those wanting some (competitive) fun, the car can now do launch starts.

The interior gets better trim, new instrument clusters and the infotainment system receives the ability of Apple CarPlay and MirrowLink - bringing smartphone integration to the car.

How Does It Drive?

We had the A220d with 7G-Tronic transmission for the first drive and the refinement of this diesel engine was notable. It's only when you accelerate harshly that you hear the typical diesel clatter, but then this particular model is not really aimed at hot hatch enthusiasts. Still, with 130 kW and 350 Nm, the A220d has more than adequate performance. Fuel economy is this car's forte and it is said to consume just 4.2L/100km.

There are two types of European roads. You have the finest quality of tarmac on the autobahn and B-roads, and then you get the typical cobblestone streets. Both are a good test and the Mercedes-Benz A 220d did well on both surfaces.

A45 AMG - The Ultimate Hot Hatchback

We drove the A 220d to the German Touring Car (DTM) circuit of Lausitzring - a tight and twisty circuit with many tight corners and it was here where we would be putting the new Mercedes-AMG A45 through its paces.

It too has received some upgrades. Let's start with the headline - more power! The 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder motor now offers 280 kW and 475 Nm (up 15kW and 25Nm) and despite Audi's best efforts with the 2.5-litre RS3, the A45 AMG offers the most power in this segment. Other mechanical changes include shorter gear ratios with better transmission mapping, front axle differential (if you spec Dynamic Plus) as well as tweaks to the driving modes. Much like the AMG GT S, this model features modes like Comfort, Sport, Sport+, Individual and Race which make the A45 a lot more driveable. Best part is you can select a Comfort suspension setting, while the engine stays in Sport+ meaning you won't suffer on bumpy roads.

The result of this is one very quick car, both in a straight line and cornering. 0-100kph is smashed in 4.2 seconds and the A45 charges to a limited top speed of 250kph. Mercedes-AMG had brought along German touring car legend Bernd Schneider who piloted a Mercedes-AMG GT S supercar and guided us around the tricky corners. With two sighting laps to get used to the car and the track, it was time to unleash all 280 kW.

In manual mode, the acceleration and gearshifts (both up and down) are very quick. The car's brakes are very good too and when you're doing well over 200kph, it's reassuring to feel confident in the braking force. Through the corners, the A45 is agile, especially if you spec that front differential, but if you get too aggressive you inevitably run in to understeer. It's not all about front end ploughing however, with its all-wheel drive you can actually get the back end to come around and play. The summary - the latest generation of A45 is one very quick car and moves the game on considerably.

It wasn't all about track driving though. We also had the opportunity to drive the A45 on the winding roads down to the Czech border. These B-roads are in excellent condition and the combination of tight off-camber corners and short straights make for a happy playground for the A45. With 475 Nm and a responsive gearbox, overtaking any slower vehicles is effortless. Given the amount of grip from all four wheels, it's going to take a special vehicle to keep pace with the A45 AMG.

We also had a short stint on sections of derestricted Autobahn where we could push the A45's top speed. At one stage we saw 230kph on the clock, before having to make way for faster traffic. To summarise: Mercedes-AMG has improved the ride considerably and the fact that you're able to switch between modes has made the car that much better to live with. That engine offers even more power, but officially Mercedes-AMG says it's at the limit of performance and reliability. Read the interview with Mercedes-AMG's Steffen Jastrow here.

While we were in Germany, we also had some time with the facelifted Mercedes-Benz G-Class.

2016 Mercedes-Benz A-Class Price for South Africa

The new Mercedes-Benz A-Class and A45 AMG arrive in January 2016. Prices include VAT, but exclude CO2 tax.

A200  R389 200

A200 d R419 200

A220 d R460 100

A250 Sport R491 500

A45 AMG 4MATIC R683 600

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