The new Mercedes-Benz A-Class premium hatchback has landed in South Africa. With only 2 derivatives on offer and a cabin tailor-made for tech junkies, is there enough substance beyond the glitzy packaging? We drove the newcomer in Cape Town to find out.
The old A-Class, which marked the transition of Benz's compact offering from an MPV-ish shopping cart to a desirable premium hatchback, was not without fault. The ride was overly firm and some of its cabin's materials and finishes were not what you would call "Mercedes quality". Initially, with the introduction of the new model, you might wonder if the bumpy ride has been addressed: the A200 runs a torsion beam rear suspension, while the A250 has a more sophisticated multi-link rear end.
Looks may be somewhat derivative, but in the metal, it works.
The A-Class' cabin has gone through a substantial upgrade in materials and if so specced, comes with the "skateboard" instrumentation-and-infotainment screen that spans half the width of the cabin. It also includes the new MBUX system, which is the software that underpins the infotainment system and is capable of machine learning. It can also be operated entirely by voice control (if you want it that way).
A new 1.3-litre turbopetrol engine does duty in the A200, while the A250 continues to make do with a 2.0-litre turbopetrol, albeit with a bit more power than before. A turbodiesel version and the AMG A35 and AMG A45 performance derivatives will be added to the range in 2019.
Is a 1.3-litre turbo enough for a Benz?
Despite lingering doubts over the outright fuel efficiency of small turbo motors, the engine downsizing trend continues, even with the premium manufacturers. Mercedes-Benz projects that 4 in every 5 A-Classes it sells in South Africa will be an A200, which means the 1.3 will be the most popular engine choice for owners. We had a chance to drive it within the city limits and over the mountains that surround Franschhoek. With 120 kW and 250 Nm of torque, it’s well up to the demands of the daily commute. It handles quick bursts from low speed well (with little lag) and is responsive thanks to a quick-shifting 7-speed dual-clutch ‘box. Zero to 100 kph is rated at 8.2 seconds for the A200 and the fuel economy claim ranges between 5.2 and 5.6 L/100 km. We averaged in the mid 8s during our trip of just under 300 km.
You have a choice of a 1.3- or 2.0-litre turbopetrol, until more engines arrive in 2019.
On the freeway, it maintains 120 kph with ease, although acceleration beyond 100 kph feels strained. Once into the mountains, it lacks sporty acceleration; it's not fun to rev hard... I’m sure in most applications it gets the job done just fine, but if you’re looking for a sporty thrill from the engine, the A250 is what you should consider.
The A250 has had its outputs upped to 165 kW and 350 Nm of torque. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to drive this version, but will undoubtedly get it for a full test soon.
Is it refined to drive?
The A200 is probably the best derivative to drive to get a feel for the improvements in the A-Class' general ride quality. It only comes with the less sophisticated torsion-beam suspension (compared with the A250's multi-link setup), but certainly rides better than the previous generation. The harsh reaction to bumps and crashy feel on less than perfect surfaces have been rectified and the newcomer's generally more composed and sturdy over mixed surfaces.
The ride on the new model is much improved over that of the previous generation.
Slide the Dynamic Select toggle to Sport mode and the harshness is dialled up. It’s much firmer and with that, more responsive to inputs; much of the body movement in corners is reduced as well. A lot of the time it can be difficult to tell what a Sport button does to the ride, but there’s a discernable difference in the new A-Class.
Is the inside nice to touch?
Much of the substance of the new A-Class is focused around its technological (and graphical) features. You can tell the newcomer is aimed at the younger generation with its crisp graphics, fancy LED lighting and voice command activation that responds to “Hey Mercedes”.
With the huge screen (optionally) fitted, it lifts the cabin to an unmatched level in the premium hatchback segment. The screen was first introduced in the E-Class and has filtered down to the A-Class, but now feels easier to use and more user-friendly than ever. The steering wheel controls control the instrument cluster, which can be programmed to display whatever you want and the centre screen can be activated by touch, by using the touchpad in front of the cupholders, or by voice activation.
The new MBUX system is more user-friendly and works with touch, touchpad and voice activation.
MBUX has so many features that I can’t mention them all, but it integrates sweetly with your phone and certain apps, such as Trip Advisor, to list points of interest.
The quality of the cabin appears to be a nice improvement over the previous generation too. The piano-black plastic around the air vents seem more solid to the touch and the transmission tunnel surrounds are held on with better fasteners than before.
One thing that was notable, was that the Alcantara seat upgrade was more comfortable than the standard leather seats, I'd certainly prefer them for longer trips.
Other notable things?
The inside of the car has been made wider and better-suited to accommodating passengers in luxurious comfort. Increased shoulder and headroom feature both in front, and at the back, and with a 30 mm longer wheelbase, there’s a bit more legroom as well. The capacity of the luggage bay has mercifully been increased too (by 29 litres for a total of 370 litres) and with increased width, the bay is a little easier to pack.
The interior exhibits a lot of wow factor.
Mercedes-Benz has really studied its A-Class buyers and tapped into what makes them tick. The Sindelfingen-based brand's re-engineered premium hatchback has the same appeal as an out-of-the-box top-end smartphone. It immediately makes the old one feel obsolete while inspiring an immense desire to have one.
The technology inside is impressive – bang up to date with what modern, young consumers want from their car, especially given the myriad ways in which you can interact with the MBUX system.
Mercedes-Benz has also paid more attention to the substance beyond the fancy tech, the introduction of which is fully expected in a new car in this day and age... The ride quality is much better (even on the entry-level suspension) and the materials and build quality seem to have been improved too.
For the moment, it doesn’t look like BMW or Audi have anything that can quite match the sheer desirability of the new A-Class.
Mercedes-Benz A200 R499 000
Mercedes-Benz A250 R593 300