Test Drive: Mercedes-Benz A-Class

By daryl, 19 October 2018
Mercedes A-Class

World Cup what?
We’re talking about Croatia. You know, the country that put England to the sword in the semi-finals in Russia. That’s where the international press drive of the new A-Class was held. Its southern coast is an especially beautiful setting for an equally stunning car. It’s no wonder the directors of Game of Thrones like it here. But that’s not the big hit we want to talk about right now…

So you think the new A-Class is going to be a hit?
I mean, look at it. Sure, it's hard to shake off those Kia Cerato-like taillights. But that’s not to say they’re unattractive. The outgoing W176 A-Class wasn’t bad looking to begin with but the new one looks sharper and more intent from every angle – that new corporate face just gels with the W177’s compact and fluid proportions. Things look sublime inside too. And there’s substance to the style as well…

Here comes the numbers…
Spot on. The sleeker exterior is the product of many hours in the wind tunnel if its class-leading drag coefficient of 0.25Cd is anything to go by. It also hides a larger and more passenger-friendly chassis which supposedly has the highest aluminium content in its class. Mercedes-Benz claims that this new setup helps with isolating the suspension from the cabin and reducing interior noise levels. You also get more room to go with the improved NVH now that the wheelbase has grown by 30mm. Pair that with a 14mm increase in front track and you have the foundations of a more dynamic vehicle.

Mercedes A250
Mercedes A250
Mercedes A250
Mercedes A250

Is it really better to drive?
The wider track does reduce the twitchiness up front, allowing the steering to run smoother and more precise at speed. But that isn’t the W177’s most noteworthy improvement. One of the W176’s most glaring errors was the stiffness in its ride. It didn’t help that Mercedes-Benz Malaysia enjoyed ticking sports suspension on the options list. The new A-Class came under scrutiny when it was announced that base models would feature torsion beams in the rear. But even that archaic setup, which is much lighter by the way, feels a touch more supple than before. However, higher-spec models equipped with multi-links do tackle bumpy surfaces with a bit more grace.

Mercedes A250

Are the powertrains equally convincing?
We got to sample two petrol engines during our drive in Split. The first is an all-new 1.3-litre M282 engine designed exclusively for Mercedes’s compact FWD offerings, used in the A200. Despite the strict diet, the 163bhp A200 produces 7bhp more than its 1.6-litre predecessor. But a higher specific output does take its toll on the smaller engine – it can sound a bit rough when rallied. However, keep things gentle and you’ll hardly notice the strain. In fact, the new engine is capable of shutting off two of its cylinders at low speeds, so you’ll be saving quite a bit of fuel in the process.

The A200’s eco-centric approach sets the stage for the A250 to shine as the more performance-biased variant, at least until an AMG model arrives. Its two-litre M260 engine is also new, featuring ‘Conicshape’ cylinders that supposedly reduce friction around the pistons. The 224bhp/350Nm engine has a lot of poke and vigour. And the seven-speed DCT, which is also fitted to the A200, is a competent partner in crime. Dynamically, the new A250 is the closest Mercedes-Benz has gotten to the segment benchmark, the Golf GTI. But the Merc has a few extra tricks up its sleeve…

Is this this where you tell us about MBUX?
Yes. Short for Mercedes-Benz User Experience, MBUX is the highlight of the new A-Class’s infotainment – a voice control system which accommodates natural dialogue like: “Hey Mercedes, I’m feeling a bit warm,” or; “Hey Mercedes, where’s the nearest gas station?”. MBUX is hooked up to all your in-car controls such as lights and windows, as well as multimedia and navigation functions. And it can adjust the cabin temperature, set a new waypoint or change the tunes depending on what you ask of it.

The core technology here is the work of American tech outfit Nuance, the same guys responsible for the GKUI system in the upcoming Proton X70. The principle they employ is to have MBUX hooked up to a cloud database at all times which helps it better understand the user and learn their habits along the way. Mercedes-Benz has even gone to the liberty of instilling a sense of humour into the system. Ask it what it thinks of rivals like BMW or Audi and you’re sure to get a snide comment. Praise it and it’ll blush. Seriously, one of its responses to a compliment is “I’m blushing”.

And that’s how machines will take over the world…
MBUX is only the tip of the iceberg. The new A-Class also packs advanced driving aids derived from the S-Class such as Active Distance Assist Distronic with Active Steering Assist (adaptive cruise control up to 210kph), Active Lane Change Assist (guided lane changes between 80 to 180kph) and Active Emergency Brake Assist. Like most modern Mercs, the A-Class is probably just a few lines of code and some regulation changes away from being a fully autonomous vehicle.  

Would you still buy one?
The new A-Class ticks all the right boxes for those in the market for a new, premium hatch. It looks good, drives well and offers a good balance between day-to-day practicality and tech that should stay relevant for a few years at least. Even if you’re not a fan of hatchbacks, there are seven other models built on the same platform to look forward to. We’ve already seen the A-Class Sedan and B-Class, but models like the CLA, GLA and GLB are also in the works. If you think the Germans have already exhausted all possible niches in the automotive market, think again. Mercedes-Benz is only just getting started…