The best Baby Benz ever? New Mercedes-Benz A-Class could be a front runner in the premium small hatch class
Text: David Khoo
The new 2018 A-Class is a baby Benz like no other.
While the first ‘baby Benz’ was 1982’s 190 E, predecessor to the C-Class sedan, the A-Class took over that role in 1997.
It’s arguable it didn’t quite succeed in breaking into a younger market.
As a product manager admitted to CarBuyer during the launch of the third-gen W176 model in 2012 (facelifted in 2015), the first two A-Class generations were bought largely by retirees and older folk who wanted Mercedes-ness without the hassle of parking a five-metre long sedan.
But the W176’s compact MFA platform spawned cars like the CLA and GLA that Mercedes really captured a younger demographic and a bigger share of the less-expensive pie – in 2017, a quarter of all Mercs sold worldwide was a compact model.
The new A-Class is strong enough to be a throne-contender in the tough-fought small Euro premium hatch segment
Even then the A-Class, which was small and stylish, was outgunned by both its stable mates and rivals: It still lacked space and a certain driving zing, at least compared to the class powerhouse the VW Golf.
If you’re one of the non-believers who felt the A-Class previously couldn’t quite deliver the full essence of the brand, you’ll be blown away by the new model.
We don’t use such words lightly, because it goes without saying that a new model comfortably supersedes its predecessor in quantifiable terms.
If you’ve read our review of the CLS four-door coupe recently, you’ll see that this latest W177 A-Class has a similar visage and features a smart, streamlined silhouette reinforced by a slippery 0.25 Cd.
Even if it doesn’t agree with your tastes, the new A is at least eye-catching and elegant in the way the latest Mercs are – and that’s not easy to do on a small hatch.
Those aside, it is the less tangible improvements that impressed us, because there is an air of solid-hewn quality to the latest proceedings that is reminiscent of models further up the Merc hierarchy, again not something you could claim about the W176.
With the W177, it’s very clear that the brand’s compact car offensive has come of age, because the cabin and dynamics of the new A-Class have raised the bar so high for the premium hatchback category you now need a pole and a good run to clear it, as the competition has evolved from hurdles to pole vault.
That’s not a problem, because the A-Class has managed that sort of elevation thanks to new tech in every aspect: New drivetrain, new onboard tech and a new platform.
A lot of the buzz over the A-Class launch has to do with what it means for the brand’s new generation compact cars, especially since it is the first of its ilk to ride on a brand new modular platform.
Mercedes hasn’t officially named it yet (it’s not the previous MFA, that’s for sure) but there will be at least six new models running the same platform, including at least three crossovers in an expanded GLA family.
But before you all go berserk for those, it’s well worth considering the A-Class first. The problem of the small boot with a tiny load aperture has been solved, as the car now carries 370-litres of cargo room (up by 29-litres) with a widened rear load space.
Even if the new A-Class boasts a more spacious cabin than before, you’ll be pleased to know it’s a doddle to park, pilot around town, and if you so desire, tackle the winding roads in.
Don’t snigger, we loved the deft balance of the A 200, which is powered by a brand new 1.33-litre engine with cylinder shutoff function, which produces a perky 163bhp/250Nm matched to a slick-shifting, seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.
The powertrain performance is smooth and spurt-free, and there’s a ‘large car’ feel to the A-Class driving experience, especially in terms of body control and refinement.
In fact, part of the test-route in Croatia took us over the worst-paved surfaces we’ve ever seen, but the A 200 soaked all the abuse up with aplomb and little cabin intrusion, a big improvement over the previous gen car.
Unlike the start-stop and low speed spurts and shunts found in some rivals, the A 200 delivers its goods smoothly and sublimely, and is a fine testament to the large limo mores of the compact hatchback.
Although the base models, like the A 200, make do with a rear torsion beam axle, the performance and 4Matic variants, as well as the cars with adaptive damping feature a rear multi-link set-up for even more precise handling.
Our test-car is well-appointed with the optional goodies, and features dual 10.25-inch displays that are housed under a seamless glass cover – at time of writing, we’ve learnt that this is one of the options for the Singapore market, which will also introduce a seven-inch/10.25-inch display combo; the third option comprising dual seven-inch displays will not be available for our market.
There’s a noticeable absence of an instrument cowl, so the cabin exudes an airy feel similar to the E-Class and S-Class models. Interface for the ‘common’ display positioned in the middle is via the Comand rotary/pad interface or touch control, so cycling through the features has never been easier.
Most importantly, we like how the technology has been applied and incorporated into the car, so using it is a seamless (and more importantly, painless) experience thanks to the MBUX (short for Mercedes-Benz User Experience).
Some brands pack a whole bunch of tech into a car, but drivers probably use less than ten per cent of the potential, simply because it’s not easy to access.
Mercedes-Benz clearly appreciates that ease-of-use enhances the ownership experience immeasurably for both the young and the old. If you’ve ever had to field “how-to” tech queries from your older friends and relatives about how to operate a car’s features, “Mercedes” can now take over, because all the occupants need to do is to ask, and she will respond and demonstrate – all they have to do is to listen as she does.
The Mercedes name comes from the daughter of one of the brand founders, Emil Jellinek, so the ghost in this machine has, quite aptly, the same moniker.
It’s basically the brand’s version of Apple’s Siri, an onboard virtual assistant.
“Hey Mercedes”, which immediately engages the AI. Not only is “she” programmed to listen, she also understand the different accents and intonations of the world in pronouncing common English words, as opposed to just German and American English inflections.
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Moreover, it’s possible to make conversation with the sassy “Mercedes”, and she even picks up on oblique comments – as opposed to the direct “make it colder”, you could even say, “I’m feeling hot” for her to drop the temperature on the climate control, but that’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg as far as her abilities are concerned.
The A-Class doesn’t just inherit the big car fun stuff, but also the safety-related ones like Intelligent Drive from the S-Class, so it’s capable of some degree of semi-autonomous driving and evasive action, though naturally those things will probably be cost options back in Singapore.
It’s clear that Mercedes-Benz has given the A-Class its day in the sun, because the baby of the star family scores an easy A star in this latest fourth iteration, and brings all the highlights of a large car into the compact car segment.
Mercedes-Benz A 200
|Engine||1,332cc, inline 4, turbocharged|
|Power||163hp at 5500rpm|
|Torque||250Nm at 1620rpm|
|Agent||Cycle & Carriage|