15.6.2018Mercedes Benz A-Class first drive
The Mercedes Benz A Class might be the smallest model available from the German giant - ignoring the Smart brand - but that doesn't make it any less important. Having long been a best-seller in the UK, the A Class has competed well in the premium hatchback sector. Now though, there's a new model, promising a focus on technology to tempt buyers in.
Review by Chris Lilly
Up front, buyers can pick from one of three engines at launch - made up of two petrols and a diesel. Despite diesel's decline, Mercedes still expects a large proportion of sales to be made up of the A 180d variant, though the A 200 petrol is expected to capture an number of buyers too. For those wanting a performance version, there isn't one as such. Buyers will have to wait for the inevitable AMG model, but until then, an A 250 petrol is available. This last option produces 224hp from a 2.0 litre turbo petrol unit, while the A 200 uses a turbo-charged 163hp 1.4 petrol, and the A 180d a 1.5 litre 116hp turbo-diesel. All models at launch come with a seven-speed automatic gearbox, with the 7G-DCT proving a good option when driven conventionally - though it can be caught on the wrong foot occasionally when pressing on. Acceleration times come in at 10.5 seconds, 8 seconds, and 6.2 seconds for the A 180d, A 200, and A 250 respectively - which range from respectable to rather nippy. The smaller petrol might not be as smooth as the diesel or quick as the A 250, but I found it offers a good driving experience in all. Long range drivers will crave the added refinement of the A 180d, but most private buyers will be very happy with the A 200, with its eager nature.
In a class with rivals such as the BMW 1 Series and VW Golf available, the A Class has to offer a good driving experience to stand any chance of competing. Fortunately it does, with an assured steering set-up, and precise action to the wheel. The suspension is stiff compared to some of its rivals, and this may put some buyers off if looking for a comfortable model. It's a slight shift from the norm for Mercedes, which embraces its reputation for comfort in larger models like the C-Class and E-Class. Sportier specifications are naturally harsher over rough surfaces, though more standard trim levels might still be too stiffly sprung for some. Personally, I like a car with stiffer suspension, and it means the A Class offers an engaging drive, particularly on smoother roads. In town, pot holes and speed bumps didn't put the car off or shudder occupants unduly, and the confident feel to the springs means spinning the Mercedes about tight junctions and car parks is easy. On the motorway, the A Class felt assured at pace as you might expect, and on open country roads the same feeling of solidity was present. It's not the best handling or most comfortable car in its class, but it's not bad at all.
The new model is clearly an A Class, but the designers have done plenty with the looks to make sure they aren't accused of laziness. The new style is sharper and better in my opinion than the rounder elements found on the previous generation. The look is also one of the first to use Mercedes Benz's latest evolution of its design language, with the A Class featuring many similar elements to the larger CLS. It's both longer and wider than the older model, so the A Class benefits from increased interior space for occupants. It's still not the most spacious car around, but it competes on a level playing field with many of its rivals, and you could easily sit four adults in the new A Class without much complaint. The rear seats still don't offer that much leg room - something the older model suffered from too - though only long trips with tall passengers are going to see issues arise. Boot space has improved in a similar vein. It's not class leading, but the 370 litres available with the seats up is competitive.
COMFORT & CONTROLS
A fair proportion of the A Class development budget has gone into the cabin I reckon, with very comfortable seats front and rear. However, the main feature to talk about is the new MBUX infotainment system. It's so advanced that it's better than anything else found in a Mercedes to date - even the S Class flagship, an established technological leader in the industry. The interior as a whole is excellent, with a bold design to it that adds a premium feel to everything. Pride of place goes to a one-piece widescreen system though, which houses both the driver's instruments and the sat-nav et al. There are cheaper versions available which split the screens or offer smaller sizes of each, but the headliner is the 10.25 inch dual screen set-up. All options use the MBUX system though, which is the next-generation set-up from Mercedes, and combines a central touchpad with gesture control, and swipe-able buttons on the wheel. Fitted with artificial intelligence, the system will learn users control preferences and habits, gradually tailoring everything to them. It's a system with high-quality graphics and fast processing speeds, with a simple to use interface and voice activation system that works in a similar way to Amazon's Alexa - with natural commands rather than stilted sentences. It's first class, and a real selling point for the A Class with a system that none of its rivals can compete with. One slight shame is that the stalks behind the steering wheel - which control indicators, wipers and gear selection - feel flimsy compared to other controls. Since they are used all the time, it does detract from the overall feeling of quality a little.
MPG & RUNNING COSTS
The most frugal model is unsurprisingly the A 180d, with a best fuel economy figure of 68.9 MPG. The A 200 petrol's best result is 53.3 MPG, wile the sportier A 250 will officially return 45.6 MPG. None are particularly thirsty then, with the smaller petrol and the diesel option promising fairly low running costs in terms of fuel usage. Although not a comprehensive test, the A 200 driven averaged 47 MPG after a 70-odd mile route mixing up urban, country, and motorway routes. It's a fair expectation for an 'average' drive, with a mixture of styles and roads. With care, the petrol could comfortable top 50 MPG I would reckon, and will only drop to the low-40s or less if the A Class is absolutely thrashed. Tax will cost between Â£145 and Â£205 for the first year rate, depending on model selected - included in the car's OTR - before then set at Â£140 a year for any variant.
The new range of engines available have had some serious work done to them to maximise efficiency. The A 200 for example has cylinder shut-off technology in operation when not under load, and improved design of the cylinder head and walls. Units also weigh less, the petrols both feature a particulate filter as standard, and the diesel includes SRC using AdBlue. The 7G-DCT transmission allows for coasting at higher speeds, and Eco Stop/Start is linked to the detection of stop signs to make sure use is optimised. The Dynamic Select system allows for drivers to select an Eco mode over Comfort or Sport, which lessens throttle response, and reduces the drain of the auxiliary systems on the engine, while also optimising gear changes for more economical driving. Aerodynamics have been improved over the previous model too. According to our calculations, the model tested has a Next Green Car Rating of 43.
The level of kit available on the A Class is very good. All models from the base SE trim get 16-inch alloys, twin seven-inch displays with MBUX and voice activation, comfort suspension, DAB radio, USB C ports, part Artico leather trim, active lane keep assist, air conditioning, and keyless entry and start. Move to Sport trim and LED headlights, 17-inch alloys, a change in upholstery, and automatic climate control are included, while AMG Line adds an AMG sports body kit, another change in upholstery, sports steering wheel, and 18-inch alloys. Options include changing the infotainment system from two sets of seven-inch screens to a seven-inch driver's screen with 10.25-inch central screen, or the swish twin 10.25-inch set-up. Other features that can be added include active multi-beam LED headlights, park assist kit, heated front seats, and an Advanced Navigation package. This last one is extremely useful, since it uses augmented reality as part of the navigation process. Using cameras at the front, as the car gets close to a junction, it displays a view of the road ahead onto the central screen. Overlaid on top of this in augmented reality are arrows telling you which way to turn, and street names so you know where you are on the map in relation to other turns. It's a great piece of kit for those wary about driving in unfamiliar surroundings, includes other features, and doesn't cost much to add at Â£495.
The MBUX system is good enough to tempt buyers into the new A Class by itself. However, by wrapping everything up in a stylish package, offering a frugal range of engines, and setting the car up for a decent driving experience, the Mercedes Benz A Class is a very good compact car - and comfortably competes with the best models in its class.
Model tested: Mercedes Benz A Class
Body-style: Premium hatchback
Engine / CO2: 1.4 litre petrol / 123 g/km
Trim grades: SE, Sport, and AMG Line
On-road price: from £25,800. Price as tested £27,500
Warranty: Three year / unlimited mileage
In the showroom: Now
Review rating: 4 Stars