Mercedes-Benz's most affordable hatch brings its ‘A’ game
THE new Mercedes-Benz A-Class is a much improved car. It's as if the company made a list of every shortcoming of the current model, in production since 2012, and worked through it item by item.
There's a reason Germans have a reputation for being methodical and thorough.
High on the to-do list were fixing the small hatchback's stiff and jiggly ride, its substandard all-round vision, squeezy and hard-to-access rear seat, not-large-enough cargo compartment, jerky double-clutch auto and too-high noise levels.
Brand-conscious customers ignored all of this, focusing instead on the chance to buy something wearing the three-pointed star from below $40,000.
Far from perfect, the current A-Class has been a hit. Last year it was the brand's second most popular model in Australia, racking up almost 5000 sales.
Still, Mercedes-Benz began work on its replacement with a completely clean sheet.
The new A-Class is significantly longer overall, a fraction wider and has a little extra distance between the front and rear axles.
The larger body has more room in every direction inside, the rear seat is now reasonably spacious and the reshaped rear doors make entry and exit easier, too.
The cargo compartment is larger and the redesigned tailgate has a wider opening to ease loading of bulky items.
Larger windows and carefully designed front pillars increase all-round vision. The exterior style isn't as sporty as the previous model, though the cleaner and less fussy look is an improvement.
The car also rides more smoothly and is quieter than before.
The first A-Class family member to arrive in Australia will be the A200, in August. We concentrated on this one at the car's recent presentation to international media in Croatia.
Powered by a new 1.3-litre turbo four, it will come only with a seven-speed double-clutch automatic, also new and a way smoother shifter.
Performance is especially good at low and middling revs, though some tingly vibration is felt when it's pushed higher.
Variable rate shock absorbers will be an option in Australia. So fitted and set to Comfort mode, the A200 gets a plush ride relative to the outgoing model.
Sport mode increases firmness, improving agility a little, though the A200's electrically assisted steering doesn't provide the sense of connection with the car to really encourage hard driving.
The new line-up will bring higher prices. Expect the A200, without options, to be about $46,000, up by nearly $3000. The A180, with a less powerful version of the turbo 1.3-litre, will arrive in December at about $40,000.
The A250 4matic, with a powerful new 2.0-litre turbo and upgraded all-wheel drive, will arrive with the A180 and will be about $58,000.
All variants will come with a seven-speed double-clutch auto, as in the A200. Mercedes-Benz Australia doesn't plan to import a diesel.
The new model will be an expensive small car but the predicted prices won't seem outrageous once you've sat inside it and experienced first-hand what it can do.
Mercedes has gone much further than simply fixing what was wrong with the old one. There is also a brilliant new interior look, brimming with some of the brand's most advanced technology.
The slimmed and simplified dash has a broad but slim flat-screen display that renders instruments and infotainment interfaces in luscious high-resolution.
Mercedes-Benz builds the A-Class with three different grades of display but all Australian-market cars will come with the top version. This has two 10.25-inch screens behind its single sheet of glass.
The A-Class is also the first Mercedes-Benz to have Artificial Intelligence. This is the power behind what the company calls MBUX, for Mercedes-Benz User eXperience.
Its centrepiece is a voice command set-up superior to anything any car maker has installed to date and it's awakened by simply saying, "Hey Mercedes". Often, but not always, the car can understand requests in natural language.
According to engineers who helped develop the technology, the new A-Class's ability to understand its owner will improve over time.
AI also means the car is able to learn the habits and routines of its users, then anticipate their needs.
The coming A-Class is much more than an improved small car from Mercedes-Benz. It's a bite-size foretaste of the future of motoring.
The A200's 1.3-litre turbo four was a joint effort by Mercedes-Benz and Renault. The engine is assembled in Germany but the big French car maker supplies what's known in the industry as the "long block" - the cylinder block, plus crankshaft, pistons and connecting rods.
PRICE $46,000 (est)
SAFETY Not yet rated
ENGINE 1.3-litre 4-cyl turbo; 120kW/250Nm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed DSG; FWD
THIRST 5.6L/100km (est)
0-100KM/H 8.0 secs