Bringing an A-game

Forget the ‘trickle down’ effect. Mercedes-Benz’s new A-Class bristles with safety, connectivity and display technology all its own, and vaults this premium small hatch into clear air

MORE THAN 20 years since the infamous ‘moose test’ threatened to completely derail the original W168 Mercedes-Benz A-Class (see p.83), we’re back for round four – a new generation of A-Class that has traded some of its predecessor’s sporting flourish for a more well-rounded, more technology- and safety-driven hatch destined to knock its competitors for six with a single feature. Its interior.

It should come as no surprise that the W177 A-Class is larger where it counts, with broader shoulder room (22mm in the rear, with 36mm more elbow room), higher-quality seating, and a 29-litrelarger boot (now 370 litres) than its somewhat compromised, but undeniably cool predecessor. However that’s not the star achievement. It’s the vastness, and the spectacular ease and effectiveness, of its dual 10.25-inch ‘widescreen cockpit’ touchscreens – standard fitment in Australia when it arrives in August – that sets the new A-Class apart from just about any other car, let alone any other premium hatch. In an instant, this widescreen masterpiece of Cinemascope proportions thrusts the new-gen A forward into a smartphoneinspired future, and renders Audi’s pretty but ultimately rather superficial ‘Virtual Cockpit’ as yesterday’s news.

Under development since late 2015, MBUX (for Mercedes-Benz User Experience) appears complex, but is actually a stunningly simple and intuitive system (see sidebar, right). It’s also updatable (even over the air) and intelligent, with voice recognition activated by calling out “Hey Mercedes” that lets you ask Siri-style questions such as “will it be sunny in Vladivostok tomorrow?” or utter statements like “I am cold”, resulting in a toastier climate-control setting. Benz claims it needs two to five “utterances” to properly start learning your voice.

Then there’s the visual aspect. Fonts are beautifully clear and there’s a selection of dial arrangements, the ‘Understated’ version delivering an exquisite analogue clock and digital speedo combination that appears French in its considered elegance. In conjunction with an available 64-colour ambient lighting set-up that even decorates the air vents, its grandeur can be captivating – certainly enough to distract from some of the cabin’s lower plastics that still aren’t to Golf VII standard.

Riding on the coat tails of MBUX is a newfound level of solidity and maturity that permeates the new-gen A-Class. Gone are the rattles and trim squeaks of the old W176, along with its short-cushioned, hemmed-in rear seat and abrasive ride, in lieu of a far more effective four seater with significantly lower levels of wind and road noise, and much-improved fields of vision (by a claimed 10 percent). Indeed, when we asked Frank Weinert, Overall Vehicle Development Engineer for Compact Cars, what his favourite part of the new A-Class is, he replied “its vision”. Not the class-best aerodynamics (0.25Cd for a base-spec A180d on 16s, though 0.32 on a big-wheeled AMG-Line car), or the slight weight reduction (by up to 40kg), or even the comprehensive overhaul of the MFA platform’s suspension.

Of the three drivetrains on offer at launch, two share DNA with Renault. The 85kW/260Nm 1461cc turbo-diesel four in the A180d is even built by Renault in Spain, though it won’t be coming to Australia. Instead, our base engine will be an all-new, all-aluminium 1332cc turbo-petrol four (dubbed M282 and producing 120kW/250Nm in the A200 that will initially kick off our A-Class range), developed in conjunction with Renault but built by Mercedes-Benz in Koelleda near the former East German border. Tied to a seven-speed dual-clutch Getrag gearbox (as per 1.2-litre Renault Megane), the M282 engine makes its family debut in the A-Class, though only the block will be shared with the French.

Magic touch

MBUX (for Mercedes-Benz User Experience) is based around a series of interconnected touch interfaces – the left and right wheelspoke buttons (left), the central touchscreen (right) and a centre-console-mounted touchpad (far right) – all of which offer general control of the same functions, with specific specialities. It’s a system inspired by the touch concept from smartphones. Three-dimensional control allows you to swipe or press applications, even on the steering wheel, yet there’s a commonality to the positioning of key controls (like the cogshaped ‘set-up’ icon) and their action that links everything together seamlessly.

Unfortunately, the turbo-petrol 1.3 lacks the raspy crispness of the M270 1.6 it replaces – it’s all about reduced consumption and emissions – although the new A200 donk does have its good points. Decent performance (0-100km/h in 8.0sec, 225km/h top speed), a slightly rorty induction flavour around the 3000rpm mark, and amply tractable torque help this engine transcend its modest capacity and 6300rpm rev limit. This is an admirable workhorse of an engine, rather than something to savour. A sweeter top-end would definitely be welcome.

The 1991cc M260 engine in the A250 is much stronger, punching out 165kW/350Nm. While this is a honed version of the former A250’s 2.0-litre turbo-petrol, tied to Mercedes’ own seven-speed 7G-DCT dual-clutch ’box, its overall transmission response is much improved, and feels remarkably similar to the operational smoothness of the A200’s drivetrain.

But you get some fizz with the 2.0-litre. It’s much more in keeping with the former A-Class’s sporting character and promises to be a little ripper when transferring its power to all four wheels in Aussie ‘4matic’ guise (with a new electro-mechanical multi-plate clutch replacing the former electro-hydraulic type). Given the traction issues suffered by the Euro-spec A250 front-driver, we’d suggest the range-topping 4matic (due here in December, alongside the A180) is sure to be the new A-Class sweet spot.

Balance beam

To Torsion-beam A-Class’s “agility is better than its predecessor with multi-link”, according to Overall Ve Vehicle Development Engineer for Compact Ca Cars, Frank Weinert, adding that Mercedes be benchmarked “not the VW/Audi product” but an un unnamed torsion-beam hatchback we’re almost certain is the Peugeot 308 (like Mazda for its nextgene gen ration 3). Cleverly, the torsion-beam A-Class sh shares the same mounting points as the multi-link ve version’s trailing arms and rear dampers (pictured le left), while the axle’s space efficiency will assist wi with packaging batteries for the eventual plug-in hyb hybrid A-Class rumoured to debut next year.

Clad in ‘Edition 1’ warpaint, the A250 is by far the sexiest new-gen A-Class

Clad in ‘Edition 1’ warpaint, the A250 is by far the sexiest new-gen A-Class. Not only does it sound muscular – even with a synthesised induction note amplified through its stereo speakers when ‘Drive Select’ is in Sport mode – it also scores the premium chassis set-up (adaptive dampers and a multi-link rear axle, now mounted on a subframe with rubber bushings to improve refinement).

Model Mercedes-Benz A250

Engine 1991cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo

Max power 165kW @ 5500rpm

Max torque 350Nm @ 1800rpm

Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch L/W/H 4419/1796/1445mm

Wheelbase 2729mm

Weight 1380kg 0-100km/h 6.2sec (claimed)

Economy 6.5L/100km (EU)

Price $55,000 (estimated, 4matic)

Yet even wearing black multi-spoke 19s clad with 225/40R19 Pirelli P Zero rubber, the A250 never quite hits the mark dynamically. Sure, it’s quieter than it used to be, with respectable pliancy with the dampers set to Comfort, and fewer rough edges to tarnish proceedings, but it lacks cornering bite. The chassis balance is there, especially if you trail the brakes into a bend, but there’s an aloofness to its steering that always keeps you at arm’s length from the surface beneath. And there’s a slight stickiness to its weighting with about a quarter turn of lock on that smothers any crispness you might crave. Same goes for the A200, in both the fixedand adaptive-damper set-ups we tried.

While the W177 A-Class shares its MFA platform and fundamental suspension arrangement with its predecessor, something unexpected has occurred at the back end. On entry-level models there’s now a torsion beam, for weight, cost and packaging reasons (see sidebar, left). Disappointingly, no torsion-beam cars were at the launch.

Our initial A-Class line-up will consist of three suspension set-ups – a comfortoriented (and rather ironically named) ‘Progressive’ tune with a torsion-beam; the same suspension type lowered by 15mm in the AMG Line; and the AMG Exclusive that brings adaptive dampers as well as multi-link IRS. The latter will be optional on the A200 in Oz, and standard (in a four-link arrangement) on the all-wheel-drive A250.

Unlike blank-canvas Euro cars, Oz-bound A-Class variants will arrive highly specced. Our base level will include the full MBUX works burger and widescreen goodness, as well as a nine-speaker 225-watt audio system with subwoofer, nine airbags, LED headlights, keyless start, sat-nav, a rear camera and quite funky aero-enhanced 18-inch alloys wearing 225/45R18 Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber.

A Driver Assistance pack including adaptive cruise will be standard on A250, optional on others, though what won’t be negotiable is the abruptness of the lanekeep assist. If you stray onto a dividing line it’ll scold you in a very Germanic fashion, clamping the brakes quickly while nudging the car back into line. Subtle it isn’t.

What’s far more understated is the new-gen A-Class itself. Externally, it’s the same but different, slightly homogenised perhaps, but it’s a look people will quickly grow to accept, especially once they fall head over heels for the widescreen wonder that is MBUX. Indeed, in this smartphone-driven connectivity age, so great is the W177 A-Class’s leap forward in infotainment that its improvements in other areas don’t really matter so much.

It’s definitely a better A-Class, and for the time being almost certainly a class leader, though it’s next year’s A35 AMG and eventual A45 replacement that could truly earn Stuttgart’s new-generation premium hatch an A for effort.