Cape Town - Driving Mercedes-Benz’s fourth generation A-Class on familiar roads at its South African launch this week allowed us to stretch the car’s performance envelope a little, without worrying about driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, or getting lost.
With blustery winds and heavy rain, it was also a tougher test of the car’s capability than the world launch in glorious Croatian spring weather in April, emphasising the capability of its driver aids, in particular the electronic stability programme and traction control.
And I finally got to drive the (for now) range-topping A250. The two-litre, turbopetrol four is rated for 165kW at 5500 revs and 350Nm at 1800rpm; the huge disparity between those two figures points to a torque curve shaped like Table Mountain and indeed, the A250 is endowed with effortless midrange acceleration, making overtaking manoeuvres easy and safe, even on wet roads.
The multilink rear suspension which it shares with the AMG versions is noticeably firmer in action than the more conventional torsion-beam setup of the A200 and A180d but never to the point of harshness, even in the sportiest of drive modes, the steering if anything even more precise.
The muted growl from behind the double-insulated firewall merely emphasises how quietly the new A-Class runs in all other respects, with no discernable wind noise or suspension rumble even on roads so coarsely tarred that tyre roar is the loudest sound in the cabin.
The A200, boasting 120kW and 250Nm, was even quieter, its engine noise almost inaudible except when accelerating with intent, the ride even plusher than that of the A250, underlining my impression that this car will appeal just as much to Darby and Joan couples looking to downsize their big sedans as the A250 will to young movers and shakers buying their first ‘premium’ car.
The AMG line trim pack, standard on the A250 Sport and available as an option for the A200 (as on the red one in our pictures) lends a distinct touch of attitude to the car’s exterior styling, as well as to the interior trim, but the standout feature of the flight deck - and one we got to like more the longer we used it, was the freestanding dual display behind a continuous glass screen for instrumentation and infotainment, sticking out from the top of the fascia - there's no conventional instrument binnacle at all.
According to Mercedes-Benz the standard layout is two 18cm displays, but either the infotainment segment, or both, can be ordered with 26cm displays - you'll need them if you want the optional full navigation package - and I haven't yet seen a new A-Class with anything but the full-width display, nor have I spoken to anybody who has. I suspect this is one box that the vast majority of buyers will tick on the options list, simply because it is so good.
The infotainment half of the display is also a touchscreen that responds accurately to finger-swipes and taps, like a tablet, so that with a little practice you can scroll up, down and sideways without having to take your eyes off the road - although it has to be said that the little roller on the left-side spoke of the steering wheel is still the safest way to modulate audio volume.
While some of the features (such as the rainbow palette of colour choices for the ambient lighting) are perhaps a little gimmicky, the new A-Class also brings an impressive range of driver aids from the E and S-Class sedans down into A-Class country for the first time, such as attention assist, active lane change assist and the extended version of active brake assist, which will not only stop you from hitting the car ahead but will also brake the car to a dead stop if you don’t respond to its warnings. Extended active brake assist is standard across the range.
Options include active steering assist and active blind spot assist, which will not only warn you if there’s something in your blind spot as you change lanes, but will also use one-sided braking to pull you back into your lane if you ignore it.
And if other manufacturers have to do same to remain competitive, well and good.
The Mercedes-Benz User Experience, with its ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice-activated virtual assistant, remains a mixed blessing. The issue we identified at the world launch, that it isn’t capable of adjusting the volume on navigation voice prompts, has not been resolved, and it sometimes battles to understand all but the most formulaic commands.
Nevertheless, here I must enter not one but two caveats. As far as cars are concerned, this is first-generation artificial intelligence. It is indeed a giant leap for carkind, but it is only the first step. Communication between cars and humans, on a human level, is one of the areas where we expect to see the most spectacular progress in the near to medium term.
Also, Mercedes-Benz points out that the most important aspect of artificial intelligence is its ability to learn by repetition how a particular human thinks, their habits, likes and dislikes. Driving a test car for a couple of hours at a media launch hardly gives that car the opportunity to know you. Mercedes-Benz’s catch phrase for the new A-Class is ‘Just like you’ - perhaps in this aspect the car is more like us than we are ready for.
The new Mercedes-Benz A-Class is available in South Africa now as the A200 1.3-litre turbopetrol four and the two-litre turbopetrol A250 Sport, each driving the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. They’ll be followed in 2019 by the 1.5-litre A180d turbodiesel and, in due course, by the A35 and A45 AMG versions.