Stuttgart, Germany - The fourth-generation Mercedes-Benz A-Class, revealed late on Friday and due in South Africa during the fourth quarter of 2018, packs an unprecedented level of technology into a compact package.
So much so, that the overused cliche ‘raising the bar’ really does apply in this case. It’s the first hatchback that’s capable of driving itself semi-autonomously in certain driving conditions, the first with multibeam LED headlights, the first with intelligent infotainment that learns to know you and what you like over time, like a well-trained personal assistant.
So let’s look more closely at seven aspects of this technology that will get the gadgeteers and early adopters chattering over their cappuccinos:
It’s not ugly for the sake of ugly
Whatever you think of Mercedes-Benz’s attempt to translate the banana-shaped waistline of the CLS sedan to a two-box design, it works. The rear treatment is admittedly clumsy, but provides for a surprisingly large 370 litre cargo bay (29 litres bigger than its predecessor) in what is, after all, a C segment hatch, not a compact SUV.
The droopsnoot front end may put some people off but, together with the optional Airpanel louvres that open and close depending on the cooling requirement, behind the grille and inside the lower air intake, it gives the new A-Class a claimed drag coefficient of just 0.25, on a frontal area of 2.19 square metres, numbers that would have been the exclusive preserve of fastback sports coupés a generation ago.
Welcome to widescreen country.
The most notable thing about the interior of the new A-Class is what it doesn’t have - an instrument binnacle. The cowl in the dashboard over the flight deck that has been a feature of almost every upmarket car since the 1960s has been replaced by two liquid-crystal colour displays, side by side under a single glass panel, standing up unsupported from the fascia.
The size of the individual displays varies from 17.8cm to 26cm depending on the model, but in the top version with two 26cm screens the pod very nearly lines up with the passenger’s side of the centre stack, giving the driver a workstation that would make Commander Spock feel right at home.
Once again, we might take issue with the three overly prominent circular air-vents between the display pod and the aircon controls - but even a Vulcan would admit that fresh air is crucial to alert, safety-oriented space travel.
The ‘trench’ between the free-standing display pod and the rest of the fascia is also part of the car’s ambient lighting set-up, which combines no less than 64 colours into 10 ‘colour worlds’ in an avant-garde lighting display with spectacular colour changes.
The new A-Class is the first model to feature the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX for short) multimedia system, which has the ability to learn, thanks to artificial intelligence and adapt to suit the user. It's controlled either by voice or by a three-way touch-control system including the touchscreen, a touchpad on the centre console and touch control buttons on the steering wheel.
To use the intelligent voice control with natural speech recognition, just say “Hey, Mercedes” - but say it with respect: all cars bearing the three-pointed star are named for the daughter of an Austrian diplomat and car salesman, the gorgeous, green-eyed Mercedes Jellinek who, as far back as 1923, had the courage to walk out on a failed marriage and marry a penniless sculptor.
The system includes a navigation display with augmented reality technology and brilliant 3D graphics, all rendered in real time. Nav functions include vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-internet reporting of incidents such as emergency braking, ESP intervention or an accident report by you, the driver.
It all sounds like Big Sister’s big brother is watching you - but Mercedes will also help you find your A-Class in the mall car park, and warn you via your smartphone if your car has been dinged or, worse still, towed away.
You can put the ‘Mercedes me’ app on the touchscreen and use it to update your MBUX with online content such as current fuel prices at the various garages within range, or the availability of parking bays in the multi-storey car park you’re heading for.
Very intelligent driver aids
The new A-Class shares most of the latest driving assistance systems of the new S-Class, using camera and radar systems to analyse the traffic situation up to 500 metres ahead, and checking what it sees against map and navigation data.
That’s how Active Distance Assist Distronic can predictively adjust its speed when approaching corners, intersections and traffic circles - and hit the brakes when the traffic ahead comes to a sudden stop, or when pedestrians step out in front of you.
Also standard - although not new - are lane keeping, to gently nudge you back to the straight and narrow, and Pre-safe, which tightens up everything if a collision is imminent. And, if the word comes to the worst, the front side airbags cover the A pillar from top to bottom, so you can’t hit your head on it, while side thorax airbags are standard in front and optional at the rear.
See what you’re looking at
Standard lighting is by halogen headlights with LED daytime driving lights; the optional multibeam headlights each have 18 individually electronically controlled LEDs, some focused straight ahead, some angled down and some away from oncoming traffic.
So, depending on the traffic and the ambient lighting, the LEDS are instantly and precisely switched on and off to provide daylight-like lighting (which helps concentration) to suit the current situation.
Mercedes-Benz also mentions LED High Performance headlights as a further option, but without giving details of the extra performance or how it’s achieved.
Are we sitting comfortably?
Thanks to two-piece tail-lights, the tailgate is 20cm wider than on the outgoing A-Class, and the cargo bay floor is 11.5cm longer; you can also adjust the backrests of the rear seats to a more vertical position so you can fit in a big square object such as a bar fridge or a bass speaker.
The storage box in the centre console is considerably bigger than previously, but it’s the front seats that are really special. You can choose from three different seat styles - the base model, the comfort seat and the sporty integral seat with built-in head restraint.
Options for the comfort seat include seat climate control (a fan in each seat cushion vents the air taken in through the perforated seat cover downwards and to the rear) height adjustment of the front passenger seat, and angle and depth adjustment of the front seat cushions (this is standard on top variants) and a multicontour seat package with side bolsters and lumbar support adjustable via an electric air-pump (which, when oscillated gently, also gives you a massage function in the lumbar area).
Delta head engines give you the (Ad)blues
The A-Class will hit the road with two new turbopetrol and one new turbodiesel four, starting with the the 1.4-litre A200, which uses a four-valve delta head combustion chamber (essentially a pentroof head tilted towards the exhaust side) to deliver a quoted 120kW and 250Nm via either a six-speed manual or a seven-speed double-clutch transmission, while cylinder shut-off on two pots at partial loads reduces fuel consumption.
The A250 has a two-litre turbopetrol four, also with the new delta head and variable inlet cam timing, rated at 165kW and 350Nm and channeled via a seven-speed DCT; both petrol engines have a particulate filter as standard - sonething we’re more used to seeing on diesels.
Speaking of which, the A180d has a new 1.5-litre turbodiesel four, quoted at 85kW and 260Nm, with a seven-speed DCT and Adblue exhaust injection - and all three will pass Euro 6.