Trogir, Croatia – The overwhelming impression you get of the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class, due for release in South Africa in the third quarter of 2018, is that it is a grown-up car for grown-up drivers.
Despite its space-age flight deck and infotainment features aimed straight at the tech-savvy generation, despite Mercedes’ insistence that it is targeting a younger market, this is clearly a car with an adult sense of gravitas, seemingly raising a tolerant but somewhat disapproving eyebrow should you be so crass as to chirp the front tyres pulling away.
It handled the tight, twisty roads around Split, on the stunningly beautiful Adriatic coast of Croatia, during the world media launch last week with understated capability and steering so precisely assured it was just one step short of smugness, and bestrode the magnificent A1 motorway to Zagreb as if it owned the road, with limousine-like quietness and smoothness of ride.
The fourth generation of Mercedes-Benz’ entry-level model has grown by 120mm to 4419mm overall, with a 30mm longer wheelbase, 90mm more rear overhang for a bigger boot (up 29 litres to 370 litres) and 14mm extra track in front to improve the ride, as well as more shoulder room, elbow room and headroom.
But, with clever choice of materials, including an aluminium bonnet and front wings and advanced high-strength steels in some important corners for stiffness, the bare body-shell is actually the same weight (441 kilograms) as that of its predecessor. The whole car, thanks to slightly lighter new engines, is actually about 20 kilograms lighter than the previous generation.
It’ll be available at launch in Europe with a choice of one turbodiesel and two turbopetrol fours, all new: the 1.5-litre A180d (developed in collaboration with Renault), rated at 85kW and 260Nm, the 1.33-litre A200 with 120kW and 250Nm and the two-litre A250 with conical bores (no, we’re not kidding) and variable intake cam timing, quoted at 165kW and 350Nm. Each drives the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, although there’s also a six-speed manual available for the A200 only.
The A180d and A200 are confirmed for South African release in the third quarter of 2018, but a final decision has yet to be made on the A250, although I’m going to stick my neck out and say I’ll be very surprised if it’s not included in the SA-market 2019 A-Class line-up.
We drove the A180d and the A200 on the launch drive (there were only five A250s among more than 50 journalists on our rotation; they were in heavy demand) and each surprised us.
The 1332cc A200 punched well above its weight from just above idle to its power peak at 5500rpm without ever sounding stressed, humming a quiet little song to itself while doing everything we asked of it without fuss but also, it must be said, without any particular sparkle.
The 1461cc A180d, on the other hand, turned on the charm with impressive mid-range acceleration, crisp throttle response and total absence of diesel clatter. All we could hear, at any speed - even under hard acceleration - was a quiet rumble somewhere behind the thick carpeting of the foot-wells.
Each has offset McPherson strut front suspension; the A180 and A200 have conventional (for hatchbacks) torsion-beam rear suspension, while the A250 runs a very sophisticated multi-link rear setup. When asked why, the Mercedes-Benz chassis engineers explained that it was capable of handling a lot more power and, more importantly, allowed for all-wheel drive with an electro-mechanical centre clutch, which will be available as an option in Europe.
And it’s a safe bet that there will, in due course, be A35 and A45 AMG versions with all-wheel drive. Rumours of an A45 with more than 300kW have been floating around the cybergarage, although Mercedes staffers ducked questions on that one at the Croatia launch.
What they really wanted to talk about was the Mercedes-Benz User Experience, an entirely new infotainment system seen for the first time in the new A-Class, that uses artificial intelligence to ‘learn’, by getting to know your habits, such as how you drive, where you drive at various times of the day and week, what radio stations you like to listen to on your way to work and on your way home - and then make personalised suggestions.
The longer you drive a car fitted with MBUX, the more it will learn and the more intuitive its suggestions will become; it even allows new content to be received ‘over the air’ as updates.
Then there’s a new voice control system that responds to “Hey Mercedes!” by replying, “What can I do for you?” and then acts on normal speech, rather than specific, formal commands. For instance, if you say, “I’m cold”, it will raise the aircon temperature setting a couple of degrees.
Task it with something simple such as “Close the blind” and the response is almost instant. Ask it something more complex, and it will compare what you’ve said with online sources as well as its own algorithms (humans call it ‘thinking’) before saying “Could you repeat the command, please?” Mercedes is part of the MBUX setup and over time will learn to better understand your speech mannerisms - but she has a few quirks of her own.
On the first portion of the launch drive route, the spoken guidance of the otherwise brilliant navigation system defaulted to a very low volume setting, so low that we often couldn’t make out what it was saying. No amount of pleading with “Hey Mercedes” would make her understand the concept of either “louder” or “volume”, so at the first stop we asked the developers of the program how they would ask Mercedes to raise the volume of either the audio or the navigation guidance.
After a moment’s pause, one replied “Now that’s a very good topic,” and the other explained how the volume could be adjusted using either the infotainment touchscreen or the roller switch on the steering wheel.
Then a Mexican journalist asked if the switch-on command could be customised. No, they said, it was the coolest way they could think of to talk to your Mercedes-Benz.
“But my girl-friend is named Mercedes - where does that leave me?” he asked.
“Now that’s a very good topic.”
All of this high tech lives in the coolest dashboard we’ve seen in a long time. There’s no instrument binnacle at all, just a wide, fairly narrow, free-standing display sticking out of the fascia, behind a visual ‘ditch’ that separates it from the simple layout of switchgear and big circular aircon vents on the lower level.
The ‘basic’ layout, according to the media release, is two 18cm displays behind a common glass screen, but either the infotainment segment, or both, can be ordered with 26cm displays and more features - all the launch cars were like that, and I suspect so will most customer cars be.
In that format the free-standing display extends unbroken from a handsbreadth inside the driver’s side A pillar to a couple of centimetres short of the passenger’s side footwell. The infotainment touchscreen can be as easily managed by either, via easily-learned swipes and taps through straightforward menus.
The multifunction steering wheel, taken straight from the S-Class, is less intuitive, with six controls on each side, for active cruise control and (optional) partially autonomous driving on the left, and audio and telephony on the right.
While it allows the driver a wide range of control without lifting a hand from the wheel, it would take me some time to learn to use all its functions without looking down. The same goes for the optional touchpad, although its range of short-cut buttons proved useful, as did the optional head-up display.
Also straight from the S-Class comes the driver aids package. Standard across the A-Class range are attention assist, 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 of you don’t respond to its attention assist warnings, and active lane change assist.
When driving on a multi-lane road at any speed from 80-180km/h, this will react to the indicator being switched on by scanning the target lane both ahead and behind, checking the speed of any vehicles in that lane and, if all’s clear, assisting you to steer into that lane.
My partner on the launch drive tried it, hands hovering over the steering wheel, on an almost-deserted section of the A1, at a cruise-controlled 120km/h, and we were both impressed by its accurate steering - and its swift reaction to a speeding Skoda coming up from behind in the fast lane. The system will also startle you with a sharp prod on the opposing side brakes and a jerk on the steering wheel if you stray out of your lane without indicating.
Available as options are 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 the warning. It will also warn you if there is a vehicle (even a bicycle) coming up from behind when you begin to open the driver’s door while parallel parked - and it’ll do so for up to three minutes after the ignition is switched off.
There were no examples of the base specification with black Tandel fabric trim or the Style trim level in mixed Artico synthetic leather and Bertrix fabric at the launch, but the A200 we drove had the Progressive trim in sophisticated black and beige, while the A180d had was trimmed to sportier AMG Line specs in red and black.
In each case the full leather interior with glossy trim and lots of contrast stitching was well up to the standards of the A-Class’ bigger siblings, as were the surprisingly deeply bolstered but very comfortable power-adjustable seats with heating and massage functions as standard.
This is actually three stories in one: Firstly it’s about the new A-Class, which brings a new level of luxury and features to the top end of the hatchback market, aimed theoretically at up-and-comers but just as likely, we think, to find favour with downsizing Darby and Joan couples.
It’s also about the Mercedes-Benz User Experience, bringing artificial intelligence to the interface between human and car in an interesting if, as yet, not fully developed way.
And lastly, it’s a about a far-reaching new app for the Mercedes Me program that enables private car-sharing between the owner, and family and friends. Once you and your trusted few have downloaded the app and you have confirmed their admittance to the group, they can ask, online, to use the car for a given period of time.
As soon as you okay the request, a special key (which is left in the car) is activated for that period only. They can then unlock the car using the app, start the car using the special key and drive away. The developers made clear at the launch that this was only a first step towards a commercial car-sharing service, a clear indication of how carmakers are beginning to see the future of their business.