The (European-spec) hatchback for the smartphone generation
You don’t feel the technology in the redesigned Mercedes-Benz A-Class hatchback. Indeed, in terms of road noise, powertrain refinement, and chassis dynamics, the baby Benz isn’t as accomplished as the Volkswagen Golf. But you can see it the moment you open the door and slide behind the steering wheel, for before you is the MBUX user experience, with touchscreen, touchpads, and intelligent voice recognition. And it’s standard across the A-Class range.
The A-Class hatchback is built on Daimler’s latest front-drive architecture that’s shared with the just-revealed 2019 A-Class sedan that goes on sale in the U.S. early next year, and will also underpin the forthcoming baby G-wagen SUV, the GLB.
The A-Class started life 20 years ago as a quirky, innovative city car; one of the most thoughtfully packaged small cars since the original Mini. But its tall roofline and high seating position—made taller and higher by the double-skin floor in which batteries for a planned BEV version were to be located—contributed to a couple of embarrassing rollovers when journalists attempted extreme slalom maneuvers during performance testing. Slower steering and an ultra-aggressive stability control algorithm solved the rollover problem, but sucked the life out of the driving experience.
By contrast, the fourth-generation A-Class is about as conventional as modern front-drive hatchbacks get. It’s longer and wider than the car it replaces, and is now one of the largest hatchbacks in the segment, almost as large as the current Honda Civic. It shares its 107.4-inch wheelbase and 70.7-inch overall width with the upcoming A-Class sedan, but is 5.1-inches shorter overall, with a 0.2-inch lower roofline.
The A-Class hatch is mechanically conventional, too, from the transverse-mounted four-cylinder engines and MacPherson strut suspension up front, to the simple torsion beam axle at the rear, the first ever on a Mercedes-Benz. The company that has long prided itself on engineering complex rear suspension layouts hasn’t completely dumbed down the A-Class, however: Higher-spec models, like the A 200 AMG Line tested here, come with a multi-link rear end.
Although North Americans A-Class sedan buyers will initially only be offered the car in A 220 trim, with the 188-hp version of Daimler’s 2.0-liter turbo-four, British A-Class hatch buyers can choose from four additional powertrain variants. Top of the range is the A 250, powered by the 221-horsepower version of the 2.0-liter engine. The volume-selling models in Europe, however, will be the diesel-powered A 180 d and the gas-powered A 180 and A 200 models, all with new engines developed in conjunction with Renault. Under the hood of the A 180 d is a 114-hp 1.5-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel, while the A 180 and A 200 get a 1.3-liter turbocharged gasoline four in 134 hp and 161 hp tune. Transmission choice is between a six-speed manual and a Getrag seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. The A 250 is available with 4Matic all-wheel drive; the rest of the lineup is front-drive only.
Exterior design of the new A-Class is an evolution of themes seen on the third-generation car. The arching greenhouse is familiar, but there are fewer lines and creases in the sheetmetal. Those creases that are there are surprisingly crisp given Mercedes design chief Gorden Wagener’s obsession with soft, pillow-y surfaces. Up front is an aggressive, chiseled take on the Mercedes grille, flanked by small, beady-eyed headlights. At the rear is this decade’s overworked design detail, faux exhaust outlets.
If the A-Class exterior is everyhatch with three-pointed star appliques, the interior is striking and sparkling with jewelry, most notably the five large vents with an artfully contrived 1950s sci-fi vibe. In place of a conventionally cowled instrument panel, there’s a large freestanding horizontal screen that appears to have been lifted straight out of an S-Class. The steering wheel, bristling with with thumb controls, also looks as if it belongs in Benz’s top of the line limo, and the center console features a large haptic touchpad. Welcome to the world of MBUX.
MBUX is Daimler’s all-new, high-tech user interface, and the fact it’s making its debut on an entry-level Mercedes-Benz speaks volumes. New technologies and features have traditionally trickled down from the most expensive Mercedes models to the least, encouraging the consumer aspiration that underpins the price walk from one model line to the next. But MBUX—featuring Daimler’s first touch-screen interface, beautifully rendered and customizable graphics, and menus a mile deep that include AI and augmented reality functions—turns that classic Maslowian marketing theory on its head.
MBUX is for a generation that’s grown up with smartphones, a generation that’s used to touching and swiping and seeing pretty things on a high-def screen as the roadmap for their daily lives. It will be trickled up the Mercedes range, all the way to S-Class and Maybach models, because it’s a feature today’s A-Class owners, tomorrow’s luxury car buyers, will expect all cars to have.
Base A-Class models get two 7.0-inch screens mounted in the panel, one in front of the driver, and one above the center console, surrounded in a black plastic frame. Cars ordered in higher trims can get the full S-Class look—everything behind a single sheet of glass—with the Premium package fitted to our A 200 AMG Line tester getting two 10.3-inch screens. The steering wheel touchpads control a digital instrument display that can be configured five different ways.
Dozens of functions, from navigation to cabin mood lighting, are controlled by swiping between icons on the central screen, or by using the touchpad on the center console. It’s intuitive, easy to use, and looks fabulous, thanks to clean graphic design and screens with pin-sharp resolution.
The nav system can be upgraded with what Mercedes calls augmented reality. As you approach a turn, the map on the central screen is replaced with a schematic of the upcoming maneuver, and a view from a forward-mounted camera that displays the road ahead overlaid with moving arrows and icons showing exactly where you have to go. It’s great for impressing your Tesla-owning buddies, but the temptation to watch the screen instead of the road ahead is almost overwhelming.
MBUX is ground-breaking, class-leading stuff. The rest of the A-Class is not.
With its 161 hp arriving at 5,500 rpm, and 184 lb-ft of torque on tap at 1,620 rpm, the A 200’s little 1.3-liter turbo-four is a willing worker—Mercedes claims a 0-60 mph time of less than 8.0 seconds, and a top speed of 139 mph (224 km/h). But it gets vocal and sandpapery when revs rise. The dual-clutch transmission isn’t as concisely calibrated as VW Group’s DSG, with lazier take-up from standstill, slurred shifts, and a tendency to hold ratios for longer than expected in both Comfort and Sport modes. It’s not a powertrain that feels premium.
Neither does the chassis. The steering, though linear, light, and accurate, is almost totally devoid of feel. Spring and shock rates are calibrated for comfort, delivering impressive primary ride quality and well controlled body motions, but the secondary ride gets busy, especially at low speeds. More of an issue is the road noise transmitted into the cabin, a low frequency rumble from the tires (245/45 SR18 Hankook Ventus S1 evo 2s) accompanied by thumps from the suspension. Cobbled backstreets in London also excited fizzes and zizzes from plastic components in the cabin.
Of which there are a lot. The A 200 AMG Line interior makes a great first impression. There’s more shoulder room, elbow room and leg room than in the previous generation A-Class, but then you start noticing details like the flimsy plastic gear selector and turn signal stalks, and the hard plastics on the B-pillars and lower doors.
As modern compact hatchbacks go, the Mercedes-Benz A-Class is in many ways a remarkably unremarkable car, middle of the mainstream pack rather than segment leading in terms of refinement and dynamics. But those who think the smartphone represents the pinnacle of human achievement will love it. Which for Mercedes-Benz is the whole point.