Car Reviews First Drives

2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class First Drive

'A' for effort ... and execution

'A' for effort ... and execution

Traditionally, Mercedes-Benz’s attempts at building entry-luxury cars have been middling at best. The CLA, its most recent indiscretion, came with a frustrating dual-clutch transmission and a plasticky interior. But Mercedes’ suboptimal reputation might soon change with its A-Class sedan.

Intended to be Mercedes’ newest bargain-basement model and slotting beneath the CLA, the A-Class sedan is a revelation in the democratization of luxury. The styling borrows heavily from the elite CLS—with few straight lines or sharp corners, a short rear overhang, and slim headlights. Although it’s attractive from some angles, from others it looks a little dull. To a lot of buyers, though, such design cues will probably be less important than the three-pointed star on the grille.

Inside, the A-Class does a surprisingly good impression of a much more expensive car. From the dual-screen display to the multifunction steering wheel and the turbine-inspired air vents, it legitimately looks the part. The materials aren’t as nice as you’d find in an S-Class, but for around $30,000 USD, that’s expected. The good news is, unlike some materials in the CLA, the A-Class doesn’t feel built to price. Everything you touch feels high quality—especially considering the price—and the interior design really does look great.

Mercedes also packed an impressive number of features into its least expensive model. LED headlights, a panoramic glass roof, 17-inch wheels, a multifunction steering wheel, push-button start, and dual 7.0-inch displays, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, come standard. But buyers willing to spend more will have the option of adding features such as 3.3-inch larger screens, navigation, a driver assistance package, a premium Burmester sound system, heated and ventilated seats, larger wheels, and a head-up display.

Tick all those boxes, however, and that relatively affordable base price can balloon to near-E-Class levels. North American pricing hasn’t been finalized yet, but our tester was likely pushing $50,000 USD.

The A-Class’ party piece is Mercedes’ new cloud-based MBUX system, which uses artificial intelligence to provide voice controls that are actually usable. There’s also a touchpad that replaces the old rotary controller and, for the first time in a Mercedes, a touchscreen display. The result is a user-friendly infotainment system that lets you control it whichever way feels most natural to you.

If you aren’t sure where a control is or don’t want to spend time looking for a certain setting, the voice controls quickly become a welcomed convenience. You can even use them to control the ventilated seats. Just be careful talking about your new car on the phone or with passengers. The system activated itself any time we said the word “Mercedes.” Thankfully, you can set it to only work when you push the button on the steering wheel.

The navigation system also has an unexpected trick where it uses augmented reality to overlay directional arrows on a video image, showing you where to turn. Almost like Pokemon Go, only with directions on an infotainment display instead of pocket monsters on your phone. It may only work on surface streets, but it’s still pretty cool.

On the road, it’s immediately clear the powertrain is more refined than the CLA’s. Mercedes still used a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, but this unit’s shifts are smooth, even in stop-and-go traffic. And although 188 hp isn’t a lot these days, the 2.0-liter turbo-four has plenty of pep for everyday driving. The exhaust sounds better than expected, too.

We only had an opportunity to drive the all-wheel-drive model, but the A 220 impressed us with surprisingly sporty handling for a non-performance car. On winding back roads, the car had plenty of grip and a suspension that kept body roll well under control. Surprisingly, the rear seats are spacious enough to accommodate two adults without first requiring them to remove their legs.

The A-Class isn’t perfect, though. Although acceptable for the price point, there was more road noise than we’re used to in a Mercedes. The lowered AMG line suspension also rode more harshly than we expected.

It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but it sounds like North America will definitely get an AMG version of the A-Class. What isn’t clear, though, is which version we’ll get. It could be the 306-hp A 35 that was recently revealed in hatchback form for Europe, an A 45 with more than 400 hp, or both.

With its affordable starting price and aspirational badge, the A-Class will probably sell well. But this time around, buyers will actually be getting a car that’s worth the money and lives up to the Mercedes brand promise.