Mercedes-Benz A-Class enters the space age
Mercedes’s compact hatch is roomier and has a comfier ride, but it’s the Star Trek tech that really inspires
The new fourth-generation Mercedes-Benz A-Class ticks all the boxes by growing in size and offering better practicality, but it’s the Star Trek factor that is likely to hook customers.
The technology inside the premium, compact hatchback brings science fiction to life with its high-tech toys and artificial intelligence, which at times makes you feel you’re not merely driving a car, but piloting an intergalactic vessel.
At the heart of this tech is the new MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) multimedia system, which the company calls “a revolution of the user experience in the car”. A digital instrument panel replaces a traditional analogue cowl and the infotainment is housed in a touchscreen interface that comes with a 17.8cm screen as standard or a widescreen 26.7cm display as an extra-cost option.
It’s those giant digital displays that give this car its spaceship-type vibe, along with turbine-style metallic air vents that complete a smart and high-tech look. In terms of fit and finish, it’s like a scaled-down S-Class, and Mercedes’s smallest car really lays on a premium feel.
The jury’s out on how user-friendly MBUX really is, however. There are several ways to interact with it, including the touchscreen, voice control, a laptop-type touch pad between the seats, Blackberry-style touch-control buttons on the steering wheel and, yes, even some real buttons.
While it does all become easier to use with practice, it’s a very busy and fiddly cockpit that could lead to driving distraction. If you prefer minimalism, an Audi A3 makes a better bet.
In a bid to simplify things, MBUX uses Mercedes’s most intelligent voice control to date, one that recognises natural spoken language. By using the phrase “Hey Mercedes”, you summon an on-board AI with a friendly female voice and ask it (her) to do stuff such as adjust the air-conditioning, change a radio station or navigate to an address.
My on-board pal delivered mixed results, sometimes finding addresses and radio stations right away and at other times failing to discern what I’d repeatedly uttered. She clearly had a glitch, as she was unable to adjust the cabin temperature when I said I was hot or cold. Also, there was no cheery banter as with Siri or Ok Google; she ignored my pressing questions about the meaning of life, or what she thought of BMWs.
MBUX’s artificial intelligence is also said to learn the driver’s preferences and habits; for instance, it can remember your favourite songs and the way to work. Based on your habits, it is also claimed to detect the correct radio stations and displays them as favourites. It seems our week-long test wasn’t enough to form any habits, though.
All the high-tech is packaged inside a roomier interior in which four or five adults can fit quite comfortably, thanks to the new A-Class growing a notable 120mm in length to 4,299mm. The boot has also expanded by 29l to a useful 370l.
The size increase hasn’t come at a weight penalty and it’s actually 20kg lighter, making for a car that scurries through the urban jungle with good agility. The longer wheelbase has smoothed out the previous generation’s rather jarring ride, and the new car hustles over bumps with more comfort. The rear axle is mounted on a subframe isolated from the body shell by rubber bushings so that fewer vibrations are transferred from the suspension to the body.
Our A200 test vehicle also had adjustable suspension firmness as an optional fitment, allowing the driver to set the ride-handling balance to set their mood.
The new A-Class is initially available as the A200 and the A250 Sport, respectively priced at R500,012 and R596,969, including a six-year/100,000km maintenance plan. Both cars feed the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch 7G-DCT automatic transmission, and there are steering-mounted gearshift paddles.
In 2019 the range will be expanded with the A180d turbodiesel and the high-performance A35 and A45 AMG.
The A200 on test here is powered by a revelation of a little 1.3l turbo petrol engine. Notions of an over-promising and under-delivering badge disappear when you boot the throttle and experience the car’s willing nature.
With outputs of 120kW and 250Nm, claimed performance is 0-100km/h sprint in a creditable 8.0 seconds and a 225km/h top speed. Not quite hot-hatch territory but it’s an enjoyably free-revving car with almost no turbo lag. It’s a refined little four-cylinder too, becoming a little vocal only when pressed into high-revving service.
Driveability, technology, classy cabin, willing performance
Over-complicated controls, quite pricey
The future comes alive
Dynamic Select allows the driver to change between Comfort, Sport, Eco or Individual driving modes, which affect the responses of the steering, throttle and gear shifts, as well as the adaptive damping where fitted.
The seven-speed auto adds to the driver-satisfaction experience with its quick and smooth shifts, especially in sport mode.
Perhaps less impressive is the fuel consumption, which is quoted at 5.6l per 100km but returned an actual 8.0l in our test car.
Technology trickle-down from larger Mercs includes driver aids such as active brake assist, which applies the brakes when an impending frontal collision is sensed, and an active lane-keeping assist, which vibrates the steering wheel if you creep out of your lane without using the indicator.
Available at extra cost are active blind-spot assist and active steering, which will first warn you of unseen vehicles lurking in your periphery and steer the car back into its lane if you ignore the warning. Another option is Distronic cruise control, which automatically keeps safe following distances.
There’s a lot to like about the latest A-Class. Along with its improved space and ride quality, it embraces the fourth industrial revolution in a way that makes rivals like the A3 and 1 Series look old. That said, some people will prefer the simpler and possibly more user-friendly interfaces of the Audi and BMW, not to mention their cheaper price tags.
Type: four cylinder turbo petrol
Power: 120kW @ 5,500 r/min
Torque: 250Nm @ 1,620 r/min
Type: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Type: Front-wheel drive
Top speed: 225km/h
0-100km/h: 8.0 seconds
Fuel Consumption: 5.6l/100 kml/100km (claimed); 8.0l/100km (as tested)
Remote central locking, climate control, electric windows, electric mirrors, MBUX infotainment system, cruise control, dynamic select, active brake assist, automatic wipers, automatic headlights, ABS brakes, stability control, front and side airbags, tyre pressure warning system, hill-start assist.
COST OF OWNERSHIP
Warranty: 2 years/unlimited distance
Maintenance plan: Five years/120,000km
Lease*: R10,718 per month
* at 10% interest over 60 months no deposit
****Value For Money
Audi A3 Sportback 45 TFSI, 140kW and 320Nm – R475,500
BMW 120i auto, 135kW and 270Nm – R481,759