This Christmas, we spent our break in the UK – and on the quiet B-roads and country lanes of the Cotswolds and nearby eastern Wales, to be precise. With the chance to sample an all-new 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class in volume-selling A200 specification, we thought this was a good opportunity to get to grips with what is undoubtedly an important car for the German brand.
See, while buyer preferences continue to flow toward SUVs, conventional small cars have been something of a holdout – accounting for almost a quarter of all new vehicle sales in Australia in 2018. So it makes sense that Benz would devote considerable resources for the fourth generation of their venerable A-Class hatch, which hit the Australian market a few months ago.
The new A-Class has to be good. The outgoing third-gen car wasn’t bad – it notably ditched the frumpy MPV-like shape of earlier ‘As’ for a conventional five-door shape – but apart from the ferocious A45 AMG and the warm A250, it wasn’t memorable – subpar interior quality and packaging marred it, and the Audi A3 has been the most refined car in the small luxury class for some time.
This time, the baby Benz promises to be different. Substantial investments have been made in technology, with the new A-Class packing the segment’s most advanced cabin. Packaging gets better, too – the back seat now fits six-footers and boot space is now class-competitive. On the dynamic side of the ledger, though, there are question marks: lower-end grades rely on torsion
The fourth-generation baby Benz promises to be different, however. Vast investment has been made in vehicle technology, with the new A-Class packing the most advanced cabin yet. Packaging takes a step up, too, with a more spacious back seat and a bigger boot. But going into this test, we had questions for the new A-Class’s dynamics: low-end models regress from the previous generation to torsion beam rear suspension, and the modest entry engine was co-developed with Renault. So, is this a holistically premium car?
Well, the A-Class would want to be: this is no cheap hatchback. The range starts at $42,300 in Australia for the 100kW/200Nm, 1.3-litre A180, with the 120kW/250Nm A200 tested here commanding a $4,900 penalty at $47,200 ($52,137 driveaway). A warmer 165kW/350Nm A250 is available, initially in a ‘Limited Edition’ launch spec priced at $49,500 ($54,552 driveaway) – a price expected to move closer to $55,000 once the mainline A250 arrives.
Later, two A-Class AMG hot hatches will arrive: a new badge – A35 – producing 225kW/400Nm, which will be followed later by the return of the familiar A45, which this time should produce more than 300kW with a near six-figure price.
So, what do you get for your $52,000 and change, driveaway, in the A200? Well, quite a lot, actually. All A-Classes, including the base A180, have decent spec in Australia. The seats are covered in Artico leatherette by default. A full MBUX infotainment suite is standard, including two 10.25-inch screens, navigation CarPlay, Android Auto and digital radio; automatic LED headlights and wipers are included, as are 17-inch wheels, paddle shifters, automated parking, climate control, and a nine-speaker stereo. On the safety front, rangewide features include AEB, blind spot monitoring, and lane keep assist.
The A200 steps up to 18-inch wheels and twin exhausts outlets outside, while additional specification includes wireless smartphone charging, lumbar for the driver’s seat, a rear row armrest, adaptive high beam and additional chrome finishing inside. All very nice – but we wonder whether these features, plus the additional 25kW/50Nm over the A180, really add up to $4,900?
For the time being, the A250 Limited Edition mirrors the A200 for specification, with the upcharge for the A250’s additional 40Nm/100Nm of $2,300 looking rather reasonable. Later, the mainline A250 will feature more equipment in addition to the extra displacement, power, and torque.
A long list of options can be added to the A200, mostly through packages. A $2,490 Vision Package, for example, adds a panoramic sunroof, upgraded multibeam LED headlights and a 360-degree camera; a $1,990 Sports Package adds meaner styling inside and out. It’s disappointing, though, that some core features like rear air vents are relegated to the options list – they’re part of the $2,990 Exclusive Package that upgrades interior finishes and amenities.
Pricing-wise, then, the A200 is no bargain. You can easily end up spending more than $60,000 on a vehicle with a rather middling powertrain – if you’re not that interested in badges, a Volkswagen Golf Highline is $35,990 ($40,773 driveaway) and includes many similar features, if not the innovative cabin technology, of the Mercedes.
Thankfully, for Mercedes-Benz, in person the A-Class does feel more valuable than a Volkswagen Golf. Statically, the A200 presents well: the slightly bulbous proportions of the previous car have been honed down to a sharper, edgier design with tight creases linking slick LED headlights and taillights. The Mountain Grey metallic and optional dual-five spoke AMG wheels of our test car worked especially well.
But the real wow factor is reserved for the 2019 A-Class’s interior, which is both a welcome upgrade in quality from the outgoing shape and a truly impressive cabin in its own right. Mercedes-Benz are making a strong commitment to being a technology leader, and many elements of the cabin tech here have been inherited straight from the brand’s flagship saloon, the S-Class.
The dual-screen MBUX infotainment system is quite a sight to behold. The enormous single glass pane looks brilliant, while the software graphics are mature. There is a learning curve here in terms of operating the system: there’s a lot of choice, with dual trackpads on the steering wheel (one for each screen), a central touchpad, and actual touch capability on the centre screen. You might need to spend a day sitting in the car learning how best to work the tech – but once you’ve done that, intuition quickly builds.
We also like that five USB-C ports are included as standard, meaning everybody can charge – as long as they have newstyle USB cables. That’s okay: the world is moving to the ‘C’ standard very rapidly – a system that allows much quicker charging.
The previous-gen A-Class was nothing to write home about in terms of material quality – this situation is largely rectified in the 2019 car, with soft plastics covering most of the visible surfaces and a greater feeling of solidity to the build quality. Even the rear door tops are soft, unlike the current Volkswagen Golf. The standard sports seats are very firm but supportive, and we emerged feeling pretty fresh after a few hours’ drive. You sit very low: the driving position is very sporty.
We still think the Audi A3 has a slight edge in terms of outright cabin presentation and quality – but the best thing you can do is test drive both hatchbacks to see what suits your preference. If it’s tech you’re after – and Mercedes is banking on tech-savvy millennial interest – the Benz blows the rest of this segment out of the water.
Room in the back is good now, too – another upgrade to the old car, which was poky in row two. Headroom and legroom is now sufficient for six-footers, though you’ll want to limit the adult count to four – the middle seat in the back is admittedly tiny. The boot is now up by 29L to 370L, which is competitive with the class.
All the static stuff is pretty good, then – but how are the dynamics?
In a word, the dynamics are pleasant. While the ride is certainly firm on the ‘lowered comfort suspension’ of the $1,990 Sport package, which was fitted to our test car, the ride isn’t overly sharp except for on the worst urban bumps. Build speed and this particular suspension setup soaks up undulations effectively. That said, we reckon we will prefer the standard comfort suspension, without the Sport package. We’ll wait and see back in Australia.
What we’re certain about is that we love the steering. Quick and direct, the A200 is easy to steer in town and once you’ve found a good road, it darts about, cornering eagerly. There’s virtually no body roll – at least with the Sport package – and you just want to keep pressing on and on. The ESC system is well-judged, only feeling the need to intervene when you’re being particularly silly. Perhaps the steering wheel is a touch large – but once you get into a rhythm with the A200, which is easy to establish, that doesn’t matter. This new A-Class is a fun car to drive down a great backroad.
We can only imagine, though, how good the experience will be with a more potent engine – especially the forthcoming A35 and A45 AMG models. The A200’s engine is just about adequate, though keener drivers will ache for more get-up-and-go. The 1.3-litre engine makes 125kW/250Nm, which on paper looks pretty good, but in reality, it needs a hard rev to keep momentum up on a country road – and the noise the mill makes at those high revs is coarse and unpleasant.
In town, though, the A200’s powertrain makes fine progress – save for occasional hesitation from the dual-clutch auto in first gear. Fuel economy, though, is pretty good across the disciplines: in mixed driving we managed about 7L/100km, and we don’t drive gingerly. On the motorway, this figure drops into the high fives.
About the only other dynamic niggle is the excessive road noise. There is a distinct lack of noise insulation in the new A-Class, leading to a constant din, no matter the road surface. With otherwise pleasant driving characteristics and a premium interior, the noisy cabin lets down the premium connotations of the Mercedes-Benz badge.
In terms of ownership, we’d love to see Mercedes-Benz Australia improve their warranty offering. In the mainstream brands, there’s been a great deal of progress in lengthening warranties in recent years, without a peep from the luxury brands. The new A-Class’s warranty of just three years (though with unlimited kilometres) seems cheap when a Golf is now sold with a five year warranty, with no cap on mileage.
At least the servicing intervals are generous, mileage-wise – like almost all Benzes, the A200 requires annual servicing with an upper limit of 25,000 kilometres per service. That said, the services themselves aren’t cheap. You can opt to pre-pay for three services at the time of purchasing the vehicle, with the first service costing $492 and the following two are priced at $992, for a three year total of $2,476.
So, that’s an initial look at the 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class. A real tech feast, the new baby Benz is also meaningfully better to drive and to sit in. It looks good, too. That said, competition is fierce in the premium hatch segment, from higher-end Volkswagen Golfs to the Mercedes’ key rivals in the Audi A3 and the BMW 1 Series. Make sure to test drive to determine which of these vehicles fits the way you like to drive, as they’re all surprisingly different on the road.
Key specs (as tested)
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