One of the first things we were told during the briefing for the new Mercedes-Benz A-class sedan is that there are four ways to interact with it. Well of course there are, we thought, mentally ticking off the controls: steering wheel, accelerator, brake pedal, clutch-wait a sec, could this sporty little sedan actually have a manual transmission? The answer, of course, is no, not unless you live in another country.
What the Mercedes rep was actually talking about is the company’s new infotainment system: Mercedes-Benz User Experience, or MBUX for short. (Which you pronounce “M-B-U-X,” rather than “M-bucks,” since the latter sounds like a Marlboro Miles reboot.) MBUX is launching here, in the company’s new entry-level product, rather than at the top of the lineup. If this defies expectation, it also makes perfect sense, as older S-class owners are less likely to muster the patience necessary to learn how to master such cutting-edge technology.
Mercedes is eager to talk up MBUX, so much so that it gave us time to play with it first, before allowing any A-class drive time. Its signature feature is that you can talk to it in natural language, à la Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or Google’s Assistant. Benz’s version of this technology is both embedded in the car as well as dependent on the cloud, so certain features always work while others require a data connection. Predictably, you wake Mercedes-Benz’s cyber helper by saying, “Hey, Mercedes,” although just about every time the carmaker’s name was uttered during our test drive (which was often) she piped up. And no, there is no alternate voice available, and she cannot be renamed.
While “Hey, Mercedes” will no doubt wow in the showroom, we found the system somewhat limited in usefulness. It did well in reporting baseball scores, but some simple commands such as, “Hey, Mercedes, turn off the radio,” went unheeded. Other queries produced bizarre responses, including a treatise on poet Thomas Wyatt, no doubt cribbed from Wikipedia. Crucially, when MBUX doesn’t understand (which is often), rather than responding in kind, the pleasant lady just asks over and over again how she can help you. Mercedes says the artificial intelligence in the system will improve and that non-safety-related updates will be beamed to owners automatically. MBUX also supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which is the only way to get Spotify or Waze onto the car’s display since third-party apps are not offered.
Besides the “Hey, Mercedes” voice control, there are three other ways to fiddle with the two side-by-side screens that dominate the car’s dashboard. The steering wheel has capacitive-touch buttons like other new Mercedes models, and there’s also a new design for the touchpad on the console between the front seats. But the best interface improvement is that Mercedes has finally embraced the touchscreen. The system works well, with speedy responses to pokes and swipes. It is more logical than the old COMAND system and the graphics are bright and detailed, including real-time renderings of the car itself.
The Car beneath the Tech
Yes, there actually is a car here, too, and a rather good one. Under its steel skin, the A-class rides on a new generation of the front-wheel-drive platform that underpins the compact CLA sedan that Mercedes has been selling in the United States since the 2014 model year. (A yet-to-debut second generation of the CLA will be sold alongside the A-class as a sportier, swoopier option.) At just 179.1 inches, the A-class is 3.2 inches shorter than the CLA, and yet the packaging is so far superior to that of the “four-door coupe,” as Mercedes insists on calling it, that the back seat of the new A-class is not just useable but actually comfortable for two full-size adults. The A-class is surprisingly roomy inside, with design tricks such as a dashboard raked steeply back towards the firewall making it almost Tardis-like. And the roomier cabin is just the first of the improvements that remedy the CLA’s more glaring faults.
Mercedes will launch the A-class here with just one engine, a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four known internally as the M260. In the U.S.-market A220, it will make 188 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque, significantly less than the European-market A250’s 221 horses and 258 lb-ft. While the Germans hinted that this more potent mill might also be offered here, the detuned version still feels stronger than the numbers would suggest. Throttle response is excellent and turbo lag is almost nonexistent. An improved seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission offers paddle shifters, yet left to its own devices, it does a fine job of keeping the M260 in the meaty part of its torque band, short-shifting well before the 6500-rpm redline. Most importantly, we experienced none of the low-speed clunkiness that can plague the older version of the seven-speed in the CLA.
Mercedes also seems to have banished the CLA’s harsh-riding suspension. All U.S.-market A-class models have a multilink rear suspension and struts up front; wheels range in size from 17 to 19 inches. Both preproduction cars we drove, a front-driver and an all-wheel-drive 4Matic model, were fitted with the 19-inchers and optional adaptive dampers. Each car delivered a comfortable and well-controlled ride, although the front-drive model was better damped, with a bit less impact harshness and subsequent body motion. Steering feel is good, with a natural heft to the wheel that translates into precise handling. Summer-only tires deliver plenty of grip but also contribute to a sometimes noisy cabin.
Dynamically the baby Benz resembles top-tier sport compacts-Volkswagen Golfs, Honda Civics, and the like-but inside, the A-class tries hard to distinguish itself from such pedestrian transportation. There are the standard dual 7.0-inch screens, of course, posed vertically and freestanding atop a mostly plastic dashboard. Although all those pixels do a good job of distracting occupants from the plastic (if not the road), the instrument-cluster screen can be difficult to see through the steering wheel and the central one is just out of reach for drivers with short arms. If this positioning is a case of form over function, the same charge cannot be leveled against the seats, which are excellent, both supportive and comfortable. Extensive contrasting trim throughout the interior, ambient lighting that extends across the dash and into the doors, and ornate vents that resemble those in the S-class (and also light up) all give the A-class more than enough jewelry to be taken seriously as a luxury car.
On the outside, however, the A-class lacks distinction. It mimics the look of a Mercedes rather well, especially in the front, but its small size coupled with the necessity of having a functional rear seat compromises the aesthetic that makes the CLA so exciting to behold. Mercedes claims that the A-class sedan has an industry-leading drag coefficient of just 0.22, but the narrow and steeply raked windshield that helps make this possible gives the car a high cowl that’s quite noticeable from behind the wheel and demands a somewhat higher seating position than drivers might prefer.
The Price of Entry
Since the A-class doesn’t go on sale until early next year, Mercedes is being cagey about the starting price. It has said that the car will be available for “under $35,000,” which we interpret as $34,995 before destination and options. But we doubt any dealer will be stocking an A-class that doesn’t have the $2100 Premium package, essential for upgrading the twin 7.0-inch screens to 10.3-inch panels. This would put the out-the-door price of the A220 at close to $39,000. One example we drove carried some $14,000 in options, including $2250 for Mercedes’s suite of driver-assistance tech. Add $2000 for 4Matic all-wheel drive, and it will be entirely possible to spend upward of $50,000 on an A-class.
Of course, that’s the trap that entry-luxury cars represent. Get too crazy with the A-class configurator and you might wonder whether you would be better off shopping for a lightly optioned C-class. Or maybe not. At its core the A-class is a good driving, right-sized sport sedan with some promising technology, a car that offers more than just an inexpensive entry to the brand.
(‘You Might Also Like’,)