► Lashings of tech, interior quality
► Improved drive, practicality up
► On sale now, deliveries May 2018
Joining Club Benz can be difficult for some. If you can't stretch to a C- or E-Class saloon, some of you may be of the opinion that the A-Class hatchback is the premium German brand's poor relation. But fear not, for things may be about to change with the all-new, 2018 Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
It's still the entry-level Merc - only one up from a Smart if you think about it - but the long-drawn-out process of the A-Class' official reveal, with tech demonstrations, interior visits and teasers left us drooling with anticipation. It sounded good, but is it? Or is just an overpriced Golf?
Shall we start with the new Mercedes A-class interior?
Yes. It’s a mighty good place to start. BMW and Audi upped the ante when it came to the quality and design of the humble hatchback’s interior, and now Mercedes has done the same. And some. Step into a well-specced A-class and you’re greeted with a clean, premium-feeling cabin slathered in leather and widescreen displays.
The latter, it must be said, are a central part of the cabin, and control just about every auxillary function the new A-class has. And, trust us, there’s a lot. Thankfully, however, the all-new MBUX infotainment system is polished and easy on the eye, displaying the kind of crisp, HD graphics you’d expect from the latest top-of-the-line smartphone.
MBUX is not quite as easy to use as Audi’s offering, nor as intuitive as BMW’s iDrive, but it’s a marked improvement over the previous A-class. Sadly, however, the rotary dial controller of the old car has been jettisoned, replaced by a large touchpad or touchscreen control. The former is easy enough to use and has a quality feel to it, but we’d still take the eyes-off simplicity of the rotary dial if we could.
Eyes forward to the Widescreen Cockpit (7.0 inches standard and 10.25-inches as an option) and the levels of customisation are seemingly endless. Switching between graphics of the trip computer, media, maps and driver assistance displays is done through fingerprint-size touchpads on either side of the wheel – itself borrowed from the S-class. Again, it’s not as immediately intuitive as Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, but the technology on offer is still seriously impressive.
But the A-class is still a car, so how does it drive?
Not to be boring, but we’re going to have to start this section with a small, but significant footnote. The two cars we drove on the launch event both had multi-link rear suspension and adaptive dampers. Nothing wrong with that, except that only UK cars in top-level AMG Line trim will have the multi-link rear end, while adaptive dampers will not be available full stop – or at least to begin with.
What we were left with then, was an A-class on 18-inch wheels that tackled the pockmarked roads of Croatia rather well, soaking up the worst of the asphalt’s imperfections and only occasionally allowing the large alloys to add an unpleasant edge to the ride.
Push on, and, although the front-wheel drive A-class, couldn't hang with a 1 Series through the bends, there was still ample grip and stability from the front end, and enough feel through the steering wheel to let the driver know most of what was going on. Body roll was noticeable, mind, confirming that this is a car gunning for comfort more than dynamic ability.
And the engines?
There’s just the three engines to choose from at launch, consisting of the A180d diesel and A200/A250 petrol variants. The former is a 1.5-litre four-cylinder producing 114bhp and 192 lb ft of torque, good for 0-62mph in 10.5 seconds and a top speed of 125mph.
And, if we’re being honest, it feels all of its double-figure 0-62mph time. Overtakes need to be undertaken with written notice, while accelerating uphill onto a motorway requires a good few seconds of pedal-to-the-metal action to get things going. It falls short of being too slow, mind, and the sharp throttle map means it feels perky at low speeds.
Happily, refinement has been improved over the previous A180d. There’s still an unmistakable diesel clatter, but only as the rev needle ventures into red line territory. The rest of the time it’s hushed and smooth enough for pleasant motorway cruising.
Unsurprisingly, the A180d (along with AMG Line trim) is set to be the biggest-seller once again – although not by much – as the anti-diesel brigade guilt trips consumers into the A200 instead. And speaking of the 161bhp A200, it’s noticeably perkier than the A180d under hard acceleration, hitting the magic 62mph mark in 8.0 seconds dead and a top whack of 139mph.
Such figures are down to a 1.3-litre – yes, you read that right, a 1.3-litre Mercedes-Benz – turbocharged petrol producing 161bhp and 184 lb ft of torque. It’s not quite as silky smooth as you might expect, mind, with a coarseness to its character whenever you stray above 4,000rpm.
A top of the range A250 version is also available with a hot-hatch-esque 221bhp and 258 lb ft of torque, capable of doing the 0-62mph dance in just 6.2 seconds. A warm-up act for the AMG version, no doubt.
All cars deliver their power through a seven-speed DCT transmission operated by the familiar Mercedes-Benz gear selector on the steering column arrangement. There’s also manual override paddles – which are surprisingly responsive – should you need to put your own mark on the otherwise smooth auto ‘box.
Gear change frequency can be tweaked using the drive mode selector, along with the steering weight, throttle response and stability control settings.
Any other fancy gizmos we need to know about?
Yes. All cars come standard with goodies such as sat-nav, cruise control, DAB radio, keyless ignition, a vast suite of crash-avoidance tech and ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice-activation – the latter being predictably hit-and-miss when it comes to simple commands.
The best piece of kit, however, is the augmented reality sat-nav included in the Advanced Navigation Package. It uses a forward-facing camera to display the road ahead on the central infotainment screen, highlighting approaching side-turns and junctions with blue arrows demonstrating where you need to go. Should you need to find a specific address, it also highlights buildings by their number, too.
Early impressions suggest it works very nicely indeed and reduces the chances of missing a crucial turn, although, disappointingly, it’s not available on all roads. However, we’re assured that such issues can be fixed with a simple software update.
The Distronic adaptive cruise control and steering assist (including automatic lane changing) is also worth a mention and works significantly better than many rival systems on cars twice as expensive. Sadly, it’s not coming to the UK until nearer the end of 2018, so bear that in mind before you rush down to the dealership.
With all that tech, is there enough room for passengers?
Coming in both longer and wider than the previous-gen car, the 2018 A-class also has a wheelbase that’s a whole 30mm longer, generating more legroom for those in the front and rear. The result is a car that you can comfortably sit four average-sized adults in, with a small child sandwiched in the middle seat.
Bootspace has also been bumped up by 29 litres to create 370 litres of luggage capacity with the rear seats in place and 1,210 with them down. Still not class-leading, but competitive with the Audi A3 and BMW 1-Series.
As a first step onto a manufacturer’s ladder of cars, the A-class is a pretty darn good one. Mercedes has addressed many concerns surrounding the – hugely popular – previous generation model and bequeathed the 2018 car with an onslaught of clever tech and high-end interior design, not to mention improved driving manners.
However, with the arrival of the new BMW 1 Series and Audi A3 just around the corner, we won’t know for sure just how competitive the A-class will be for a little while yet.