It's the new stab at an entry-level Merc. Because nothing is lower than A. Apart from Smart.
The A-class arrives. It looks quite nice. Certainly better than the old one which appeared to have the nose from a different, larger car which was too big for the rest of it and those horrible sinew lines up the side that looked like the neck of a middle-aged man having a road rage incident in IKEA car park. This one is smoother and smarter. The interior looks swishier too, although this impression is immediately undone when you press the starter button which feels unexpectedly cheap. The column stalks – one for indicators and wipers, the other the gear selector for the double clutch ‘box – are the opposite in that their action feels like all the money but their appearance is mean and cheap-looking. They’re a new design which hopefully won’t infest bigger models and is only for the various A- and B-flavoured Benzes that will spin off this new MFA2 platform. Otherwise, on first acquaintance this seems like a reasonable, Golf-sized hatchback although I’m going to mark it down for being badged A200 when Merc admit it’s a 1.4 and then knock more points off because the capacity is 1332cc so really it’s a 1.3 and that means they’re lying twice.
The swishy centrepiece of the A-class interior is the massive screen that stretches across the driver’s side and into the middle like a very long iPad, carrying virtual instruments and all the usual sat-nav and stereo interfaces. This is Merc’s new MBUX system which looks very crisp and very modern. You can input things using a touchpad down where the gearlever would be or by jabbing at the screen itself, as if Merc couldn’t decide which system was better and went with both. Mostly it works well. I preferred the touch pad, not least because it’ll let you draw a cock ‘n’ balls on it. Like a lot of cars with virtual dials, the A-class gives you a choice of styles but they’re all basically evocations of actual, old-fashioned instruments which feels a bit unimaginative given that they could do anything. There is a minimalist option which is a bit more interesting, but it’s so minimal that it feels weird, like you’re missing out on something. Set it to one of the un-quirky options and it works just fine with some nice details like speedo numbers that get very slightly bigger as the pretend needle approaches. This is a pleasing piece of design. Less pleasingly, some of the physical controls are all over the shop. In older Mercs the starter button was below the gear selector stalk and the electro-handbrake release below that. Everything was grouped and in a line so it was quick and intuitive when you got going or came to a stop. Now the start button has moved to the other side of the wheel and the parking brake button is both tiny and feels like it’s been fitted the wrong way up. While other car makers got a bit giggly and mucked about, you used to rely on Mercedes to get these basics right and now they’ve cocked it up as well, which is a shame
For a 1.4 that’s actually a 1.3 the A 200 Badge Fib performs perfectly well. It handles quite nicely too, with lots of grip, light and accurate steering and a sense of agility. Most A-classes have a torsion beam rear axle, but AMG Line A200s like this get a multi-link design which maybe helps the handling. On the downside, the ride is not great. Plus, the suspension makes a bit of noise which cheapens the whole feel of the car and also highlights the firmness of the ride. It really is too firm. This is a family car, Mercedes, calm the frig down.
We’re going away for the night. Two small children in two very bulky child seats fit in the back seat without the people in the front being squashed up against the snazzy dashboard and all of the things required for a family with a baby – that is to say, 400 tons of nappies and wipes and bottles – fits in the boot. From this we can deduce that the A-class is impressively spacious. Towards the end of our journey I need to use the sat-nav and discover a clever trick of the MBUX system, which is that when it needs to give you an instruction it uses a camera above the rear view mirror to show a view of the road on the central screen and then projects arrows over that moving image to show you where to go. It’s a neat trick, although if the view ahead is full of bright sky or many colours and textures the arrows are hard to see. Still, nice idea and of those things that feels like it’s from the high-tech future we were always promised.
Back home again. At motorway speeds the A200’s double-clutch gearbox often shuttles between 6th and 7th. It’ll go into top for cruising, but even a fairly gentle press on the accelerator causes it to drop down a gear to give you a bit more oomph, then as soon as your foot steadies it changes up until you apply a tiny bit more pressure at which point it drops down again and so on. It’s quite annoying. Obviously you could over-ride this by using the paddles on the wheel, but who wants to tit about with paddles on the motorway? Since we’re talking about the gearbox, in all sorts of driving it feels like it wants to get into as high a gear as possible as soon as possible, as if it’s been programmed by a minicab driver. At lower speeds this makes it feel free-wheeling, as if it’s making its way along the road in a very low friction way, but it does mean you seem to brake a bit more than normal. I guess it’s for economy which, now I mention it, does seem to be quite good.
As part of the MBUX system this A200 has its own assistant thing, like a sort of Germanic Alexa. You say “Hey Mercedes” and it comes to life. I didn’t know any of this until today when I accidentally said something that must have sounded a bit like “Hey Mercedes” – Grey Mercedes? Haysi Fantayzee? You know my mate Jay Percades? – and it piped up asking how it could help, which it couldn’t because I didn’t need any help, and then the little listening graphic kept hovering at the top of the screen even when I told it to go away and my wife jabbed at the touchpad to tell it to mind its own sodding business. Later I tried it again deliberately and asked it to do some simple things like adjust the temperature and change the radio, neither of which it seemed keen to get on with. So I’m not sure what it’s for, except to butt in on conversations.
I’ve been driving the A-class for a week now and I’ve realised not only is the ride too hard, so are the seats. They’re just not that comfy. Which is weird, because Mercedes usually gets this stuff right. But then Mercedes usually makes cars with refined engines and quiet suspension and expensive-feeling controls and none of these things are entirely true of the A-class. Obviously there’s a reason for that, which is that this is the entry level car. But if you’ve ever experienced a larger, bigger Mercedes you’ll come to this and you’ll get a sense that the engineering underneath feels thin and reedy.
The A-class is going away. It is, when all’s said and done, a disappointing car. Some of it, like that glossy big screen across the dash and the interior design generally, is impressive. Too much of it, like the ride and the refinement and the feeling that it’s a cheaper facsimile of a real Mercedes, is not. And that’s before you get to the price. In basic form it’s near-as-dammit a £29,000 car. This particular press demo, with an option pack that includes useful things like heated seats and keyless locking plus another 500 quid for the fancy augmented reality arrows in the sat-nav, is on the road for £31,710. Which is a lot. Frankly, it’s too much. For that money you could have a five door VW Golf GTI Performance with the DSG ‘box. And I think I would.
The car talked about here is a Mercedes-Benz A200 AMG Line. It has a 1.3-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine making 161 horsepower. They say it can go from 0-62 in 8 seconds and on to 139mph. Without options, it costs £28,700.