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Mercedes-Benz A-class review: tech-filled premium hatchback on long-term test

Mercedes A200 AMG Line - long-term Craig Thomas

Is the latest generation of Mercedes-Benz’s most compact car a match for its premium rivals?

Our car:A 200 AMG Line

List price when new: £28,925

Price as tested: £31,935

Official fuel economy: 42.2-47.9mpg (WLTP)

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July 30th, 2019

There’s no shortage of good hatchbacks available for car buyers to sign a finance deal for these days (or buy with cash, if you’re old skool). 

First there are the stalwarts of the segment, the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, that keep coming back, generation after generation every seven years or so, each one better equipped and safer than the last. If you’re in the market for a family hatch, these two are your go-tos.

Then there’s the rest of the mass market, with models such as the Peugeot 308 and Vauxhall Astra doing the business for those who want something from an established brand; plus the Hyundai i30 and Kia Ceed, representing the new generation of emerging marques that have undergone something of a revolution and are now building some very decent cars.

But if you have a bit more disposable income and are a little more brand conscious, there’s a strong slate of premium hatchbacks. The Audi A3 Sportback is the longest established, the BMW 1-Series also on the cusp of its third iteration and the Lexus CT offering a hybrid alternative.

Then there’s the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Originally conceived as a compact car in 1997, it morphed into a true hatchback in 2012 to compete with the A3, CT and 1-Series. Now in its second hatchback incarnation, we’re testing it over six months to see how it fares in a very tough, very competitive segment of the car market.

How it looks

The new A-Class is certainly a very different proposition to the original late-90s car, which was, to put it mildly, a somewhat dumpy, dowdy little car. Fast forward to 2019 and the new A-Class is a low, sleek, sporty hatch. There are a few creases in the bodywork to add some shape and character, but the car’s styling is largely unfussy and sharp looking.

A low-slung body is a particular indicator of sportiness and the A-Class has nailed this. However, in a what is arguably a triumph of style over substance, the A-Class is so low, it has problems with the speed humps that are not-so-liberally scattered around the London streets where I live. The speed limit tends to be 20mph on these streets, but at 20mph the bottom of the A-Class scrapes on the hump, so in many cases you have to slow down to around 13mph if you don’t want to hear the automotive equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard.

The incontestable triumph of the A-Class, however, is the interior. The cabin looks great, with man-made leather and microfibre upholstery, soft-touch materials on the upper surfaces, along with a brushed aluminium that looks and feels very modern. That modernity continues in the strips of ambient lighting that provide a very pleasing glow inside the car at night – a glow that is customisable, so you can swap between every colour of the rainbow (and a few more: there are 64, apparently), depending on your mood.

Technology

The A-Class feels even more of the moment if you opt for the twin 10.25-inch screens in the dashboard. 

The first replaces the standard two-dial instrument panel beyond the steering wheel. In line with all the best current screens of this type, you can change the display in almost innumerable ways: apart from the options for the main dials (speed, revs, eco driving info, etc), there’s also the ability to switch between information on media, phone, trip computer and navigation. 

But you can also change the view settings of the display so that, for instance, you can fill the screen with the nav system’s map, the fuel gauge and speedometer taking a more peripheral place in what you see. 

Next to it in the centre of the dashboard is another 10.25-inch display (so, in effect, there’s more than half a yard of screen as the driver’s disposal) that shows full details of a wide range of settings and infotainment options. This is controlled with a touchpad in the centre console that is easy to use, if you’re used to them on home computers and laptops.

Yes, it is a little sensitive – if you reach across it to grab something from one of the cupholders next to it, chances are you will switch radio stations, change the track playing from the media player, etc – but you just adapt how you reach for something.

The other innovation is the MBUX multimedia system, which is a bit of a curate’s egg. It works well in many instances, but smartphone connectivity is a little slow: early cars didn’t have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but if you’re buying now, make sure you tick the options box for that option, which works far better and adds additional services such as the ability to listen to incoming texts and dictate replies.

MBUX also has a Hey Mercedes voice control feature. It can help you do a few things (ask it to phone a particular contact, for example), but it is just often stumped by my requests. It also has a tendency to pipe up if you happen to be talking to someone while driving and say something that sounds like the “Hey Mercedes” command that starts it up. It’s done this a couple of times already and for the life of me I don’t know what it was that woke it: perhaps it just doesn’t understand my Welsh accent. 

The drive

Most of the 1,770 miles that I’ve driven the A-Class so far have been either on urban roads or motorways, so I don’t yet have a definitive picture of what the A-Class drives like: a good rural road will offer a lot more information on areas such as handling.

However, from what I’ve experienced so far, the A-Class steers, handles and rides consistently well. The ride, in particular is very good, with the multilink rear suspension on the AMG Line trim car that we’re testing helping it to retain its composure, not only over those speed humps, but also over broken road surfaces and the expansion joints on motorways and bridges.

The 1.6-litre petrol engine does like to rev, so you need to be fairly light on your right foot: even then it does like to hold the revs before the dual-clutch automatic changes down a gear. This isn’t great for efficiency, so around town you’ll probably be recording something in the low thirties, mpg-wise. On a trip that involves motorway and urban driving, however, I’ve already managed almost 50mpg, exceeding the official fuel consumption figure of 47.9-49.2mpg, which is doubly impressive as I wasn’t even trying to drive economically.

The 48-litre fuel tank does seem to empty pretty quickly, though, with a range of just about 320 miles or so. My filling station loyalty card is currently seeing a lot of action.

I have the distinct feeling that there’s more potential in the A-Class to unlock, so I’m looking forward to doing so over the next few months. 

In a market filled with good family hatchbacks, the new A-Class is doing nothing to make buyers’ choices any easier. 

April 23, 2019

Fuel economy this week: 38.7mpg

Another quick round trip to south Wales last week for a lunch, but as it was daytime, the M4 was a little busier than for my recent night-time runs, so I took it slightly slower – which proved very useful for fuel economy. 

The drive down meant that I was able to record 49.5mpg, which I was very impressed with. Almost 50mpg in the real world shows just how far petrol engines have come in the last couple of decades, in terms of improvements to their efficiency. I will certainly be attempting to get more than 50mpg in future trips.

One of the most appealing features of the A-Class is the cabin, which is well laid out, and very easy on the eye. It also features ambient lighting with colours you can change: the first couple of weeks I went for a Hulk-like green theme, but I last week opted for a Prince-influenced purple. The lighting – strips along the dashboard and door, the footwell and the ventilation outlets – adds a real element of classiness to the interior of the A-Class.

Sipping pretty: 49.5mpg on the tripmeter, which shows how far petrol engines have improved in terms of economy

The pair of 10.25-inch screens – one for the instrument cluster and the other for the central media display – also offer lots of information and I discovered this week how to get the navigation’s map display into the instrument cluster. Volkswagen Group cars have had this feature for a little while and I’ve always found it useful – and much safer – to have the map just below my eyeline when driving, rather than having to look to the side. I’m sure we’re not far from getting the map projected on the windscreen, in the manner of a head-up display, but in the meantime, just beyond the steering wheel works well.

This also frees up the central screen for displaying the current media. During the daytime, I tend to listen to BBC 6 Music, so I don’t need to change it, but if I’m listening to music from my phone, I frequently need to change the track. This is because, for some reason, I tend to get the same few songs from a playlist recurring. I’m not sure if this is the fault of my phone or the Mercedes system: I have had a couple of messages up on the screen about reaching the maximum number of stored tracks, but I haven’t been able to find a reference to that in the handbook or online, so I’ll need to look further into that. 

Note the twin screens and changeable ambient lighting

But one other issue is that when you swipe across the touchpad in the centre console to change tracks – which is really straightforward to do – the track sometimes doesn’t change for 10-15 seconds. This lack of immediacy is mystifying – and not a little irritating.

However, I have a relatively early version of the car, so I’m relying on this Mercedes MBUX multimedia system, which, I have to say, I’m not a fan of. Anyone looking to buy an A-Class now, though, also has the option of adding the vastly superior Apple CarPlay (or Android Auto, but I’m less au fait with that), which wasn’t included on early cars. I’d recommend taking up that option. It’s a much better system all round, for music, using the phone and also receiving and sending dictated texts. The last of these is extremely useful when you have teenage kids that you have to pick up, believe me.

I suspect that I still have more to learn about MBUX, but I also suspect that I will find not having CarPlay something of a limitation. It’s clearly not always great to be an early adopter.

April 17, 2019

Fuel economy this week: 38.1mpg 

The A-Class has proved its worth as a family car this week, as we – myself, my wife and two teenage daughters – went to Wales to see the grandparents for an early Easter visit.

Now we Thomases don’t travel light. I’m as much to blame as my wife and daughters: I always like to have clothes for every eventuality and, as the Welsh coastal climate can be a tad changeable, that means a full holdall, a couple of coats and my work bag, in case I need to do some writing or other work at short notice.

Add a couple of bags for my wife, a small carry-on for my younger daughter and a holdall for the elder one, plus a couple of bags of food and household stuff for the flat we stay in, and I was a little concerned that the A-Class’s boot might not cope. The 370-litre boot capacity, while larger than a BMW 1 Series, is 10 litres less than the Audi A3 or Volkswagen Golf, but it’s still good for a family hatchback.

Luggage for four - with a little room to spare for a couple of squashy bags

And, indeed, it proved big enough. I managed to fit everything in – I reckon that I would have been pretty good at that 3-D tessellating challenge they used to have on The Krypton Factor – and I could probably have fitted in a couple more soft bags, if necessary. So while the boot isn’t class leading, it should still be practical enough for most families.

The other important criterion for a family car is comfort. In this department, it’s also true to say that the A-Class acquits itself well, but again without being a class leader. Reports form the rear seat suggest that a three- to four-hour journey is fine, but any longer and the firmness of the seats might start to edge into uncomfortable.

Rear space is also OK: my 5’ 6” younger daughter had enough space behind my 5’ 4” wife, but my 5’ 4” elder daughter would have liked more space behind me (5’ 10”).

The A-Class isn't the roomiest family hatchback but the Thomas family seems to manage ok

I’ve addressed in previous reports how much the A-Class doesn’t like speed humps – and I will no doubt return to the (painful) subject – and that’s still the case for the various types they employ in south Wales. However, the ride quality doesn’t feel as firm on the motorway as I suspected it might be: even expansion joints on the motorway and Severn Bridge were taken in its stride, without any sense of the car being unsettled by them.

All in all, the A-Class has passed its family car test: not with flying colours, perhaps, but certainly with a very respectable passing grade – I’d certainly give it a strong ‘B’.

The formerly Polar White paintwork requires some attention to restore its sheen

As I suspected, the Polar White paint is starting to look less gleaming. We’ve not had any seriously bad weather, but motorway runs (including having to drive past three lorries salting the M4 this week – which seemed incongruous at this time of year – that can’t have helped the paintwork) have added a grimy sheen – along with some residue from high-speed insect deaths.

With another round-trip-in-a-day to Wales this week, the A-Class will rack up another slab of miles – plus more grime, no doubt – so an Easter cleaning is probably on the cards.

April 9, 2019

Fuel economy this week: 37.6mpg

A busy few days of car launches and rugby spectating means that I’ve put around 500 miles on the A-Class in the last week. It’s not exactly sales rep mileage, but a lot for a homeworking city dweller such as myself.

And, I have to say, it’s been a pretty illuminating 500 miles, too.

I noticed that a run to Heathrow and another to the Windsor area to road-test a couple of new cars helped to marginally improve the A-Class’s overall fuel consumption, taking it to more than 33mpg. And that was just 80 miles or so of motorway driving, so I was intrigued to see what could be achieved with a longer run.

No expense spared for south London photo locations...

My answer came on Saturday with a 400-mile round trip to watch my team take on Edinburgh. The less said about the game the better, but a much better result was the fuel economy I managed for the trip. The trip computer showed 42.1mpg for the whole trip of 404 miles: when you consider that the official fuel consumption figure under the new WLTP testing regime (which has been designed to better reflect real-world driving) is 42.2-47.9mpg – it’s a range to account for variations in wheel size and equipment levels – I think the A-Class is doing pretty well.

I wasn’t driving in a particularly economical manner and I had a pretty clear run in both directions, which enabled me to run at real-world motorway speeds. 

404 miles at an average of 42.1mpg

I’m going to Wales again this week for a few days, with the family in tow, so we’ll be four-up with luggage (we never travel light, either). It will be interesting to see the difference in fuel economy.

The only possible drawback is that the 48-litre fuel tank (five litres of which is the reserve) doesn’t feel that capacious. I’ve filled up the car twice – just under 30 litres on each occasion – so despite what I consider to be a pretty respectable fuel consumption for a petrol car, I’ll be no stranger to filling stations over the next six months.

Oh well, at least I’ll rack up some loyalty points.

April 3, 2019

Fuel economy this week: 32.8mpg 

Still very much in the honeymoon period of my time with the A-Class, as my short-journey urban use offers a series of vignettes into what the car does and can do.

That will change over the next week as I take it on an airport run and then a 400-mile round trip to Wales, so by next week I’ll have a better idea of how comfortable it is on a longer run – and also what the real-world consumption figure is. 

The Mercedes certainly looks the part, although Craig can't wait to see what it's like on a long journey, away from urban gridlock

That is because my urban-only usage has done nothing to give me a realistic idea of what the A-Class can return. I suppose 32.8mpg isn’t that bad for a 1.4-litre petrol engine, especially as the official urban figure is 34.9mpg and it’s not yet done 1,000 miles, which means there’s a lot of loosening up to do.

But I’m also keen to see what it can return, given a clear motorway run (or as clear as you can get on a British motorway) with the adaptive cruise control engaged. It will also be useful to discover just how much more accurate official figures are now under the new, much-vaunted WLTP testing regime.

It will also be good to see how it performs. Opportunities for planting your right foot in London are few and far between – and chances to overtake are even rarer – so it will be useful to see if the A-Class feels as if the 8.0-second 0-62mph time is about right and what the in-gear acceleration is like at pace.

The A 200's 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine hasn't yet done 1,000 miles

In the meantime, I’m still getting to grips with the MBUX infotainment system, with its Mercedes Me digital assistant. I’ve had a few more services added, so I’ll start seeing how useful they are in day-to-day usage. I’ve not yet discovered how to send text messages by dictating them, as you can do with Apple CarPlay – a feature I find is very useful for fine-tuning arrangements when picking up my teenage daughters from work and social activities – but I’ll delve deeper to see if that’s possible. 

One thing I have discovered is that if you say: “Hey Mercedes. Tell me a joke,” you’ll get a response.

“I’m sorry, but my engineers were German,” was the fairly amusing response.

The A-Class’s stand-up repertoire will be tested further.

March 27, 2019

Fuel economy this week: n/a mpg

The A-Class has certainly made a good first impression. My car, in Polar White, looks every inch the premium hatchback, with its long nose, set-back cabin and low-slung body adding an air of sportiness.

Luckily, the weather hasn’t been too bad since it arrived, so it still looks white, but I’m assuming it will have to cleaned on a regular basis to keep that unspoiled Polar whiteness – as opposed to a we’ve-just-started-drilling-for-oil-in-the-Arctic colour that it could quickly assume in a grimy, spring-showery London.

The cabin is also very impressive. It has the kind of fit and finish that you’d expect from a premium car, especially one in the top trim level – which, in the case of the A-Class is the AMG Line. Standard are Artico black man-made leather seats trimmed with microfibre (Dinamica, if you’re into your automotive textiles), with the seats feeling comfortable – although I haven’t managed any long trips yet, so the jury’s still out on that.

The dashboard is impressive, with styling and key technological features from the larger E- and S-class ranges

The dashboard looks the business, too. Pride of place is the 10.25-inch media display, which flows seamlessly into a same-sized instrument cluster. It’s a very good look and one that we can all expect to see in our cars in the years to come. Control comes courtesy of a touchpad in the centre console that, I have to admit, I’m not loving quite yet. It’s very sensitive, so you have to take the approach of The Fast Show’s Swiss Toni and treat it as if you’re making… well, you know the rest. I’ve already managed to casually brush my hand against it while reaching for something in the oddments tray and changed radio stations.

The infotainment system also features MBUX – Mercedes-Benz User Experience and ‘Hey Mercedes’, which uses intelligent voice recognition to control key features. It’s early days, but Mercedes has been unable to intelligently help me with anything I’ve yet asked for. The Mercedes me online services are also evading my best efforts to take advantage of them. I can access the online portal and the smartphone app, but I don’t seem to be able to access the services. I suspect there might be some minor issue relating to the fact that Mercedes-Benz UK owns the vehicle, rather than me, so I’ll try to sort that out over the next week.

I’ve been chained to my desk writing for most of the last week, so I haven’t had much of a chance to take the car out for a drive. However, I’ve learned a couple of things from my local forays.

The low chin spoiler and underbody seem at grave risk from traffic-calming measures

First is that the engine likes to rev. The 163PS 1.4-litre petrol engine is certainly willing, but I’m going to have to be lighter with my right foot, as a little too much pressure sends the rev counter rising, where it likes to stay. If you carefully feather the throttle, though, it reacts more gently and doesn’t hold on to the gear – it’s mated to a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic gearbox – for as long. I’m sure that this is something I’ll return to.

The other issue is how low the car is. I like a low car as much as the next wannabe sports car owner, but I fear for the car’s underside. This is because my part of south-west London is plagued by speed humps. I literally cannot travel much more than around 200 metres in any direction from my house before hitting one. They're there to try and keep cars to the 20mph speed limit, which is fair enough: it's a residential area and there are kids crossing roads, so I don’t have a problem with the ‘20 is plenty’ philosophy.

The problem comes when the speed humps are badly constructed and there’s no consistency to the height, angle of ascent and descent, etc. So I’ve already found that 20mph in the A-Class is much too much for many of them: I’m already finding that 13mph is the fastest that I can risk taking many of them at, without the act being accompanied by that teeth-grinding scraping sound.

I suspect that after six months with the A-Class, I will have a mental map of every speed hump in my borough.

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