First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-Benz A-Class

First Drive: 2018 Mercedes-Benz A-Class
 

There are probably more than a few folks at Mercedes-Benz who disagree with Oscar Wilde’s musing about youth being wasted on the young. By giving affluent fledglings what they want, the brand has seen a radical change in image, profile — and of course a healthy boost to its bottom line.

You could say the change of tack started back in 2013 with the launch of the striking third-generation A-Class. It ditched the pram-like, practical nature of its predecessors for a sexier silhouette and a zestier persona.

It had the likes of the Audi A3, BMW 1-Series and Volvo V40 in its sights. And as its popularity on South African roads will attest, this upscale hatchback has not struggled to find fans.

But despite its commercial success, this A-Class was not impervious to the scalpels of critical automotive scribes. What do we dislike about it? Well, for starters, it rode like a brick. A turgid, jarring experience could be expected at the helm. Ostensibly, the engineers figured that firm would automatically translate into sporty. Interior quality was also pretty average. Certainly not in the league of what long-standing brand anoraks would have had in a W123-generation 230E, replete with sheepskin seat covers. From a packaging perspective, there were also anomalies. Rear headroom was limited. And there was not much space for junk in the trunk.

Still, who cares? Millennial shoppers (that includes me) expect different things. Besides, more seasoned customers can still enjoy some of the traditional hallmarks of Mercedes-Benz in their larger sedan and sport-utility vehicle offerings. The reinvented A-Class sought to be trendy, cool and if you ask owners, they will affirm that it succeeded in reflecting their “lit” personalities and upward trajectory in life.

The brand will be launching the fourth-generation A-Class in South Africa this year. We were given the opportunity to get acquainted with the model at its international launch in Split, Croatia.

LESS CLAUSTROPHOBIA

First up you will notice an expected evolution of that snappy styling template, where the new A-Class is pointier and more easily distinguishable from the outgoing car. All great from the front and side. But why they decided to steal the rear from a current Kia Cerato, one is not entirely sure.

Luckily, the latest car tries to alleviate some of the claustrophobia that troubles its predecessor. There is more room for shoulders, elbows and knees. The boot sees a gain of 29l to 370l; which means accommodation for an additional suitcase, roughly. Perhaps still not the most versatile in the category, but a welcome improvement in any case.

Three engine choices were available at launch. First up is the A180d (85kW and 260Nm) which has a 1461cc displacement. The 1332cc, turbocharged-petrol in the A200 serves 120kW and 250Nm. The 1991cc A250, also boosted, delivers 165kW and 350Nm. We drove the entry-level diesel and the range-topping A250. The former impressed with its momentum through twisty foothills of the coastal European country. The latter offered an endearing engine note and a brisk sprint time of 6.2 seconds. Both are mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, while the A200 can be had with a six-speed manual in addition.

FOUR-WHEELED TABLET

Where it will lead the pack until its peers follow suit is with its slick digital wares. The A-Class debuts the latest Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) infotainment system, which essentially makes the car a four-wheeled tablet. Display screens stretch across the fascia, though the size will be dependent on how much you are willing to spend.

You can talk to it as well, should you opt for the grander MBUX choice. It works similarly to how an iPhone user would pester Siri. “Hey Mercedes” gets its attention. After which you can enjoy chit-chat about the weather — or make orders about your in-car temperature settings and music selection. Even better if you are the type of buyer who does not mind shelling out for optional kit, is the fact that one can specify some of the semi-autonomous technologies from the flagship S-Class.

Great stuff, though we opted to take full control of the reins, to glean whether the new car remedies the on-road gripes of the soon-to-be-replaced version. It is marginally lighter (20kg) which dials in a little more nimbleness to proceedings. Our impressions are positive — noticeably less harsh and more suppleness from the suspension. But there is a disclaimer. The lower offerings on the model grade ladder feature a rear torsion beam, while the top-level A250 (until the Mercedes-AMG flavours arrive) boasts a more sophisticated multi-link setup.

When it arrives on local shores towards the fourth quarter of 2018, you can bet it will attract the same fervent interest as the third-generation car. At least this time there is a little more substance to things. – Brenwin Naidu