- What’s Best: Finally, an entry-level product deserving of the Mercedes-Benz name.
- What’s Worst: The new tech features are cool, but some are a little too distracting.
- What’s Interesting: This is Mercedes’s first-ever crack at the subcompact sedan body style – and while the hatch will be built in Germany, the sedan is being built at a brand new Mercedes facility in Mexico.
SEATTLE, WA – “Hey, Mercedes – can you tell me a joke?”
“Sorry. My engineers were German.”
If there’s one thing I wasn’t expecting to report on after a first drive of the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class sedan, it’s the car’s sharp sense of humour.
Mercedes-Benz’s available Linguatronic voice control assistant operates much like Siri or Google Assistant, which means that you can ask it pretty much anything – how your favourite sports team is doing, what the weather’s going to be like, how tall Mt. Rainier is when you become curious as you’re driving past it. (It’s 14,411 feet, by the way.)
The system isn’t perfect. It’s a little overly sensitive to the sound of its own name, and some of the functionality doesn’t work when it’s outside of data coverage (but it doesn’t actually tell you that; it just keeps asking you how it can help over and over again, which gets annoying). But it’s still a very useful and desirable thing to have.
In fact, not perfect but still very useful and desirable is an apt way to describe a lot about the new A-Class sedan.
Not Crazy Powerful, But Enough
Unlike the A-Class hatchback, which is entering its fourth generation as it finally reaches our shores later this year, the new A-Class sedan is a Mercedes first. And with it comes a new engine that it shares with its hatchback sibling, a 2.0-litre twin-scroll turbocharged inline-four-cylinder that’s rated to produce 188 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque.
That power output is not exceptional, but it’s certainly acceptable. This same engine is tuned to deliver more in the hatch – 221 hp and 258 lb-ft – and an A 35 hot hatch is being hinted at that could arrive as early as 2020, so buyers looking for more pedal power have options inside the Mercedes line-up. But the sedan doesn’t come across as underpowered – actually, for what it is, it’s probably just-right-powered. Plus, torque delivery is impressive, coming fully available at 1,600 rpm. Add on the well-mannered seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and a very smooth and refined throttle response, and maneuvers, like passing on the highway and getting around between traffic lights, come across as effortless.
While Canadians won’t have access to the active damping suspension system that’s available in other markets, the suspension setup that’s there leaves the A-Class sedan feeling nicely balanced, flat, and with just the right amount of compliance. It’s not exhilarating, but it’s very easy-driving without drawing much attention to itself, traits that buyers are typically looking for first and foremost in a sedan.
Unlike most Mercedes products sold in our market, front-wheel drive is standard on the A-Class sedan and 4Matic all-wheel drive is optional.
Inside, a Shrunken CLS
The driving dynamics aren’t what will draw potential buyers to this car, though, and Mercedes knows it. That’s why they’ve focused their attention on the factors that today’s entry-level luxury buyers –affluent, image-conscious millennials, for the most part – will prioritize.
One of those areas is the quality and feature content in the cabin. There are some minor differences, of course, but overall the inside of the A-Class looks like someone took the interior of the much more expensive CLS launched earlier this year and shrunk it down to fit this smaller space. That means buyers are being given the opportunity to take home some desirable features at an attainable price point.
The list of standard features is surprisingly long – highlights include a panoramic sunroof, LED headlights and taillights, heated front seats and side mirrors, heated and rain-sensing wipers, 17-inch wheels, leatherette upholstery and leather steering wheel, and a 40-20-40 split rear seat.
Adding on the premium package integrates blind spot assist with rear cross-traffic alert, an upgrade from a 7-inch to 10.25-inch instrument cluster and infotainment touch-operated screens (the latter being a Mercedes first), the Linguatronic voice-activated personal assistant, 64-colour ambient lighting, wireless smartphone charging, exterior power folding mirrors, rear-view and driver’s side automatic dimming mirrors, a foot-activated trunk release, keyless entry, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration.
While official pricing hasn’t been released yet, Mercedes is aiming to have the model equipped with this premium package and all-wheel drive come in at under $40,000. If they pull it off, it doesn’t really matter what else this car does – the value proposition there is genuinely impressive.
One thing to note, though, is that the car photographed for this story is a pre-production unit built to U.S. specifications and therefore has some features equipped that won’t be easy to get in our market. For example, the ventilated front seats can only be had with leather upholstery, which isn’t on the build sheet at all for Canada because Mercedes doesn’t think enough of us will want it. (That said, it is possible to get both via special order if you really must have it.)
A heated steering wheel is available as a standalone option priced at $250. There’s also an available head-up display, but it can only be equipped with on-board navigation, which edges into a higher price point.
Mercedes predicts that A-Class sales will be split roughly 50-50 between the sedan and the hatch, though buying habits with other automakers suggest that Canadians may tend to lean more toward the latter. That said, the sedan offers a little more cargo space with the rear seats up: its trunk accommodates 420 L versus the 370 L found behind the hatch’s rear seats. Of course, the hatch’s second row can be folded to create a more flexible load area, so this comes down to your own expected use and personal preference.
And that second row isn’t as much of a write-off as one might think. A glance back at it from the front row left me thinking that it would be impossibly tight, but the deep contours in the back of the front seats create a surprising amount of leg room. This probably isn’t a car that four adults would be happy in for very long, but two adults and two kids would likely get along just fine.
Packed with Technology
Selecting on-board navigation creates access to an augmented reality feature, one of several technologically interesting developments on the new A-Class. While following turn-by-turn route guidance, the car uses the front camera to project an image of upcoming turning points onto the infotainment screen and layers graphics over top with details such as street names and address numbers.
This is a very interesting feature that previews a future where such graphics could be displayed on the windscreen within the driver’s view, which would be a game-changer. In its current format, it’s unquestionably cool and a lot of my colleagues are very excited about it, but I’m not convinced that it’s such a great idea just yet. Processing the information requires fully turning your attention away from the road and down onto the screen, likely for several seconds at a time. In the urban environments where this feature becomes active, a lot can change over that span. It’s distracting, and it may end up creating more trouble than it’s worth, at least in its current iteration.
I also find that the latest navigation system doesn’t solve the direction timing issue that Mercedes has had for some time. The voice prompts don’t give as much detail as they could earlier in the turning process, and later on they seem to be delayed just enough to make it too easy to make mistakes where there are several turns to choose from in quick succession. With Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity available at an accessible price point, I wouldn’t spring for either the navigation or the augmented reality features just yet.
Griping aside, the amount of technology packed into the A-Class sedan is unparalleled amongst its peers. The infotainment system now has three very sensible input methods: a Mercedes-first touchscreen, two thumb pads on the steering wheel first introduced on the E-Class a couple of years ago, and a next-generation centre console mounted touchpad (which is not only more functional than the previous version but is really quite beautiful).
On top of that, the A-Class has an embedded artificial intelligence system that observes your habits and begins to make suggestions without prompting over time. For example, if you tend to drive to your grandmother’s house every Sunday, the car will eventually begin to offer directions each week without being asked. If you usually call as you’re leaving, over time it will begin to offer to dial the number for you at roughly the same point in the drive. Some people, particularly those from an older demographic, may find this invasive. But generally speaking, the younger and highly connected buyers Mercedes is looking for here view things like this as pure convenience.
There’s also the Mercedes Me suite, which is the feature that gives the Linguatronic assistant its internet connectivity and also enables car-to-smartphone communication. Owners can use an app to control functions such as remotely starting the engine and locking or unlocking the doors, sending an address from a computer or phone to the on-board navigation system, checking tire pressures, tracking the vehicle’s location, and more. Mercedes Me will be standard equipment on the A-Class and all other 2019 model year Mercedes vehicles in Canada except for the B-Class, and it will remain free on all of them for the first three years from activation. (How much it will cost to maintain after that point is yet to be announced.)
You Can Still Have a CLA, If You Must
Mercedes is keeping the CLA in its line-up, which is the current entry-level four-door model, just in case anyone might prefer its coupe-shaped styling. Truly, though, it’s hard to envision why anyone would choose the CLA over this. The new A-Class sedan will start at a lower price point and have a much more stylish design along with robust feature and technology offerings. The CLA will be getting more features as well to bring it up-market, but once fit, finish, and fashion are factored in, there’s no contest – the CLA always felt like a compromise to get into a badge, while the A-Class wears the Mercedes logo very legitimately and makes it available to a new crop of buyers.
The A-Class sedan doesn’t have a lot of competition anyway – there’s the Audi A3, which has a new generation due any time now, and the Acura ILX, which could match this on features and would still struggle to meet it in cachet.
Its one potential hitch is that Canadians are currently crossover crazy and therefore may overlook it in favour of something they perceive as more functional.
But there’s still a good chance that, between this and the hatchback, the urban, tech-savvy crowd will devour the A-Class. Expect to see them often in Canadian cities once they go on sale – the sedan will land in dealerships early next year.
2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class Sedan
BODY STYLE: Subcompact Sedan
CONFIGURATION: Front-engine, FWD or optional AWD
ENGINE: 2.0L turbo I4; Power: 188 hp @ 5,800 rpm; Torque: 221 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
FUEL ECONOMY: (Premium Gasoline in L/100km) TBD
WEBSITE: Mercedes A-Class Sedan