The first two Meredes-Benz A-class iterations were clever and sold well, but the tall and narrow styling caused Mercedes some headaches at the first car’s launch. By the time the second-generation A-class had arrived, Audi and BMW’s own small cars - the A3 and the 3-series compact (and later 1-series) had nailed the balance of a premium feel and compact size that an increasing number of customers craved.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. The third-generation A-class ditched the sandwich floor and lofty seating position and went down the conventional two-box hatchback route. Sales went gangbusters (particularly in the UK, the world’s biggest A-class market) and diversification into saloons and estates (with the CLA line), mini-MPVs (B-class) and hot hatchbacks (the AMG A45) strengthened its position further.
Mercedes is hoping to replicate that feat with the latest, more technologically-advanced and more sleekly-styled 2018 A-class. With sharper looks, a striking cabin, new engines and E-class levels of technology it works on paper, but it also has to impress on UK roads.
Early impressions suggest it’s a more appealing car in the showroom than it is on the road, with uninspiring handling and an unsettled ride chipping away at the car’s premium feel, but for cabin ambience and technology the new Mercedes A-class is hard to beat, and smaller wheels may yet fix our misgivings about the car’s road manners.Mercedes-Benz A-class in detail
Performance and 0-60 time - A250 approaches hot hatchback levels of performance but without the drama. A200 and A180d… do not.
Engine and gearbox - Two petrol four-pots and a four-cylinder diesel, all turbocharged. A seven-speed DCT is standard across the range, with a six-speed manual on the way.
Ride and handling - Handling is competent and grippy but uninspiring, while a poor ride harms refinement. Smaller wheels may help improve matters.
MPG and running costs - Nearly 70mpg (on paper) from the A180d, with low rates of tax as a result. Real-world figures are less impressive but on-par with rivals.
Interior and tech - The new A-class’s stand-out feature. Slick cabin design makes rivals look old, bulky and clunky, and the in-car tech is among the best we’ve tried.
Design - A refined version of the old car’s styling, with fewer uncomfortable lines, and neater details.Prices, specs and rivals
The new A-class is more expensive than the model it replaces, and takes a big jump at the point of entry too - though this is skewed somewhat by the new car’s higher level of equipment compared to its predecessor, and the unavailability - for now, at least - of a cheaper manual gearbox option.
As such, an A180d in SE trim currently begins at £25,800, rising to £27,500 for an A200 petrol and £30,240 for the A250. SE models kick off with 16in wheels, DAB, Artico artificial leather and cloth trim, various assistance systems, and navigation. Sport adds LED headlights, bumps the wheel diameter up by and inch, and throws in automatic climate control, while AMG Line gains you another inch in wheel diameter, AMG body styling, Artico and Dinamica (artificial suede) trim, sports seats and a sports three-spoke steering wheel.
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To get the full effect of the new A’s cabin you do then need to spend a few more pennies - swapping the standard pair of 7-inch screens for a pair of 10.25-inch screens means finding £1395 for the Executive pack (10.25in touchscreen, active park assist and heated seats) and another £2395 for the Premium pack (10.25in instrument display, 64-colour ambient lighting, keyless go, an upgraded sound system and a few other toys).
Pricing, while higher than before, is on-par with premium rivals - matching the A180d SE means opting for an Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI SE Technik S Tronic at £25,630, or a BMW 116d SE Business (manual only) at £24,330 in five-door form.Performance and 0-60 time
With only three power units and one gearbox to choose from it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce the A-class performance hierarchy. At the top is the 2-litre A250 petrol, capable of sprinting to 62mph in a brisk 6.2 seconds and reaching an electronically-limited 155mph. Next up comes the A200 petrol, whose 1.3-litre engine still provides enough poke to hit 62mph in eight seconds flat and runs on to 139mph, while the A180d lags at 10.5sec to 62mph and 125mph.
Initial impressions are good, with all units feeling quiet and vibration-free at idle. All three engines also feel quite responsive to initial throttle inputs even in Comfort mode, but only the A250 continues to leap forward as you sink the pedal further. The A180d and A200 petrol provide extra noise but limited thrust. The diesel may actually be the preferable of the pair, as while it’s slower than the petrol, its low-down torque characteristics mean you don’t need to work it as hard in typical driving. Given the A200’s harshness and the A180d’s relative smoothness, we’d say the diesel is the pick of the smaller units.
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The A250 is better than both, but still not exactly bustling with character. It’s smoother than its smaller petrol sibling and doesn’t need stoking as much to get you down the road, but it’s still a relatively joyless thing to rev and the DCT ‘box makes a meal of quick getaways, without the reward of a truly snappy change when you’re selecting manually with the steering wheel-mounted paddles.
You probably won’t feel compelled to switch to Sport mode very often either, which drops a couple of ratios and makes the initial throttle response overly sensitive - Comfort mode is best, using the paddles to change gear manually when required. Ultimately though the new A-class isn’t yet a car that goads you into a more lively driving style - it’s at its best simply cruising along quietly with everything set to auto.Engine and gearbox
Three engines are available from launch, all equipped with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, with a six-speed manual set to be available further down the line. At the bottom in terms of both price and performance you’ll find the A180d, a 1.5-litre turbocharged diesel producing a modest 114bhp but a more useful 192lb ft of torque from 1750-2500rpm. Mercedes claims 68.9mpg combined economy from the diesel. Our drive suggests mid-50s is a more realistic goal in mixed driving.
Next up is the A200, an all-new 1.3-litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder with a reasonable turn of pace. Despite the modest capacity it boasts a 161bhp output and 184lb ft at 1620rpm, only lagging the diesel slightly on torque, though as you’ll have read in the previous section, its delivery isn’t quite as pleasant as that of the diesel, requiring more revs for a given task and making a strained noise as it does so.
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The A250 2-litre turbocharged petrol currently tops the range, with 221bhp, 258lb ft from 1800rpm. It tops the range to drive too, finally feeling like an engine with enough power to make unruffled progress in day-to-day driving and enough in reserve to propel you down a twisty road at a decent lick. It’s smoother than the smaller petrol too, to the benefit of refinement, though it still doesn’t feel much like an engine you’ll be inclined to rev. While new, tight engines never quite give their best and a more run-in unit might feel more willing, the 2-litre still feels like an engine best driven in its low to mid-range.
To help meet ever-stricter emissions standards, both petrol units feature particulate filters - something you’ll see rolling out across an increasing number of petrol cars in the years to come.Ride and handling
The old A-class always rode poorly, so it’s disappointing to find the latest model is little better. The multi-link cars are more adept at dealing with broken and rough road surfaces than the torsion beam models lower down the range which clonk and shudder more readily, but on the AMG Line’s 18-inch wheels and 40-profile tyres, both setups feel unsettled on all but the smoothest surfaces, rumbling noisily over patchy tarmac and thudding over harsher bumps.
This firmness does translate to good body control and roll is kept to a minimum, backed up by strong levels of lateral grip. The steering is reasonable too, with a responsive and well-weighted feel once past a slightly dead zone around the straight-ahead, and once you’re up to a decent speed and sending greater loads through the front axle. There’s a typical Mercedes slickness to the steering too, even if the suspension’s struggle to contain bumps sometimes sends vibrations through the rim.
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With little feedback though the A-class lacks involvement, so there’s not much fun to be had slotting the A-class down a twisting section of road, even though it’s capable of doing so with speed and composure.
We’d be eager to try an A-class on slightly smaller wheels to see whether that evens out the ride and handling balance and the eventual AMG model should be sharper, but until then the new baby Merc doesn’t quite impress on the road as much as it does in the showroom. We’d certainly welcome an option for adaptive dampers.MPG and running costs
Other variants will inevitably follow, but for the time being the A180d is the predictable economy champ with a combined figure of up to 68.9mpg (and 108g/km of CO2). Gentle, steady motorway driving is likely to return the best figures in the real world, but our mixed route on the car’s launch saw around 55mpg on the trip computer - reasonable, but not outstanding.
The A200 was around 10mpg behind the A180d in similar mixed driving, against an official combined figure of 51.4mpg (for a corresponding 123g/km of CO2). The A250 was another 10mpg behind the A200 in the real world for us (at around 35mpg), but officially it’s capable of 45.6mpg and 141g/km of CO2.
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With on-the-road prices of under £40,000, none of the basic A-class models attract the VED surcharge of £310 a year, so a basic A180d will cost £145 in year one and £140 a year thereafter, the A200 is £165 in year one, and the A250 comes in at £205 in year one. Hit the options list hard and you may find A250s attracting that £310 yearly surcharge.
In terms of Benefit-in-Kind company car tax, the A180d sits in the 26 per cent bracket, the A200 in the 25 per cent bracket, while the A250 rises to 29 per cent.Interior and tech
The moment the salesman opens the door on that first test drive, many people will be sold. The new A-class’s neat horizontal layout to the dashboard, wide instrument panel display and simplified centre console make everything else in the class seem staid and unimaginative.
Dig deeper and there are perhaps one or two too many different types of material on display and the traditional Mercedes steering column mounted gear selector (and its combined wipers and lights stalk on the other side) both looks and feels oddly cheap. Despite this, the layout and appearance remain appealing and the absence of bulky mouldings lends an airy feel, despite the gloomy black trim of the AMG Line cars we drove. A range of adjustment to the wheel and seats and well-placed pedals make for a comfortable driving position too.
Technologically it’s right on the button. At its flashiest the A-class cabin uses a pair of 10.25-inch displays, with the central display now touch-sensitive. That’s just one of the ways you can now control it, the others being a touchpad in the centre console, buttons and touch-sensitive pads on the steering wheel spokes, and voice commands as part of what Mercedes calls MBUX.
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All methods work surprisingly well, and the voice control system is among the best we’ve tried. It’s still unfamiliar with some commands, but by and large it’s quite easy to set navigation destinations, change radio stations, adjust the interior temperature or just change the ambient lighting colour with simple spoken instructions. As a means of distraction-free control of infotainment, it’s better than any touchscreen.
The various displays are of course multi-configurable, and the touch-sensitive elements allow you to use smartphone-style pinching, swiping and scrolling movements, with simple “back” buttons present on all surfaces - a useful shortcut to whatever screen you were on before, so you don’t end up eight menus away from your navigation directions or other similarly irritating predicaments.
Once you’ve spent a good while prodding and swiping at the steering wheel buttons and the central touchscreen you’ll eventually settle on an instrument layout that suits you too - virtually every element of both screens can be configured to suit, or you can just select one of the themes Mercedes has already programmed in, from a sporty layout, to one themed around economical driving, to another that removes virtually all visual elements from the screen for distraction-free driving.Design
Mechanically the new A-class is fairly unremarkable, with a steel structure (slightly wider and longer than before, liberating greater interior and luggage volume) and MacPherson struts with passive dampers at the front. The rear setup varies depending on spec, with more basic models (all A180ds and non-AMG Line A200s in the UK) getting a torsion beam, and more powerful cars (A200 and A250 AMG Lines) gaining a multi-link rear, both again with passive dampers. All use variable-ratio, electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion steering.
Visually the new A-class still has close links to its predecessor, with a relatively unremarkable two-box form that’s identifiable as a Mercedes-Benz more from its details than any consistent Mercedes design language (and it still lacks the innovation of the first two A-class generations) but place new next to old and there’s little doubt the new car is more attractive than before.
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The bonnet line seems lower and the new front end with its slimmer grille and headlights is less porcine than before. The same applies to the rear end, though the thinner tail lights sit less comfortably here in what’s still a relatively chubby rump.
Things are better down the sides, where Mercedes’ new design direction has led to much cleaner surfacing without the random cuts and slashes present in the old car’s panelwork, and overall the car looks like it’s been on a bit of a diet - even if, with a starting kerbweight of 1375kg, it’s only 20kg lighter than before.11 Jun 2018