CAPE TOWN – On an ordinary day, Franschhoek Pass represents a fairly intimidating collection of curves. But when you add a fierce Cape storm to the mix, there's a chance you'll need a fresh pair of underpants should you be fortunate enough to make it to the other side. However, today I'm at the helm of the new Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport and as I navigate the tight twists and turns I can’t help but feel at ease. Why? Well, turns out the A250 is rather a capable, rounded hot hatch.
The previous-generation A250 Sport had something of a tough time competing against the Volkswagen Golf GTI. When we pitted them against each other in the September 2013 issue of CAR magazine, we concluded that although the A250 Sport was an impressive first attempt at a hot hatch, it lacked the overall balance that defined the GTI. Sure, it boasted a dynamic and engaging feel, but it was essentially underpowered and not particularly comfortable.
Fast forward to the present day and the A250 Sport has returned, spoiling for a fight. Similar to before, it boasts a turbocharged 2,0-litre four-cylinder engine mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, but now this unit generates a more appropriate 165 kW (plus an unchanged 350 N.m of torque). It retains its front McPherson and rear four-link suspension arrangement, but softer springs have been installed alongside an adaptive suspension system that ultimately helps render it more comfortable.
As far as the engine is concerned, the difference in performance is immediately noticeable. Thanks to a twin-scroll turbocharging system that works in conjunction with a snappier dual-clutch gearbox, the A250 Sport is able to leap off the line with more immediacy than before (thanks to very little in the way of turbo-lag). Since the roads are soaked with water, it's not possible to tease out the full scope of the A250 Sport’s performance abilities, but its dynamic prowess nevertheless shines through.
The vehicle we're driving is fitted with 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in Bridgestone Turanza rubber. The latter, together with the cleverly fettled suspension setup and smart electronic stability control and traction control systems, means that the A250 Sport has no problem sticking to the road, despite the nasty weather.
This new A-Class model is also noticeably more refined than before. Very little engine noise finds its way into the cabin, even in the sportiest of driving modes (which enthusiasts may not see as a positive). Furthermore, the revised suspension and fairly high-profile tyres serve up an impressively damped ride that is leaps ahead of that of the previous model. In comfort mode, the A250 Sport wafts about in a manner one might expect from a far larger car, while selecting sport stiffens things up appreciably, providing access to a more focused experience.
Something that detracts from this engaging experience, though, is the electric steering system. Like most modern arrangements, the steering is light, but it unfortunately offers very little feedback. In addition, it's not the most precise nor "natural" feeling set-up, something compounded by a fairly aggressive speed-variable function (still, the latter is a characteristic the driver will likely quickly adapt to).
The A250 also features the Stuttgart-based brand's new MBUX interface (complete with artificial intelligence), which was covered in detail by senior associate editor Ian McLaren in his driving impression of the A200 7G-DCT from Croatia back in April.
With a base price of R593 300, it’s some R44 700 more expensive than the Volkswagen Golf GTI (unlike the previous A250 Sport, which was priced closer to its German rival). Apart from the dynamic select system and its adaptive suspension arrangement, plus the digital dash, the A250 Sport doesn’t offer much more in the way of standard kit, either.
Ultimately, this new A250 Sport is unlike its forebear in that it does not feel particularly hard-edged. In fact, Mercedes-Benz appears to have nailed the brief this time, targeting those who seek a comfortable, everyday hot hatch rather than a hardcore performance machine (the upcoming A35 and A45 will, after all, provide those sorts of thrills). Based on these first impressions, it's safe to say the A250 Sport offers a more rounded hot hatch experience than the model it replaces, even if it is a little softer in places.