DRESDEN, Germany – Upon its introduction, the W176-generation A-Class sought to attract a new generation of premium buyers to the Mercedes-Benz brand by offering them a handsomely styled conventional compact hatchback. Statistics show that Benz is succeeding in its aim: from 2012, when the current A-Class went on sale, until the end of 2014, sales of the Sindelfingen-based firm’s compact models more than doubled.
South Africa is the tenth biggest market for the W176 – and it’s only been locally available for a little more than two years. Why then would Mercedes-Benz introduce a selection of upgrades so early in the range’s life? Despite the industrywide trend of shorter product cycles, I believe this move is more of a strategic model-year update than a conventional facelift – because although the A-Class has thrived, it hasn’t been generally regarded as the best car in its segment. Perhaps that’s about to change.
The range’s aesthetic improvements are tasteful. The front spoiler is more arrow-shaped than before, the diamond-pattern grille is standard (although the chrome-look finish remains the reserve of the AMG Line and Sport models), eye-catching LED headlamps are optional, the appearance of the taillamp clusters have been revised (they’re full LED units when the former feature is specified), there are six fresh alloy designs to choose from, and lastly, the A-Class’ twin exhaust tips are integrated in its rear bumper.
Inside, the detailing of the instrument-cluster dials has been modernised, the three-spoke steering wheel has 12 function keys, an infotainment screen of up to eight inches is available, the front seat cushions can be extended by up to 60 mm, an LED ambient lighting package and 180-degree wide-angle reverse camera view are optional extras, and some of the minor facia switchgear and chrome trim finishes have been upgraded.
However, the most significant updates to the A-Class pertain to the behaviour of the Benz’s 7G-DCT transmission (in relation to throttle inputs), as well as its general road manners – two aspects of the W176 that have not always found favour with the CAR test team. The powerplant of the A220d (the new denomination of the A220 CDI BlueEfficiency model) that I drove produces peak outputs of 130 kW/350 N.m and is mated with the familiar seven-speed dual clutch transmission. Significantly, it is also equipped with Dynamic Select, which is available on all automatic, AMG Line or lowered-suspension models.
The system allows a driver to modify the A-Class’ engine, transmission, steering and air conditioning settings by selecting one of four driving modes: Comfort, Sport, Eco and Individual via a switch on the facia. Significantly, in conjunction with the optional adaptive damping system, Dynamic Select can vary the responses of the suspension between Comfort (with pliant damping characteristics) and Sport (for a firmer-sprung setup). According to Mercedes-Benz, acceleration sensors measure the vehicle’s body movements, and other information such as the steering angle, steering speed and yaw rate are factored in when calculating the damping characteristics. The damping system is said to be infinitely variable, and the configuration is individual for each wheel.
Although the test route with the A220d consisted of mostly smooth road surfaces, I encountered sufficiently variable surface variations and changeable traffic conditions to conclude the following: the flexible performance of the test unit’s 2,1-litre turbodiesel notwithstanding (peak torque is available from 1 400 to 3 400 r/min), the throttle responses and gearshift patterns of the A-Class seemed more composed and measured, respectively, in the default (Comfort) mode. In Sport, the ‘box will gear down more urgently and hold on to ratios for longer, which creates less than a symphony for the driver and occupants’ ears courtesy of the slightly gruff motor, but it reacts as expected.
Meanwhile, anoraks will be delighted to note that Launch Assist is now standard on 7G-DCT-equipped A-Class models and that the capabilities of, inter alia, the standard Attention Assist and Collision Prevention Assist Plus (the latter with autonomous partial braking to reduce the risk of rear-end collisions) systems have been updated, but take my word for it, the updated Benz’s biggest gain lies in its improved ride/handling balance.
The handling abilities and steering accuracy of the German firm’s compact hatchback have never been in doubt (although I am not a fan of the somewhat artificial heft of the car’s tiller in Sport mode), but whereas the A-Class’ body control remains appreciably even-tempered and predictable, the suspension certainly soaks up the bumps better.
And therein lies the heightened perception of premium quality that will help Mercedes’ most compact offering feel like the polished product that the manufacturer purports it to be. When the “new-generation A-Class” arrives in South African showrooms in January, it should be available with Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink smartphone compatibility, but apart from updating their mobiles’ firmware, prospective W176 owners would be best advised to start saving up for a Dynamic Select-equipped model and make sure that there’s enough change left to tick the adaptive damping option box.
Believe me, you’ll thank me later.