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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.

SPLIT, Croatia – If Mercedes-Benz's 2012 strategy of reimagining its third-generation A-Class into a fully fledged premium hatchback package has proved an inspired one, both in terms of slashing the average age of the brand’s ownership profile and welcoming a fresh batch of first-time Merc buyers into the family, the launch of the fourth-generation A looks set to grant the car proper trendsetter status.

Not only does the new car look suitably sleeker and more contemporary than the model it replaces, but Mercedes-Benz is rightfully proud of what it has achieved in terms of in-car infotainment technologies and, indeed, the way the new A-Class interacts with its owner.

Built on what is essentially a new platform, the fourth-generation (W177) A-Class is 120 mm longer and 16 mm wider than the model it replaces, yet is, on average, 20 kg lighter, model-for-model, than the outgoing range. Interestingly, despite a 30 mm stretch in wheelbase, there’s been no increase in rear passenger legroom, an area for which the previous A drew criticism.

Indeed, while the enlarged dimensions do translate to a welcome increase in both head- and shoulder room for all occupants, as well as a slightly larger luggage area, much of the focus in terms of the shape of the new A-Class has been around making the car that much more aerodynamic. A resultant drag coefficient of just 0,25 Cd (the previous car offered 0,26) means the more slippery design is not only more efficient, but also goes a long way towards newfound (and class-leading) levels of NVH – meaning the cabin is impressively well insulated from unwelcome exterior noises.

An undoubted highlight of an otherwise suitably upgraded A-Class interior (in terms of both fit and material finish) is Mercedes’ new MBUX interface. Best displayed via a (likely optional in most SA-bound models) 10,25-inch touchscreen mated seamlessly with a crisp digital instrument cluster, MBUX essentially offers all the functionality of a modern smartphone built into the car. While an entry-level system makes do with a dedicated 7-inch display, based on my experience with the highly customisable touchscreen, its wealth of functionality and its crystal-clear graphics, it’s the top-of-the-range unit that you’re going to want to save up for before ordering your new A-Class.

While voice-activation has been around for some time, MBUX (or, Mercedes-Benz user experience) introduces the kind of interaction previously reserved for modern smartphones and the latest home-based operating systems. Here, a simple “Hey, Mercedes” instruction is greeted by a “ how can I help you” response from the car. While there are still some obvious (likely accent-related) shortcomings on this system, I was nevertheless able to successfully switch on my seat cooling function with a “my seat is too warm” statement, and find various sat-nav-linked fast-food suggestions via a “I’m hungry” comment. Much like Apple’s Siri, MBUX has also been programmed with a bit of built-in humour – asked what she thinks of Tesla, her reply was “They are nice, and I like seeing one in my rear-view mirror”.

Like all such systems, there’s both a level of familiarity and a fair amount of novelty factor inevitably linked with it. That said, with Mercedes able to continuously offer cloud-based system updates, as well as such statistics that suggest around two-thirds of US citizens use at least one form of voice activation throughout their day, you have to think Mercedes has stolen a march on its rivals when it comes to how we’ll interact with our cars in the future.

While the model range destined for South Africa has yet to be finalised, at this stage three things are certain. The relatively inferior quality of our local diesel means we won’t be getting the impressively refined, all-new A180d; the A250 with its new 165 kW turbocharged 2,0-litre will eventually be announced; and the new A200 will be introduced at launch.

A200 by name yet 1,3 litres in displacement, this all-new turbocharged (M282) 1 332 cm3 engine was co-developed with Renault and offers 120 kW and 250 N.m of torque. Different to the Mercedes-built version offered in the A250, the A200’s seven-speed dual clutch transmission is a suitably refined and intuitive Getrag-sourced unit. While the cylinder-coating technologies shared with the Nissan GT-R are among the notable technological highlights of this engine, another significant feature is the introduction of cylinder deactivation under light load (cruising) driving conditions, thus saving fuel by engaging only two of the four available cylinders when conditions suit.

Willing enough both around town and on the open road, perhaps an unintended consequence of making the cabin so quiet is that a fair amount of mechanical strain can unfortunately be heard once this particular powertrain is asked to pick up the pace. While it certainly doesn’t feel like an 8,0-second 0-100 km/h car to me, accepting the relative limitations of this downsized engine and adapting your driving style accordingly should hopefully not detract too much from the otherwise premium feel of this package. Also, there’s the reward of a claimed 5,2 L/100 km to look forward to.

Another concession towards economies of scale (as well as, to a degree, packaging) is the standard fitment in smaller-engined A-Class models of a torsion beam rear suspension setup, where the faster derivatives keep their independent arrangements – on request linked with adaptive dampers. While I didn’t have a chance to sample the more affordable twist beam layout during my time with the A-Class, I suspect most A200 owners would be more than satisfied (or oblivious) with a trade-off in handling “prowess” compared with more powerful derivatives.

With an (optional in European markets) independent suspension fitted, the new A-Class offers a markedly improved ride quality compared with its predecessor. I also enjoyed the weightier steering setup and was relatively impressed with the way the front end stuck to its task under the strain of a more spirited driving style. As before, look to AMG to work its magic on this otherwise well-balanced package once both the forthcoming A35 and A45 derivatives arrive.

While in a traditional sense it seems slightly odd that a new infotainment system should be the highlight of an all-new vehicle launch, such is the pace with which we as consumers are seeking to both personalise and streamline our lives via interactive technologies, it’s difficult not to give Mercedes full marks for its ground-breaking progress in this department.

That said, rear passenger legroom aside, the new A-Class also improves on its predecessor in every department. A neater all-round package, the list of under-the-skin upgrades and refinements carried out by Mercedes’ “A-team” is remarkable.

Look to traditional motoring media to bemoan the absence of character and relative performance in the new A200’s drivetrain, yet anticipate heavy foot traffic through local dealership doors as, hopefully, Mercedes-Benz South Africa prices the new A-Class as the enticing entry point into the brand that it’s intended to be.


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