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In a badge-conscious market, we investigate whether the current flagship A-Class has the substance to challenge the hot-hatch establishment...

Evolving from a midsize MPV-like vehicle into a hatchback, the previous-generation W176 Mercedes-Benz A-Class was tasked with changing the profile of the typical A-Class buyer. Aimed at younger motorists and those who had never considered a Benz before, this racy generation of the A was designed with a healthy dose of aesthetic character while offering dynamic ability enthusiasts appreciated. The result? The giant-slaying A45 AMG hyper-hatch and a closely fought comparative test in September 2013 where the A250 Sport was pitted against the class-leading Golf GTI to prove its mettle as a contender in the hot-hatch arena. Milder versions, however, were less enticing.

Five years later, the new W177 A-Class has improved on its predecessor’s shortcomings by offering more refinement and tighter build quality, as we found with our earlier A200 road test. This new sportier A250 is the range-topping baby Benz (until the A35 and A45 arrive, that is) and occupies a unique space in a competitive segment (there’s no longer an equivalent BMW 125i, while Audi also doesn’t compete at this R600k price point).

Built into the base price, LED headlamps, electrically folding side mirrors, AMG-Line body kit, lowered comfort suspension and AMG-branded 18-inch wheels add a strapping yet sophisticated aesthetic to the already handsome hatch. These stylish, understated additions allow the A250 to fly under the radar amid brightly coloured rivals of bold yet divisive design. Overlook the diminutive “A250” badge on the back and there is little to hint at the performance on offer. Boasting impressive standard kit, as with other premium German brands, the options list can rapidly elevate the price, however. This particular test unit was fitted with R162 522 worth of extra toys. For the interior, ambient lighting, AMG-Line mats and two-tone seats, an additional touch-pad control unit and extended “Hey Mercedes” MBUX functions are added over and above the A200.

Another difference – despite their confusing badging – is a 2,0-litre engine under the A250’s bonnet in place of the A200’s 1,3-litre mill. The four-cylinder turbocharged unit produces a strong 165 kW at 5 500 r/min, 10 kW up from before, and the same 350 N.m available from 1 800 r/min. With power delivered to the front wheels via a quick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, the new A250 is exactly 0,1 seconds quicker to 100 km/h than the previous version tested by CAR, recording a time of 6,71 seconds in 38-degree heat. It’s also quieter at higher revs than the A200’s raucous new powertrain.

Underneath the chic bodywork, a multilink rear suspension setup replaces the standard A200’s torsion-beam arrangement. Our test unit was fitted with the optional R44 000 engineering package which adds adaptive dampers, keyless entry and larger brake discs. This suspension affords a layer of suppleness to the ride in normal driving conditions. What’s more, body roll through corners is excellently controlled even in the default comfort setting; with sport mode activated, it firms up the suspension a tad too far and should be kept for smoother stretches of tarmac.

The run-flat Bridgestone Turanza T005 rubber audibly notifies the driver when their limits are being approached in the corners. Yet, when asked to deal with putting the 165 kW down in a full-bore start, they grip well, catapulting the A250 ahead with modest amounts of wheelspin even with the dynamic traction control turned off. The A250 feels more akin to a mature, sophisticated hatchback, and it’s around town where its smooth, cosseting nature is most appreciated. It also returned a very competitive 7,8L /100 km on our 100 km fuel route.

It happens to make an excellent tourer, too, and gone are the previous A-Class’ poor noise, vibration and harshness characteristics. The new A makes a passable impression of a C-Class at the national limit. It’s not without dynamic flaws, though. Predictable and manageable understeer has been engineered into the chassis for tight corners and the lack of an electronic or mechanical differential means acceleration towards the exit of a bend results in a chirping inside tyre. The steering meanwhile, is light and precise but totally devoid of feel.

TEST SUMMARY

This latest road test of the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class has reinforced our belief the vehicle has taken a substantial leap forward. At just under R600 000, the A250 offers comparatively good value versus the A200, adding expensive extra specification and performance for less than an additional R100 000 outlay. Considering its pedigree and substantial maintenance plan, it doesn’t look pricey against its more mainstream rivals, either.

But where does it fit into the market? It’s too laidback to be a real GTI/Mégane RS hot-hatch competitor, and has no competition from the other premium German brands. Perhaps it’ll offer a worthwhile alternative to those considering a crossover at this price point. Whoever the typical buyer of an A250 may be, they’ll get a Mercedes-Benz that’s finally adopted those qualities which have made the brand’s larger cars so desirable for decades.  

ROAD TEST SCORE
A-Class Mercedes-Benz A250 hatch AMG Line
77 / 100
  • Price: R596,969
  • 0-100 km/h: 6.2
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 165 KW @ 5500
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 350 N.m @ 1800
  • Top speed: 250
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 6.5 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 149 g/KM

The new A–Class represents a sea change in the quality of Mercedes-Benz’s entry-level offering. We test the A200...

Although the closely contested automotive arms race between the German Big Three can be dated to the early 20th century, these firms broke premium-hatchback ground only within a year or so of one another in the 1990s. With BMW’s E36 3 Series-based Compact treading its own RWD path, it was the sales rivalry between Mercedes-Benz’s A-Class and Audi’s A3 that set the premium-hatch-segment rolling.

Closely based on the Volkswagen Golf, the A3 represented a safe approach to the new field, majoring in refinement and build quality as adjuncts to a badge that, at the time, did not hold quite the same cachet as the Three-pointed Star.

Benz adopted the opposite method, hinging innovations such as a space-creating and crash-safety-improving “sandwich” chassis construction to a brand already possessed of a powerful draw. It proved something of a double-edged sword, though. The first-generation gained notoriety for its failure of the “elk test” evasive-manoeuvre exercise, while the second-generation car, although better crafted and spacious, looked rather MPV-dumpy when viewed against sleeker rivals. Benz’s more recent tilt at the premium-hatch segment placed greater emphasis on styling as the outgoing model attempted to offset its dynamic and packaging shortcomings with a bold wrapper. But, with the A3 seemingly going from strength to strength, this fourth-generation car needed more than just a pretty face adorned with that covetable badge to make a meaningful impact.

When Mercedes-Benz unveiled the striking Concept A at the 2017 Shanghai Auto Show, appetites were suitably whetted for the production version to come. While Mercedes-Benz has attempted to slant the style-versus-substance equation a little more to the latter, the new car’s close adherence to the Concept A’s design means it’s no shrinking violet. As the first recipient of the firm’s “predator face”, the A affects a striking pose (head-on, at least). The tail, although echoing the more horizontally oriented taillamp array that’s become a Benz staple, is by contrast neat but largely nondescript.

While the new A-Class is underpinned by a reworked front-wheel-drive platform marginally longer in the wheelbase and wider in the beam, its interior dimensions are close to those of its predecessor. It may have been an upshot of the chunky, well-bolstered AMG line seats fitted to our test unit (other versions have more traditionally shaped seats with adjustable headrests), but our measurements showed that, while luggage space has taken a welcome upward hike from 208 to 272 litres, rear kneeroom is similar. The seats, although form-fitting and supportive fore and aft, also feature fixed headrests that impinge on the degree to which the rear backrest can be flattened with a six-foot occupant up front, compromising the utility space to some degree.

But that about covers any gripes we could level at the A’s interior. The design and execution of the facia represents a sea change from the previous car’s creaky and ergonomically clumsy affair. Although not quite as dense of plastic and rattle-free as an Audi A3’s innards, the A’s interior nonetheless feels considerably better screwed together and has character its rivals would kill for. Touches such as the ambient-lit turbine air vents which glow red or green according to HVAC temperature control inputs, plus the glass panel that houses Mercedes’ crisp, function-rich MBUX “Hey Mercedes” infotainment interface (a version which is optional; smaller displays are standard with more limited MBUX functionality) and the extra-cost digital-instrument cluster floating above the tiered dash are an absolute treat to behold.

Mercedes-Benz has stuffed a good deal of sound-deadening material into the new car and the improvement in overall running NVH is palpable. But, while the cabin is well insulated against road noise on anything other than really coarse-grained surfaces, the Renault co-developed 1,3-litre turbopetrol engine occasionally sounds mechanically unrefined when pushed – there’s a curious rough patch between 2 500 and 3 000 r/min that can be clearly felt in the steering and pedals – but this smoothens out once at speed.

One aspect of the engine that doesn’t disappoint, however, is its overall performance. With 120 kW and 250 N.m served up in a broad swathe from 1 620 to 4 000 r/min, it’s a flexible unit with plenty of punch in the mid-to-upper rev range, posting a sub-nine-second 0-100 km/h sprint time during performance testing and impressively matching the manufacturer’s claimed 6,7 L/100 km on our fuel run.

The A’s reworked seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is generally a smooth operator and feels a bit more alert than the previous car’s unit, although manual inputs are still rather leisurely. The low-speed slip which often afflicts dual-clutch units is thankfully all but absent here, although the grabby brakes require practised modulation to make low-speed manoeuvring less abrupt. At speed, that sensitive pedal and strong bite brought the A to a stop from 100 km/h in less than three seconds, garnering an “excellent” rating on our testing scale.

Our A200 test unit was equipped with Mercedes-Benz’s Dynamic Body Control adaptive suspension. This setup incorporates a MacPherson strut front/multilink rear arrangement and is overseen by the firm’s Dynamic Select drivetrain-control system. While the virtues of this system’s drivetrain presets are largely moot, the adaptive suspension system works well to rein in body lean and is allied with steering that’s light yet direct to make the new A an entertaining little car to drive. The ride quality is similarly impressive, proving more supple and better resolved in terms of rebound and composure over larger road imperfections, despite working against 45-profile run-flat footwear.

While we were suitably pleased with the A’s newfound composed road manners, there is a caveat. The adaptive suspension system is a R22 400 option and Mercedes-Benz has decided to move away from the previous car’s multilink rear arrangement to a newly developed torsion beam tail on entry-level models. The firm’s engineers claim this new setup shaves 7 kg from the car’s kerb weight and its geometry has been tailored to serve up a comfortable ride befitting the brand’s products. Although we’ve no doubt Benz’s boffins have done all they can with what’s largely seen as a budget-car suspension arrangement (although it’s becoming more commonplace in this market, with the VW Group and Ford doing the same), such claims need to be taken with a pinch of salt and we’re going to reserve overall judgment of the new car’s capabilities once a standard-spec car comes our way.

Speaking of specification, the modestly equipped A has the potential to spring an unexpected price-tag trap for those giving little thought as to how their car is specced. Our unit bristled with around R200 000 of options and, while it appeared well equipped, it didn’t feel as special as the R700 000 price suggested. This is particularly galling when you take into consideration the car costs half a million rand before any extras are attached.

TEST SUMMARY

Our first taste of the new A-Class has proved to be a pleasurable one. With its bold looks, a cabin that finally matches the sense of occasion associated with the star on the car’s nose and enjoyable road manners – albeit when equipped with an optional suspension system – the new car is a marked improvement over its predecessor. But that capability comes with a suitably hefty price tag allowing its rivals to claw back some of the ground they otherwise have lost to this impressive newcomer.


Taking this into account, has the new A-Class redressed the style/substance balance the previous car couldn’t quite master? It’s a quietly confident “yes” based on our meeting with this A200 but we do look forward to trying an A250, 2019's A180d and the AMG A35 and A45 to follow before we come to a conclusive verdict that this is the market’s best premium-hatchback range.


*From the November 2018 issue of CAR magazine




ROAD TEST SCORE
A-Class Mercedes-Benz A200 Style
78 / 100
  • Price: R500,012
  • 0-100 km/h: 8.0
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 120 KW @ 5500
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 250 N.m @ 1620
  • Top speed: 225
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 5.6 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 128 g/KM

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