LAUNCHED: Mercedes-Benz A-Class sets new technology standard
THE battle to entice buyers from mainstream cars to entry prestige vehicles increasingly is being played out inside the car rather than under the bonnet or body.
The new Mercedes-Benz A-Class is a model example. A diminutive 1.3-litre engine powers the A200 that went on sale this week. No one will care about the capacity because it has a fraction more power than the car it replaces and uses a touch less fuel.
They will care about the pair of 10.2-inch displays spanning the dash that cover driver's displays and infotainment operation.
They'll also care that the standard artificial intelligence will learn their voice patterns and driving preferences over the first six weeks of ownership and then provide better recognition and predictive suggestions to help make life behind the wheel easier to negotiate.
Among the target audience, the fact this A-Class has grown by 120mm, is 16mm wider and 7mm higher won't raise any eyebrows - until they savour substantially more space in the rear seat for heads and legs, better rearward vision and a 29L bigger boot.
The amount of software packed into the small five-seat hatch is astonishing - some may well find it bewildering. USB-C ports cater for the latest devices with faster data transfer and charging rates. Smartphone mirroring is standard and there's a wireless charging tray for Qi-enabled examples.
The safety gear extends to semi-automated parking to avoid those embarrassing touch-park moments. Blind-spot assist stays active for up to three minutes after the car is switched off to avoid "dooring" passing cyclists.
Beyond the items mentioned above, standard spec on the A200 includes a black diamond-pin grille, adaptive LED headlamps, fake leather seats, satnav, digital radio and a touchpad in place of the dial controller. It's worth noting the touchpad is now one of three ways to control the infotainment, along with the touchscreen itself and swipe/touch buttons mounted on the steering wheel.
The options packs are extensive and cater to those who want more comfort, more style and even more safety tech.
The A200 is the opening gambit in Merc's renewed assault on "conquest" buyers, either from rival prestige brands or mainstream companies. It will be followed by the all-wheel drive A250 late this year, with the base A180 due early next year and the A-Class sedan before June.
The engine, jointly developed with Renault, is the A200's thrumming heart. It is vibration-free across the rev range and, while it doesn't sound particularly inspiring, can still sprint from rest to 100km/h in a respectable 8.0 seconds.
It is also tractable around town, where the upgraded seven-speed dual-clutch transmission helps by avoiding the jerky and hesitant take-offs the previous version could occasionally throw up.
A torsion beam is the default rear suspension. It's cheap but not nasty and most A200 buyers will be better off not spending the extra to have a multi-link set-up installed, simply because hard charging isn't the A200's remit - that task will fall to the yet-to-be-announced AMG A35 and A45 models.
A back-to-back test of the two suspensions shows the multi-link has marginally more scope as the drive mode shifts from comfort to sport. In daily driving it is hard to spot the difference unless you hit a mid-corner bump at serious pace, so I'd save my coin for some of the other features, or specify the AMG Line pack with a 15mm lower ride height.
In either case, the A200 copes with small bumps and decent sharp-edged ruts with the comfort you'd expect from a prestige product.
The claimed thirst of 5.7L/100km may well be achievable: We used 6.3L in a mix of urban and country driving, climbing to 7.5L when the going got twisty and hilly.
The A200 is more accommodating in every way that matters. Improvements to the drive are important but interacting with the software rather than the steering wheel is what will impress most buyers in this segment - and the baby Benz nails that.
AT A GLANCE
PRICE $47,200 plus on-road costs
WARRANTY AND SERVICING Three years/unlimited kilometre; 12 months/25,000km; $2480 for 3 years
SAFETY Not yet rated, 9 airbags, AEB, blind-spot and lane-keep assist
ENGINE 1.3-litre four-cylinder turbo, 120kW/250Nm
THIRST 5.7L/100km (95 RON)
SPARE None (repair kit)