First Drive: 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class

SPLIT, Croatia – For over a decade, the new-car path into the Mercedes-Benz family in Canada has been the B-Class, a tall-ish hatchback that offers all-wheel drive and is more car than crossover. It also wasn’t available in the US – a rare and brave market move that always makes Canadian car fans feel special. By the end of 2018, the shorter and sportier 2019 A-Class hatchback will replace the B-Class as the German brand’s entry-level model – once again not available south of the border.

In a positive twist for small-car fans, the new A-Class five-door will hit the market with a yet-to-be-shown sedan version – which will hit the US market. Both sedan and hatch are set to land in November in Canadian Benz dealers. Prices haven’t been announced yet, but Mercedes-Benz Canada officials say it will be priced just below the CLA, which currently starts at $35,700.

The A-Class is a entirely different beast than the B-Class, running on a new-generation body that doesn’t feature the sandwich construction of the B-Class, and is therefore lower to the ground and lower in overall height. The A-Class will still offer front-wheel drive as standard, and Benz’s 4Matic all-wheel drive system as an option, with a refined engine similar to the 2.0-litre turbo currently on the market.

Even with a similar engine, the new A-Class offers an ultra-modern hot-hatch experience that now competes closer with a Volkswagen Golf GTI on the performance end and the more opulent Audi A3 on the luxury end, compared to the practicality-focussed, mini-crossover feel of the B-Class. And all with a serious dose of technology in the cockpit unheard of in the entry-luxe class.

At the A-Class international launch in Croatia, Mercedes-Benz officials ran down the differences in this latest generation, but as it’s never been available in North America, this Benz hatchback will provide a fresh, more youthful weapon to counter the traditionally conservative reputation of Mercedes-Benz.

Design is sleeker, more hot-hatch, less mini-crossover

Compared to the longstanding B-Class, the A250 is the modern remaster, inside and out. The nose now offers large nostrils and air intakes, with aggressive strakes that shout sportiness, and a scowl of LED headlight accents. Our test A250 came in a mean matte grey finish that will be available in Canada, but the lime green trim in the nose and rear lower body trim likely won’t make it to North America, said Canadian officials. The lower ride height and standard 17- or 18-inch wheels provide a more muscular overall look.

The sleek look is not only a design cue, but also a scientific advantage. Its drag coefficient of 0.25 is the lowest in its class, said Mercedes-Benz, and one of the lowest in the business.

As is often the case with fashion, there is a price in practicality. The 2019 A-Class is noticeably lower than Benz’s current entry hatchback, its 1,445 mm height roughly eight centimetres lower than the current B-Class, with the A slightly longer (4,419 mm) and slightly thinner (1,796 mm vs 1,836 mm).

As such, the A loses perhaps a bit of ease of entry, as you must step down more to enter it, and less overall head and cargo space. Still, with 370 litres of cargo space and a maximum of 1,210 litres of space thanks to the large hatch area and fold-flat rear seats, it will still hold more gear than the upcoming A-Class sedan, and the Audi A3 sedan. So it’s at least practical for its class, though well below the GTI’s 493 and 1,521 litre cargo figures.

Ask more of your car with “Hey Mercedes”

Inside is where the digital future explodes.

There are no actual gauges anywhere, as Mercedes-Benz debuts its digital-only displays, both in front of the driver, as well as above the vents above the centre stack, framed as one continuous pane of glass. The integrated rectangular screen is now touch-sensitive – gone is the controller wheel, with its incompatible paradigm of spinning and clicking.

In the controller wheel’s place now lies a touch sensitive touchpad in between the front passengers, with buttons surrounding the touchpad for shortcuts similar to what surrounded the controller in other Benz models. It sadly didn’t work as well as the previous controller knob, and some folks will rue the finger smudges inherent to touchscreen fiddling. But the touchscreen seemed to work much better and easier than the touchpad, at least on the limited amount of time we played with it.

The reason we didn’t play with the touchpad as much is the new function where you can just say “Hey Mercedes,” then ask for it to do something on your behalf. We managed to ask it to change the temperature, radio station, and even close the panoramic sunroof’s sunshade all by voice, though it sometimes took a few tries. It won’t open the pano roof or windows, for fear of unintentionally pinching fingers or letting in loud winds at high speeds.

Most often, though, it seemed like a neat party trick to show folks, but not handy enough to use regularly. Where it shines is for functions that you only occasionally need, which are buried several menus deep.

We managed to insult the artificial intelligence system without knowing she was listening: “Now, now, be nice; I’m still learning,” she once told us, after we tried multiple requests in multiple languages. It speaks 23 languages, apparently, but after my driving partner and I couldn’t manage to have commands followed in French, Portuguese, and Italian, we realized that one needs to change the “base” language for it to understand instructions in other languages.

Like the controller knobs, it may become easier with more time to get acclimated to it, but this is clearly the first generation of a technology that will be upgraded in the next few years. On the A-Class, that will be easier, because it can have software upgrades transmitted over the air or applied at the dealer.

Keeping your hands on the wheel is still the best option, we found. With a steering wheel pulled from the S-Class, there are as many functions available there that help you avoid touchscreen smudges and the touchpad. This includes the keys Home, Back, and two mini-touchpad squares that allow you to move around various options and menus, as well as keys for handsfree phone function, cruise control, and one other programmable button for whatever other feature you’d like.

Space inside was plentiful, allowing generous headroom for a hot hatch even with the panoramic roof. There’s particularly impressive space in the back seat, with the fronts contoured for more knee room.

Performance upgraded, but lacks refinement

With 221 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque coming from the 2.0-litre turbocharged four, the engine makes more power, but strangely the same amount of torque as the current version of the engine in the 208 hp B-Class. In Europe, there will also be a diesel and smaller 1.33-litre four available, but only the 2.0 four denoted by the 250 designation will be available here.

That direct-injection engine provides good thrust when floored, with wheelspin very possible if stabbed aggressively, as we did a few times at the toll-road stops that line this part of Croatia’s major highways. A seven-speed dual-clutch transmission allows for quick shifts, especially when working the shift paddles, while contributing to its fleet 0–100 km/h time of 6.2 seconds. But when not moving as quickly, there’s still a brief hesitation somewhere in the engine/transmission discussion before power gets to the road, one that’s not quite Mercedes-Benz smooth yet.

Another aspect that’s not quite refined is the engine idle note, which seems particularly loud upon start-up with the windows open. It settles down once you’re moving, or maybe other noises and the radio mask it better, but it didn’t seem intrusive once the engine warmed up a bit – though if it’s that loud on start-up in beautiful 25 degree weather, there’s no telling how it will sound in minus double-digits.

We only drove front-wheel-drive versions, but 4Matic AWD will be available at launch. Off-ramps were decidedly more entertaining than any prior Mercedes-Benz five-door hatchback, with much less leaning in corners than the current B-Class, to the point where it may even track as flat as a GTI hot hatch.

In Europe there was a bonkers AMG version of the B-Class, which we never received in North America. It was made clear other versions of the A-Class would arrive in time, but no official word on whether an AMG variant of the A-Class is in the works.

Comprehensive safety systems, and unique features besides

As a city-friendly small car, the A-Class packs a luxury-car safety punch, with technologies from the larger S-Class, such as Active Brake Assist. This system will first visually then audibly warn you to brake, and if the driver brakes but insufficiently in the AI’s estimation, it will add the extra braking force needed to avoid the object, whether cars, bikes, or pedestrians. If the driver doesn’t brake at all, the system will automatically brake for you, though Mercedes-Benz warns this may not necessarily prevent a collision, but simply mitigate it.

Yes, there are still many other active safety systems available in Europe but not North America on the A-Class, such as a unique warning flash from the blind-spot monitoring system and then beep if it detects a cyclist coming when you’re about to open the driver’s door. But hopefully North American standards and market pressures will bring more of them over in the coming years.

Other high-tech options available include a new augmented reality in the GPS directions that more clearly point the way you want to go. There’s an automatic parking function that can move you forward and reverse as needed, including braking when needed for full automatic control. There is available multi-colour LED lighting piped throughout the interior, including through the vents, which you can control with a quick “Hey Mercedes, change the interior colour.”

Conclusion

The 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class looks to inject a futuristic blend of digital culture and driving fun as an entry-level hatchback. It’s a brave turn to take in this SUV-crazed market – though calling the outgoing B-Class a crossover would be a stretch. Sure, certain aspects of the powertrain and infotainment lack the sleek refinement expected of the brand, but Mercedes is targeting a youth market that will embrace its bold style and raw edges. And with system architecture designed for frequent iteration and easy updates, the A-Class is set up to stay at the technological forefront.

Bye-bye B-Class. Hello GTI rival. 4/25/2018 7:00:00 AM