STA­TUS SYM­BOL

The techno-wow A-Class feels like the most spe­cial lit­tle hatch. And it costs

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Front Page - BILL McK­IN­NON

Ap­ple’s new top spec iPhone XS Max costs about $2370. My An­droid phone cost $128 at Coles. I reckon you would have to be out of your flip­pin’ mind to pay any more than that for a sim­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­vice, yet fol­low­ers of the Prophet Jobs queue to cough up be­cause the iPhone is such an ex­quis­ite ob­ject – to look at, to hold and to use. It feels pre­cious in your hand, a daz­zling dig­i­tal di­a­mond.

Mer­cedes-Benz’s new A200 is the iPhone of hatch­backs. At $47,200, it costs al­most twice as much as a Toy­ota Corolla. On the road, it does noth­ing that a Corolla won’t do — in fact, the new Corolla hatch does some things much bet­ter — but when you climb into the Mer­cedes it re­ally does feel like the most spe­cial lit­tle shop­ping trol­ley in the world.

VALUE

This has noth­ing to do with how the car drives. It’s called MBUX — Mer­cedes Benz User Ex­pe­ri­ence — and the phys­i­cal in­ter­face is a fast, in­tu­itive iPhone style ges­ture con­trol, via small touch­pads on the wheel and a larger one on the cen­tre con­sole.

Ev­ery­thing is dis­played on a pair of beau­ti­ful, hi-res 10.25-inch dig­i­tal screens, on the left a touch­screen for in­fo­tain­ment, on the right a cus­tomis­able side for in­stru­ments and ve­hi­cle func­tions.

It’s com­ple­mented by so­phis­ti­cated voice con­trol, again tak­ing its cues from Ap­ple. Say “Hey Mer­cedes” and it an­swers back: “How can I help you?” or “What would you like to do?”

You don’t have to speak slowly and stick with stan­dard­ised com­mands and you don’t get a dis­em­bod­ied Dalek-like re­sponse. You speak in a nor­mal con­ver­sa­tional style and the re­ply is a warm, nat­u­ral fe­male voice. You can’t swear at this car. It’s too an­thro­po­mor­phic.

MBUX is limited in scope com­pared with Ap­ple’s Siri or An­droid voice apps — you can still pair your phone via Ap­ple CarPlay or An­droid Auto — but it con­trols a wider range of func­tions than any other em­bed­ded voice in­ter­face to date.

If you make fre­quent calls to cer­tain num­bers, go to spe­cific places or have au­dio pref­er­ences, it will learn your habits and give you prompts. If you say “Open the sun­roof,” it will. If you say, “I’m cold,” it au­to­mat­i­cally raises the tem­per­a­ture by a few de­grees.

Five USB-C ports (two in the rear), plus wire­less phone charg­ing, are also stan­dard.

When you have such as­tound­ing in­ter­ac­tive tech­nol­ogy to play with, in a gor­geously crafted, sen­su­ously il­lu­mi­nated cabin that reeks of chic, the urge to take your new best friend home is ex­tremely pow­er­ful.

COM­FORT

You’re well sup­ported in a firmly padded seat with ad­justable cush­ion height and an­gle, al­beit slightly knees-up for tall driv­ers and with a fixed head re­straint that can be in­tru­sive if you like the back­rest up­right. This A-Class is big­ger than its pre­de­ces­sors but legroom is still tight for taller adult pas­sen­gers in the rear. Boot space is rea­son­able for a small hatch.

On 18-inch al­loys, run-flat tyres and stiff sus­pen­sion, the ride is busy and firm, al­most like a sports hatch. It’s less com­fort­able and com­pli­ant than a Golf or a Corolla.

SAFETY

A-grade crash pro­tec­tion is a given in any Mer­cedes but adap­tive cruise, rear cross traf­fic alert, sur­round cam­eras and head-up dis­play are op­tional. Blind spot mon­i­tor­ing stays on for three min­utes af­ter you park, so you’re warned of a cy­clist ap­proach­ing from be­hind.

Full au­ton­o­mous emer­gency brak­ing works at up to 105km/h — be­yond this, AEB sup­ple­ments your pres­sure on the pedal.

DRIV­ING

A seam­less fit with the seven-speed dual-clutch trans­mis­sion, Benz’s new 1.3-litre turbo four de­liv­ers big on out­puts — 120kW and a solid 250Nm of grunt from 1620rpm-4000rpm. Not so long ago, this was 2.0-litre turbo ter­ri­tory.

It gets the rel­a­tively light A200 along at a brisk pace, us­ing min­i­mal revs in Eco and Nor­mal modes. Sport mode is more will­ing and pad­dle-shifters al­low you to have way more fun than a 1.3 should de­liver. It’s smooth, quiet and re­turns great fuel econ­omy: 4-5L/100km on the high­way and 6-8L in town.

Mer­cedes has cut costs on the new A-Class by us­ing ba­sic tor­sion beam rear sus­pen­sion. The pre­vi­ous model’s in­de­pen­dent rear/ adap­tive sus­pen­sion, stan­dard in Aus­tralia since 2015, is now op­tional.

The A200 feels tight and sporty un­til you push it, at which point it han­dles like a cheap front-wheel drive hatch­back, with an un­bal­anced feel in cor­ners, am­pli­fied by overas­sisted, un­com­mu­nica­tive steer­ing.

The new Corolla hatch with in­de­pen­dent rear sus­pen­sion, which I drove dur­ing the same week, on the same roads as the A200, feels more con­fi­dent, bal­anced and planted. At $24,750, it’s al­most half the price.

HEART SAYS

The most stylish hatch­back on the road, with a techno-wow fac­tor of 11/10. The view from the driver’s seat is $100,000 worth and it has the right badge on the bon­net.

HEAD SAYS

I was born with an iPhone in my hand and I’ve never let it go. I want a car with sim­i­lar de­sign ca­chet and tech­nol­ogy. This is as close to an iPhone on wheels as they come.

AL­TER­NA­TIVES TOY­OTA COROLLA FROM $24,750

The hum­ble Corolla hatch isn’t so hum­ble now, with 125kW 2.0-litre/CVT and in­de­pen­dent rear sus­pen­sion. A bet­ter ride-han­dling com­pro­mise and more safety gear than the A200. No smart­phone mir­ror­ing, though.

VOLK­SWA­GEN GOLF GTI FROM $45,490

The most ac­com­plished sports hatch­back on the road, with a 180kW 2.0-litre turbo/sev­en­speed twin-clutch trans­mis­sion. The A200 won’t see which way it went. Full smart­phone in­te­gra­tion and five-year war­ranty un­til De­cem­ber 31.

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