The techno-wow A-Class feels like the most special little hatch. And it costs
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The most accomplished sports hatchback on the road, with a 180kW 2.0-litre turbo/seven-speed twin-clutch transmission. The A200 won’t see which way it went. Full smartphone integration and five-year warranty until December 31.
In a box that’s bewitching and beautiful, the chocolates are a mix of brilliance and mediocrity. Ultimately, though, the A200 asks spectacular money for a car that’s nothing special to drive.