Mercedes invited me to the Cotswolds to drive their latest A-Class and try out its new high-tech MBUX system. This is an important launch for the brand, particularly in the UK. So how does it drive and what about that all important Mercedes-Benz User Experience?
What Has Changed?
One of the engineers on hand told us, barring a few nuts and bolts, this car is a complete clean sheet, re-design, but you can’t tell to look at it. Sure it looks better, definitely a step forward as a design, but in that subtle way that only German car manufacturers seem to be able to achieve. They take an existing model, make it look even better, whilst not alienating owners of the previous model or hurting their residuals too much either.
The new model will be most recognisable from its new lights with both the front and rears slimming down for a sharper look.
Mercedes told us the current UK fleet of A-Class vehicles is around 70% diesel. The new W177 designated car is 12 cms longer, 1.6 cms wider and has 29 litres of extra space in the boot. It launches in the UK this month, initially with 3 engine choices.
- The entry model is the A180d SE with its all new 1.5L turbo diesel engine (116hp, up to 68.9 mpg) available from £25,800.
- The petrol A200 (163hp, up to 51.4 mpg) is up next with a 1.3L turbo petrol motor, available from £27,500.
- The current top of the tree is the A250 2.0L turbo petrol engine (224hp, 45.6 mpg combined) from £30,240.
While more engine options are promised for later, so far there’s no mention of a plugin hybrid like those already available in the C-Class and E-Class ranges. As with BMW-i, Mercedes have a sub-brand for their full battery electric vehicles (BEV) which will start deliveries of the first EQ model next year.
Back to the present, the slick 7-speed dual clutch automatic gearbox (with paddles) is the only one available if you want to order an A-Class right now. But that’s no hardship, it’s super smooth and once you go auto you never go back.
A 6-speed manual is coming by the end of the year if you really want it and there’s talk of a 9-speed auto appearing in the future too. A 4MATIC all-wheel drive version is promised for early 2019.
There are 3 trim levels to choose from, SE, Sport and the tasty AMG Line option that both our test cars were fitted with.
As usual you can go nuts with options. For example the Multibeam LED headlights and 64 colour interior ambient lights are available as part of the £3,595 Premium Plus package that brings a host of other upgrades too.
Ride & Comfort
The old car’s ride had a reputation for being quite hard and Mercedes say this, along with reducing road noise, were top of their list of things to fix in the new A-Class. While the cheaper models get rear torsion beam suspension, the higher priced A200 AMG Line and A250 AMG Line have an independent multi-link setup instead.
Our test drives were over a good mix of road types and both our diesel and petrol test cars were quiet, smooth and comfortable. Job done.
The serene interiors were only disturbed when the power units were pushed. As you’d expect the performance of the 1.5 diesel (0-62mph in 10.5 seconds) could best be described as ‘adequate’, it’s not an engine choice I would personally consider. The 1.3 petrol on the other hand feels more lively (0-62mph in 8 seconds) and it’s the one I’d plump for.
But lets face it, you’re probably here to read about the technology in the new car, so what’s it like?
Mercedes say the tech in the new A-Class has trickled down from their flagship S-Class model, and it shows. Daimler have again teamed up with Harmann to produce the NTG6 with NVIDIA hardware that powers the MBUX.
A pair of 7″ screens are standard across the range. They do look a little on the small side and they have a stepped bezel around the displays. But upgrade just the middle monitor to 10.25″ (available with the £1,395 Executive package) and then they both live behind a single, flush piece of glass that sweeps from behind the wheel to the middle of the dash giving a very cool flight-deck look.
If you want to go large you can opt for two of the 10.25″ displays (1920 x 720 pixels, 200 dpi) with the £2,395 Premium package
The screen in the middle of the car supports capacitive multi-touch and if you own any smart phone from the last few years then you already know how to use its Linux powered UI. Usefully you can rearrange the icons on the home screen just like your smartphone too.
The steering wheel has touchpads on each side allowing simple up/down, left/right swipes and pushes to select each display option. Customisations are plentiful and if you ever get lost then a long press of the right hand Back Button will return you to the default display.
The old rotary dial has been replaced with a capacitive touchpad in the centre console. It delivers a third input method while its haptic vibration provides good feedback for your fingers.
The MBUX system will also store your preferences in a ‘profile’, so you can have one set for yourself and one for your partner perhaps. Selecting your profile will recall your seating position, favourite ambient lighting colour and radio station.
The system is well thought out and while other cars have similar setups (even the relatively new E-Class), I’ve not seen any that are as intuitive to use. The balance between the depth of features and usability seems just about right.
CarPlay, Android Auto and the Chinese Baidu CarLife system will all be available after the first OTA update to the system due about now. The centre console houses a new USB-C socket for your phone connection. Nerds like us will rejoice at this, old people will moan (get yourself a new cable or adaptor).
In general there are few technologies that make it into the wild in such a bad state as car voice control systems. I’ve yet to own or drive a car with a voice control system I’d ever consider using long-term.
It’s doubly frustrating as we’re all becoming so used to voice recognition that actually works, like Amazon Alexa, Google Home and to a lesser extent Apple’s Siri. Their tech is Cloud based and so is constantly improving, unlike the system in most cars that’s already out of date the day you take delivery.
Thankfully Mercedes have seen the light and the new ‘Hey Mercedes’ intelligent voice recognition system actually works!
As well as dialling contacts you can ask it for a weather update, to navigate somewhere, turn on the audio system and select an input or station, turn on your heated seats and change the cabin temperature for example. We did have the car asking how it could help us every time we said the word ‘Mercedes’ though, and currently you cannot change the trigger word. This would be less of a problem when you’re not test driving lots of Mercedes and talking about them in the car with a colleague 🙂
You can say “Hey Mercedes” and wait for the car to ask how it can help, or you can launch straight into your question, “Hey Mercedes, turn on the drivers heated seat”. Check out our video above for an idea of how it works.
Augmented Reality Sat Nav
That NTG6 system I mentioned earlier makes this the first car with an AR-capable infotainment system.
The ARSN is a £495 option that overlays map directions on top of the live video feed from the cars front camera. This provides a very cool next-gen experience that our German engineer summed up perfectly as “Mario Kart Satnav”.
The safety tech includes Active Brake Assist and Active Lane-Keeping Assist which are both standard across all models. The A-Class will be able to drive semi-autonomously in certain conditions with the Driving Assistance package which will be available in the UK by the end of the year.
The new A-Class has a dual-line sim card onboard with a 4G connection. One line is paid for by Mercedes and is used to send your car over-the-air updates. This allows new software features to be added to the available hardware. The system also allows engineers to monitor which menu items are most commonly used by drivers, allowing them to move the most popular ones further forward and improve the UI over time.
OTA updates can also be used to upgrade the firmware of modules around the car allowing you to benefit from fixes applied from home rather than having to visit your dealership. It’s time all cars had this feature.
Data for things like music streaming on the other line is paid for by the customer.
The previous A-Class was a huge success here, indeed the UK was its largest market globally last year with sales of over 43,000 units. That makes it Mercedes best selling (single body shape) car here too.
The A-Class is also an important halo car for Mercedes. It has been successful in enticing a younger demographic to the brand and over 60% of its buyers have come to Merc from other car manufacturers.
For many, the in-car infotainment system has become one of the most high priority features in deciding which car to buy. But far too often new car owners leave the dealerships handover in a state of confusion and often give up on ever using their cars features due to their clunky UIs.
But the new A-Class has moved things on. The 4th generation car should only strengthen its position in the segment with a high-tech system that is actually a joy to use. Smart home tech has moved to the car and now your second most expensive purchase in life no longer feels like it’s years behind your smartphone.
If you’re after a quality, stylish, comfortable and practical hatchback, with a beautiful interior and an infotainment system that’s class leading, then look no further than the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class.