Mercedes compact cars (2017) review: Hands on with the A-Class, B-Class and GLA

If you’re under 40 and buying a new car, Mercedes hopes you’ll pick one of its compact cars. Comprising the A-Class, B-Class, GLA, CLA and CLA Shooting Brake, Mercedes’ growing range of smaller cars promises to offer all the kudos of owning a Mercedes at a significantly smaller percentage of the cost.

It makes sense and it’s not a new philosophy either. In fact, Mercedes’ main German rival Audi does it very well. While the more expensive A5 is a far superior car to the compact A3, Audi has managed to shoehorn some of the saloon’s tech into the smaller car, giving it an injection of premium feel.

So what about Mercedes? Has it been able to sprinkle the essence of high-end models such as the E-Class and S-Class in cars designed for younger, less-loaded folk? I went to Budapest to try out the more youthful part of the Mercedes range.

We’ll be writing more detailed reviews of each car at a later date. For now, this article sums up our first impressions of the range as a whole.[gallery:8]

Mercedes compact range review: Exterior design

B-Class aside, Mercedes compact cars look fantastic. I’m always a fan of striking grilles and sharp styling and, whether it’s the A-Class, CLA or even the GLA, these cars deliver on both fronts. In particular, the front end of pretty much every car I drove looked stunning with sharp, slanted lights, acres of open-mouthed grille and dashes of chrome making them appear both aggressive and classy at the same time.

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Several of the cars I drove were also finished in matte paint. And, although it’s something that can look quite tacky, Mercedes has done it properly, and it adds another level of sophistication and excitement to each car.

Sure, a lot of the aggressive styling was down to the AMG packages applied to some of the cars we looked at, but the general look of all the compact cars is great, whether AMG or not.

Mercedes compact range review: Interior

Looking around the cabin, it’s hard to deny the quality of these cars, but they do feel like a step down from the manufacturer’s premium models. In the sportier AMG models, the interior is a mixture of leather and racy Alcantara or carbon fibre and bold, coloured stitching. And it looks great. Again, the AMG branding all over these cars means they have extra-solid bucket seats and sportier materials, but the interior design and quality are similar to the base model cars.

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The problem with these compact cars partly lies partly in the fit and finish, but also in the amount and quality of the technology on offer. Small things such as the car handling switch and gear stick, for example, look and feel cheaper compared to the rest of the car, and they remind you that you’re not driving at the sharp end of the Mercedes range.

However, in the Audi A3 for example, it’s less apparent that you’re in a cheaper, compact offering of the Audi range. Most of the tech in Audi’s compact is similar to that in the A5, A4 and above, and a lot of the switchgear is the same too.

In every single compact Mercedes I drove, however, the opposite was true. The interiors felt a significant step down from their more expensive siblings, and that had a lot to do with the technology on show.

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When compared to the technology in the E-Class, the infotainment system in the CLA, for example, felt more than one generation older – not something you want when you’re buying a brand new car for around £30,000. While Mercedes can be forgiven for using a smaller screen than the vast display in the E-Class, the way it uses the screen space is less impressive.

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Text had a dated and cramped look to it, while menus were awkward to use in the compact GLA and B-Class I drove. At times, I found it tough to imagine the CLA, A-Class and other cars for sale on the same forecourts as the highly advanced S-Class and E-Class. Their UI felt a good year or two behind.

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Using the satnav of the CLA while driving around Budapest was far from slick, and directions seemed to often be unclear, or arrived so late that lots of lane-swapping was necessary.

Worse still, there were parts of the system that were simply confusing. For example, each Mercedes I drove had Apple CarPlay, but when using Apple’s software I had no other choice other than Apple Maps. Trying to go back to the car’s navigation mode simply diverted me back to Maps – and if you’ve used Apple Maps before, you’ll know that’s not a good thing. In contrast, Audi’s and BMW’s allow you to easily switch out of Apple CarPlay for certain tasks, satnav included.

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Equally, it was also surprising to learn that none of the cars on show could be configured with a screen in the place of traditional physical cockpit dials. The Audi A3 – the car the A-Class and others are in competition with – comes with physical dials as standard but can be configured with Audi’s LCD-based dash.

The use of a screen means you can customise the view you see behind the steering wheel, so you can enlarge the map view or shrink it and do the same with the rev counter and speedometer. While the Mercedes compacts have a small screen between the dials, it’s much more limited than the Audi A3’s Virtual Cockpit or the Golf’s Active Info display.

However, while all the cars I drove seemed to lack the top end of the tech spectrum, they did at least come with Bluetooth and a reversing camera as standard.

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