Mercedes A-Class (2018) review: Small car, big tech

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The new Mercedes A-Class is something of a big deal. Normally, you might expect me to explain that this is the cheapest way of getting in a Mercedes, that’s it’s all about brand and less about the car and the drive. That, after all, is why Mercedes has sold so many in recent times.

This edition is somewhat different because, instead of merely introducing a slightly new look and mildly overhauled mechanicals, Mercedes has gone all out and thrown the book at it.

I’m talking here about the new “Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX)”. First showcased at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, this brings what is, quite possibly, the most advanced, high-tech cockpit I’ve ever seen in a car. It beats the Mercedes E- and S-Class out here, which is going some, which is punchy, considering the latter starts at £72,000 – more than double the cost of the new 25,800 A-Class.

Mercedes A-Class review: MBUX and interior tech

Inside the cabin, it’s typical Mercedes bling, with lots of machined aluminium scattered around and a typically high level of comfort. But it’s all about the technology in the new A-Class and that starts with which stretches from behind the steering wheel in one seamless, subtly curved sweep.

It’s like something from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise but instead of engaging Klingons, it’s used here to present your speedometer and rev counter, satnav, media and car settings. And (did I say it already?) it looks bloody amazing.

It’s not the same in all A-Class models, though. To get the best experience, you need the twin 10.25in displays, which are powered by a pair of Nvidia Tegra X2 chips. The cheapest models come with a pair of 7in screens instead and less powerful internals.

Whichever model you choose, though, these two screen work in roughly the same way. The right, central screen, is touch-sensitive, while the left is passive and used to show satnav map, speedo and tachometer in various different user-configurable layouts. And it’s very intuitive to use; I particularly like the way you can interact with the car’s various settings – the headlights, for example – by simply tapping on the appropriate part of a 3D model of it onscreen.

The digital instrument display, which sits behind the steering wheel, is fully customisable. You can hide dials and replace them with a 3D map (provided HERE Technologies), even tailor what elements of the map appear.

Best of all, unlike Audi, Mercedes hasn’t chucked the baby out with the bathwater, here. If you don’t get on with using a touchscreen while driving, there’s a large trackpad found in front of the gear selector, which you can use as a substitute for the touchscreen to swipe left and right to go from screen-to-screen, up and down to navigate lists and click to select items. Plus, in an echo of the MacBook’s ingenious haptic touchpad, it gives out a buzz of feedback whenever you click.

And if you want to go entirely hands-free, you can do that, too, thanks to Mercedes’ “Linguatronic” Nuance-powered digital assistant, which allows you to get directions, play music and even change the temperature simply by yelling “hey Mercedes” and whatever you want it to do. This works pretty well, too; it will even interpret somewhat obscure statements like “hey Mercedes, I’m cold” as a plea to turn up the temperature on the climate control.

As for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, these will be available to order from September through the optional “Smartphone Connect Package”, which will also contain wireless charging and digital key capability through the Mercedes app. On a more negative note, there’s no HUD in the UK model, although with a digital instrument cluster this good that’s somewhat forgivable.

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Mercedes A-Class review: Safety features and driver assistance

If this was all there was to the new Mercedes in-car tech package, it would be enough to see it comfortably out in front of every other car in the sub-£30k price bracket – but there’s more, although, as you might expect, it’s all optional.

First up is the Augmented Navigation Package, which, quite frankly has to be seen to be believed. So take a look at the photograph below and then come back to the review.

What you’re seeing is, essentially, mixed reality satnav. This uses the car’s front camera to display a real-time image of the road ahead overlaid with a blue arrow, which points the way you need to go, while a traditional, top-down junction graphic is shown to the right.

It’s seriously clever stuff, and an innovation that actually seems to work. It makes it a lot clearer to figure out which exit to take on a roundabout; in fact, I’d go so far as to say it improves safety, too, because when you glance at the map you can still see what’s in front of you, keeping you aware of your surroundings at all times.

Of course, this isn’t the only technology-driven safety system on offer in the new A-Class. There’s also traffic sign detection, which gives you an indication of the max permitted speed limit on the road you’re driving on.

There’s also the option to specify “Active Lane Keeping Assist”, which keeps you in your lane if you begin to drift out. I found it worked well, though, it can be somewhat alarming when you’re driving fast.

Other, more semi-autonomous modes, such as Mercedes’ “Distronic” active steering assist, which provides “noticeable steering assistance, even on bends”, will be available on the A-Class by the end of the year.

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Mercedes A-Class review: Sound system

The mid-range sound system installed in my test drive model was slightly less impressive. The speakers aren’t branded; instead, they’re Mercedes-Benz’s in-house speakers, which are driven by amplification totalling 225W. There’s a subwoofer in the boot, tweeters in the A-pillars and in the rear doors, mid-range speakers in all four doors, and a centre mid-range speaker at the front, too.

On paper, it looks impressive; in reality, performance is mixed and I found the overall sound quality to be overly sibilant. Even when I dialled down the treble by six notches and moved the fader two notches to the back music sounded ear-piercingly annoying. The highs are too harsh and brittle and that makes it hard to enjoy listening to for more than a few minutes at a time.

Which is a shame, because elsewhere, the sound quality is absolutely fine. The mids and the bass were both perfectly acceptable. The lows have a nice rumble and there’s a tight mid-bass slam. The mids reveal enough detail and aren’t pushed into the background, which is great for songs with an emphasis on vocals.

Add an impressive soundstage and fantastic instrument separation and you’d have had a killer sound system – if it weren’t for that unbearably brash treble.

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Mercedes A-Class review: Design and comfort

As far as hatchbacks go, the A-Class is among one of the more expensive offerings on the market but, as we’ve seen, the new A-Class absolutely justifies that, particularly with its high-tech infotainment and assistance systems.

It’s also top class in terms of how it’s fitted out inside. From the soft, synthetic “leather” chairs, to the air vents that look like jet engine intakes pockmarking the dashboard.

In fact, depending on your temperature adjustments, the air vent grilles even change colour, temporarily turning red when you’re warming the cabin, and blue when you’re cooling it down.

The steering wheel has plenty of hidden gems, too. Aside the regular controls, such as volume adjustments and cruise control, there are two capacitive, touch-sensitive buttons sitting on either side of the wheel. One of these buttons controls the infotainment system screen, while the other is for the digital instrument cluster. They’re responsive and intuitive to use and give the driver yet another way of controlling the car’s various options.

Now, despite the car’s dual 10.25in displays, the German manufacturer has decided to keep a few physical buttons in place. The climate controls, for example, located beneath the front air-vents, are all physical switches and buttons. There’s also a set of buttons surrounding the touchpad, which includes a toggle switch for cycling through the car’s four driving modes: Eco, Sport, Individual, and Comfort.

Finally, a physical power and Start/Stop button are found to the right-hand side of the dashboard. You won’t need to lodge your key anywhere, either, as long as you’ve got it on you; you’re good to get going.

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Mercedes A-Class review: Driving experience, engine and handling

At launch event, I drove the A 200 AMG, equipped with a four-cylinder, 1.4-litre turbo-charged petrol engine. I found the car to be competent around corners and easy to steer. It has a lightweight feel and was pretty nippy in and around the bendy roads of the Cotswolds. However, it’s not something that going to get your pulse racing if you’re a keen driver.