The first three generations of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class were kept away from North America largely because they were small, comparatively expensive luxury hatchbacks, and no one here wants those (except deep-level hatch nerds like us). But the all-new A-Class has a sedan variant for the first time, and that version is coming to the States.
Lest you think that this newborn baby Benz will supplant the CLA-Class at the bottom of the lineup, it will not; Mercedes sees the A as an additional way to conquest non-luxury buyers using essentially the same bucket of parts. And so the A will serve those who like sedans, the CLA will serve those who like, uh, swoopier sedans, and the GLA-Class small crossover will serve those who like sedans to not be sedans at all, which is basically the entire U.S. car market right now. Americans love hatchbacks when they’re tall, which makes no sense, but here we are.
The A-Class rides on Mercedes’ latest Modular Front Architecture and offers it three choices for its front-strut, rear-multilink suspension: standard, lowered by 1 inch on the AMG Line trim and lowered but with multimode adaptive Sachs dampers. Front- or all-wheel drive are available, but we get just one powertrain: the new M260 turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder backed by a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. All U.S. A-Classes wear A220 badges on their decklids and have 180 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque.
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We drove lavishly equipped front- and all-wheel-drive cars with the max-spec 19-inch wheels and Pirelli P Zero summer tires, and all had the adaptive suspension. The turbo-four is smooth and feels practically friction-free, pouring its power to the wheels progressively and in proportion to the angle of your right foot. It doesn’t have enough juice to overwhelm the front tires on front-drive versions, with only the faintest whiff of torque steer when matting the throttle. The gearbox is almost completely transparent no matter which of the clearly delineated drive modes you’re in (sport, comfort or eco), never slamming gears home but always changing them promptly.
The roads around Seattle, where we drove the car, are largely free of cracks, crevices and chuckholes, so it was hard to definitively judge ride quality. Even so, it seems clear this is the best-riding small Mercedes yet, even on the larger 19-inch wheels and tires. The wheel control and damping is excellent, and the car shrugs off expansion joints and misaligned slabs on the highway with a composure the current CLA could never muster; the structure feels a good deal more rigid than that of the CLA, too. Our cars had upgraded cross-drilled brake rotors, and, well, they stopped fine.
From behind the wheel, the A-class is agreeable, with our largest complaint being that you can’t really feel much of anything at all through the steering wheel. Handling is confident, and the performance tires provided plenty of grip, but the A-class doesn’t rip or snarl or demand to be driven harder, instead preferring to exude a chiller vibe; an anticipated AMG version will be the red-mist machine.
The A’s sheetmetal follows Mercedes’ “Sensual Purity” design language, which aggressively seeks to eliminate extraneous hard lines. Applied to a car this size, the result is handsome but rather generic-looking; remove the three-pointed star from the front and it could be made by almost any automaker. That’s not the case inside, however. The cabins of Benz’s most recent entry-level models — the last-gen C-Class and the CLA — offered little to no style and plenty of cut-rate materials, but the A’s tailored interior feels truly premium thanks to quality plastics, trim and details like the turbine-style air vents, available real wood trim and the row of chromed toggle switches for the climate control. Everyone knows toggle switches are super classy, right?
Equally significant as all that, though, is the new MBUX infotainment software — for Mercedes-Benz User eXperience. It offers the expected navigation, entertainment, onboard apps, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto functions but then layers a thick spread of cloud-based computing on top. Every A-Class features twin digital displays, one in front of the driver and one located atop the center stack, that each measure 7.0 inches as standard or 10.25 inches if you cough up more dough. The MBUX system will eventually make its way into every Benz large and small, but it’s offered here first.
The cloud — for those unfamiliar, cloud-based devices take advantage of remote computing power and storage via internet connectivity — is deployed here most obviously via a personal digital assistant that is part of every A-Class. Activated using the wake phrase, “Hi, Mercedes” (or, frustratingly, sometimes by just simply saying the word “Mercedes”), it works similarly to Amazon Alexa or Google Home devices and, in fact, it can be integrated with those systems.
It responds to questions spoken naturally and can both control in-car features like the seat heaters, climate-control temperature, navigation and audio systems, the sunroof shade, and more, but also accesses the internet to respond to more complex inquiries like, “Show me restaurants nearby that are rated higher than four stars and are open right now.” When we asked, “What’s the baseball score?”, MBUX gave us the Mariners score based on our GPS location. When we asked who our hometown Detroit Tigers were playing that day, it not only told us the opponent, but because the game had started, also the score, inning, and stadium. We were told no personal or private data is transmitted from the car, and everything else is anonymized and encrypted.
In addition, MBUX uses machine learning and AI to display suggested and favorite activities on the home screen. This avoids having to dive deeply into submenus to find what you want (of course, being a German product, you can still dive very, very deep into submenus). MBUX can also be controlled by steering-wheel touch nubs, a large console touchpad, or Benz’s first-ever touchscreen, which offers swipe and pinch-to-zoom functionality. The setup’s graphics are pleasingly high-res, well-laid out, and thoughtfully designed, but we like most that the system offers quick responses to inputs. Even most voice requests are handled promptly.
Mercedes wouldn’t confirm exact pricing, but the car will start at around $35K when it hits dealerships in early 2019. Standard equipment includes a panoramic sunroof, LED head- and taillamps, multiple drive modes, dual-zone climate control, 17-inch wheels, and MBUX infotainment. Options include nearly all of Mercedes’ active safety technologies, navigation, 64-color ambient lighting, wireless phone charging, Burmester premium audio, a head-up display, and a heated steering wheel, among other items. Suffice it to say that there are enough luxury add-ons to rocket the price toward the $50K mark, a massive amount of money for a car this size.
But whatever the price, Mercedes finally has a decent entry-level car. And with the next-gen CLA and GLA soon following in the A’s mechanical and technological footsteps, buyers of small luxury sedans; small, swoopy luxury sedans; and small luxury not-sedans may find themselves suddenly with plenty of options.
On Sale: Early 2019
Base Price: $35,000 (est.)
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged I4, seven-speed dual-clutch, FWD or AWD
Output: 180 hp @ 5,800-6,100 rpm; 221 lb-ft @ 1,250-4,000 rpm
Curb Weight: 3,285 lb
Fuel Economy: TBA(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: Feels more luxury than entry-level
Cons: Prices can get near $50K