2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class First Drive: A Well-Rounded Compact With a Bad Sense of Humor
Quick, quiet, and smart, this entry-level Mercedes-Benz isn't fooling around. Except when it's telling bad jokes.
If I were to base this review of the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class solely on the number and quality of jokes it knows—yes, the A220 will tell you jokes—this compact would bomb horribly. For instance, while sitting in traffic outside of Seattle during a test drive of the new entry-level luxury sedan, I said, “Mercedes, tell me a joke.” The infotainment system’s female voice, which responds to voice commands à la Siri, gave me this: “A horse walked into a bar and the bartender said, ‘Why the long face?’” (Cue rimshot.) A few hours later, while driving past the base of Mount Rainier, I asked for another, only to hear: “I’m sorry, my engineers were German.” Get it? That’s the joke.
So, okay: The new Mercedes-Benz A220 4Matic is not a particularly funny car. But I’m going to give it a pass on that one. Humor has never been a requirement for cars. But then again, we’ve never really had an infotainment system like the one that debuts in the A-Class, an artificial intelligence-driven driver interface called MBUX that replaces the now-ancient navigation/audio/driving mode warhorse called Comand that has plagued Mercedes models for years, a somber, humorless environment if ever there was one. This new one studies you like you’re a lab rat, caters every nuance of driving to your whims, responds to your swipes and pinch-zooms with effortless speed and zero latency, and delivers dancing animations and witty(ish) repartee in the hopes of making your life behind the wheel as effortless as possible—and perhaps even pleasurable.
We’ll unpack that system in a separate story (stay tuned), but for the purposes of this A-Class review, all you need to know is: MBUX works, it’s far better than what it replaces (indeed, than most other infotainment systems on the road), and its presence in the A220 is a rare and promising example of a high-end feature debuting on the entry level vehicle in a car company’s lineup.
The A-Class is, after all, the new “gateway” car for the MB brand, a product meant to lure in young, “premium-curious” customers at an even more affordable price than than the current shiny lures of the CLA-Class four-door coupe and GLA-Class crossover. Those vehicles both start at around $33,000, but Mercedes hasn’t disclosed the pricing on the new A-Class yet, as it doesn’t go on sale until early 2019. (This is the third generation of the A-Class, but the first to be sold in the U.S. It’s also the first sedan variant.)
It’s a good bet that it’ll start a few ticks below those existing vehicles’ prices, at least before you start adding on options such as 4Matic all-wheel-drive, larger display screens—a seven-inch display is standard, a 10-inch one the upgrade—dynamic cruise control with semi-autonomous capability, heated seats, and ambient lighting, among other things. But even the A220’s standard features are impressive: panoramic roof, LED headlamps and taillamps, 17-inch wheels, keyless start, smartphone integration, and that MBUX system, which makes this essentially one of the most advanced cars on the road—interface-wise, at least.
The core mechanicals also bring more than the usual small-car thunder, including a 188-horsepower, 221-pound-foot turbocharged four-cylinder mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Once the comedy routine ended, our drive around Seattle and Mount Rainier National Park showed the Benz to be responsive and quick; the 2.0-liter engine purred quietly at low speed and perked up as the needle climbed the tach, while the DCT delivered linear thrust. The suspension is a McPherson design at the front axle and a torsion beam in the rear, though all-wheel-drive variants have a complex four-link rear axle. (The all-wheel-drive variant occasionally talks to you more loudly and physically than you might like if it hits a rumble strip or buckle in the road, indicating the whole package can’t quite absorb everything the way larger vehicles can.) It’s effective: on a twisty road, the power delivery and the vehicle’s diminutive proportions provided a sporty, confidence-inspiring character.
Visually, the A-Class possesses an unusually minimalist design for Mercedes, with a single character line running low along the sides and a smooth overall arc from front to rear. Of course, smaller cars don’t have as much space to be busied-up, and the designers wisely erred on the side of not doing so. A low, wide stance helps compensate for the relatively short length of 179.1 inches. Up front, the “diamond radiator grille” with hexagonal chrome pins sprinkled across looks gorgeous and futuristic—a surprisingly energetic touch in an otherwise understated design. The only real design weak spot lurks around the rear wheels, which feel crowded by the rear door seams and the short rear overhang that’s meant to enhance sportiness. (It does…except for the fact that those back wheels don’t have much breathing room.)
The interior looks well proportioned and feels substantial, with the big dual-screen infotainment system set in a seemingly freestanding panel. That flat, wide look, combined with the rich graphic visuals present there, gives the dash its own futuristic feel. My biggest initial complaint was the three gigantic air vents front and center in the dash, each with a bright brushed-aluminum finish and color-adjustable ambient lighting that can change based on drive mode. At first I found them somewhat startling—who celebrates air vents? But they grew on me. They’re attractive and look interesting, and are clearly meant to add an analog presence to a heavily digital dash.
In the end, though, two key triumphs that won me over. One is of pure construction: The A220 is light without feeling flimsy, a common risk when creating small cars. For a company that almost prides itself on making heavy, substantial machines—weight being the number one path to a luxurious ride—it’s laudable that Mercedes-Benz was able to make a car this light yet still have it feel luxurious, absent even the slightest creaks and groans when you toss it around. It feels like a Mercedes, not a budget-minded gap-filler for the lineup.
The other triumph is of aerodynamics. The car has what Mercedes claims is a production-car world-record-low drag coefficient of 0.22, which boosts fuel economy and helps quiet the wind. (Plenty of other engineering and design tricks also help minimize wind noise, for what it’s worth.) At 90 mph, virtually the only thing you hear is from the tires, whose noise is pronounced, but not remotely distracting. Conversation was as easy at 90 as it was at 40.
There are other small-car victories in general present here, including the optional bounty of driver-assistance features, which extend all the way to the traffic-and-obstacle-monitoring, semi-self-driving capability that have trickled down from the flagship S-Class. Using cameras, radar, and navigation data, the A-Class can monitor 1,500 feet of roadway ahead of you and manage steering, gas, and braking, even modulating speed for roundabouts and curves in the road. It also comes standard with active brake assist if you don’t get on them hard enough in an emergency. It’s a pity such features can’t be dispensed in a more egalitarian fashion, like MBUX—but as is the case with most car manufacturers, they come at a steep price right out of the gate, and time brings them down eventually.
But let’s wrap things up the way we started: on the A-Class’s sense of humor. I asked a Mercedes engineer how many witticisms MBUX has programmed in. It turns out that there are—mercifully—only about 20 jokes it can dispense, should you happen to want to hear some real groaners on your commute. Stitched together as a single set…well, even Dane Cook needn’t worry about his job. Credit for trying, though. And regardless of the car’s comedic skills, Mercedes will very likely find itself laughing all the way to the bank once this car hits the streets.
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