Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - A-class - A180
Sporty design, perky performance, improved cabin quality, smooth-road comfort, dynamic verve
Room for improvement
Firm ride, dash presentation and cabin quality still not on a par with class best, tight rear seat space, small boot
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2 May 2016
Price and equipment
MERCEDES-BENZ’S A-Class is on a roll, selling strongly since the arrival of the revolutionary third-generation version back at the start of 2013.
Style, sportiness, affordability, and that magnetic three-pointed star emblem combine to make the German hatch very alluring, despite concerns over ride harshness, cabin plastics quality, and rear-seat accommodation.
The Series II, released in January, aims to address at least the first two criticisms, with standard adaptive dampers to cushion the ride, as well as nicer materials inside.
You’ll spot the fresh 'diamond-cut' grille, bumpers, tail-light lenses, and rear diffuser. We’re talking small-time changes here.
Along with trim and material improvements, the dashboard features a one-inch larger tablet-style screen, bringing with it Apple CarPlay, while revised instrument markings, galvanised switchgear and an adjustable 60mm increase in front-seat cushion depth are about the extent of the differences inside.
Underneath, the newly adjustable dampers have four modes and there’s been a driver-assist technology update, including Adaptive Brake Assist with autonomous partial braking for reduced rear-end collision risk and a better Attention Assist warning to stop the driver’s attention from wavering too far from the job.
The latter is part of a safety protocol that also sees nine airbags, pre-safe collision preparation, blind-spot detection, lane keeping, autonomous braking and an active bonnet.
These are all standard in the A180, which now kicks off from $37,200 plus on-road costs. A base BMW 118i costs $36,900, the entry-level Audi A3 is $36,500 and the Volvo V40 D2 Kinetic is $36,990.
Buyers also get satellite navigation, a reversing camera, cruise control with speed limiter, Parktronic automatic parking, parking sensors, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, electric windows, remote central locking, push-button start, idle-stop, electric park brake, tyre-pressure monitors, heated windscreen washer nozzles, electric mirrors and 17-inch alloy wheels on runflat tyres.
Our test car featured a Vision Package at $2490, consisting of LED headlights with LED daytime running lights and 'blue welcome light', LED tail-lights and a panoramic electric sunroof, bringing the total cost to $39,690.
Cosy, intimate and very contemporary-Mercedes sums up the A-Class’ sporty cabin presentation and ambience. A high waistline, low seating, and shallow windows add to the feeling of being in a performance car.
So it might come as a surprise to learn that there is ample space up front for tall adults, aided by generous legroom, a wide range of seat adjustability (60mm thigh support than before, remember), and a steering column that telescopes as well as tilts.
The 1970s-style tombstone style seats look as well as feel great, especially finished in an appealing cloth upholstery featuring a tri-colour motif. Along with providing firm support in all the right places, they really freshen up the cabin.
Too bad, then, that the fixed head-restraint part of the backrest does protrude a fair-way out for some occupants, pushing the head forward a little too much.
Mercedes is making much of the better materials used inside, with a subdued, tasteful update that sees quite a bit of matt metallic trim form part of a sequence of dash buttons, around the circular vents, analogue dials, steering wheel spokes, lower console areas and door cards. Contrasted with gray or black surrounds, they look good.
The instrument markings are faultless, supported by a wide variety of driving and vehicle data the steering wheel is lovely to behold the climate control operation is first class Mercedes has obviously thought long and hard about storage and though the remote dial for the central screen does take a moment to get used to, it all works easily and logically.
However, the plastics still feel a bit below what a Benz should have, with the fascia material especially retaining that lolly wrapper crunchy sound if you prod it. The vents turn with a cheap clang. And the (softer but still too) firm ride does illicit the odd squeak and rattle. Still. Daimler ought to look at what Audi’s been doing with interiors lately to see how quality and craftsmanship is really done.
Still sitting on a 2700mm wheelbase in a 4300mm long car, there is nothing that Mercedes could do to fix this generation A-Class’ limited rear leg and headroom measurements, though once you’re back there, the cushion is quite comfy, the amount of shoulder space – for two adults at least – isn’t too bad at all and there is sufficient ventilation access.
But no amount of fancy seat patterns or metallic trim can hide the fact that it’s still quite glum and claustrophobic for some people, while the lack of a folding rear armrest is a bit tight in a $38K vehicle nowadays.
Boot capacity is far from class-leading at 341 litres, though dropping the split/fold rear backrests does increase that to a more practical 1157L. BMW's 1 Series can swallow 360L, the Audi A3 can carry 380L, but Volvo's V40 can only take 335L.
Mercedes will tell you that if you want more luggage space there is always the closely related CLA Shooting Brake (wagon) or the B-Class offerings, with much the same driving appeal as the A-Class.
Engine and transmission
Lively, lusty, and just a tad loud and loutish when extended sums up what is actually quite a likeable powertrain offering in the A180.
Lift that long nose bonnet and you will find a carryover 90kW/200Nm 1.6-litre direct-injection twin-cam four-cylinder petrol engine. Employing a turbocharger and idle-stop tech, it drives the front wheels via a smooth and fast-shifting 7G-DCT dual-clutch transmission, for an official 0-100km/h sprint-time of 8.6 seconds, on the way to a 202km/h top speed.
That’s the on-paper promise. Put your foot down in anger, and the A180 will bolt off the line, but not before a frustrating moment’s hesitation. Lag. You can sort of drive around that by being more progressive with your right foot, rather than just mashing the pedal to the floor, but there is still a delay, before a torrent of power comes whooshing through the front wheels.
Other than that initial hesitation off the line, the Mercedes delivers its performance in a measured and fairly effortless manner, pulling away strongly and keeping up with traffic energetically when required.
If you select Sport mode from the Dynamic Select driving mode options, and start using the perfectly placed paddle-shifters (which are among the best of their type, and help make up for the awful column-mounted gear selector which is both clunky and too easy to knock out of Drive), responses improve even more markedly, with the Benz feeling far more muscular than its modest 90kW power output suggests.
No matter which mode it’s in, the A180 is also remarkably punchy in the mid-ranges, for fast and fuss-free overtaking, though it’s when the engine is spinning fast that there is a degree of gruffness coming through. Conversely, driven quite gently, and helped out by the quick-acting idle-stop system, there is quite a lot of economy potential. The official 5.8L/100km might even be in reach.
Overall, then, the A-Class’ powertrain is about on a par with its Audi A3 Sportback and BMW 1 Series rivals.
Ride and handling
Like its closest competitors, the Mercedes tech spec includes electric power steering, a MacPherson strut front end, and a multi-link rear suspension set-up. The difference here is that adaptive dampers is now standard on the three-pointed star car.
Fast-reacting steering comes as a pleasant surprise to keener drivers, with the A180 delivering quick and controlled handling, as well as rock-solid road-holding capabilities. The balance, feel, and feedback are all commendable, making the baby Benz fun over a curvy set of roads.
And what about the all-important ride quality advance allowed by the adaptive dampers? The Dynamic Select system lets the driver to adjust the responses for the engine and transmission, as well as the suspension, steering weight and air-conditioning strength via four modes – Comfort, Sport, Eco, and the mix-‘n-match Individual.
While improved over before, the ride in Comfort is still not exactly cushy, disappointingly, with an underlying firmness that never really goes away.
Smaller craggy surfaces are certainly dealt with a whole lot better, with the smarting hardness now a thing of the past, but the limit of the suspension’s travel is too easily reached over the bigger stuff. And there is still a bit too much road noise coming through over coarser bitumen surfaces.
The bottom line here is that while we couldn’t recommend the previous A-Class because of the uncompromisingly hard suspension, now it is appreciably better than before. But try before you buy and don’t expect a magic carpet ride.
Safety and servicing
The A-Class receives a top five-star crash safety rating according to ANCAP.
Mercedes offers a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, with intervals at 25,000km or one year, as well as a transparent capped-price servicing scheme.
If you’re in the market for a premium small hatch, the A180 is far from disgraced for being the cheapest of the A-Class variants.
It is a youthful, fun, and engaging drive, backed up by leading safety technology from one of the world’s most trusted brands. We can certainly see why Mercedes cannot bring enough of them in at the moment.
But while the tangible gains in ride and material quality are welcome compared with the previous version, both don’t quite go far enough to upset the class leaders in either department, while the tight rear-seat packaging and small boot area continue to be nuisances.
So manage your expectations on all fronts, and enjoy the smallest Benz available on the market for what it is. Clearly hundreds of customers do each month.
Audi A3 Sportback 1.4 TFSI Attraction from $36,500 plus on-road costs
The Audi is a class act all the way, with an exceptional interior and high quality fittings bringing a clear distinction between it and the VW Golf that used to (but no longer) overshadow it so easily. The A3 Sportback hardly puts a foot wrong.
BMW 118i from $36,900 plus on-road costs
BMW’S brilliant little three-pot turbo, mated to an excellent eight-speed ZF auto, transforms the rear-drive hatch into a rapid and rorty driving experience, with fun handling to match, though the dated cabin and heavy handed styling might not be to all tastes.
Volkswagen Golf 103TSI Highline from $32,990 plus on-road costs
Sheer ubiquity and a derivative dash are about the only negatives we can really level at Volkswagen’s fabulously well-rounded small-car icon. For performance, ride, refinement, handling, and safety, it leaves the premium brands looking a bit too expensive. Masterful.
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