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Future models - Mercedes-Benz - A-class

First drive: Electrified Mercedes A-Class here in 2020

Step up: Mercedes has addressed many of the issues of the outgoing A-Class with the impressive fourth-gen model.

‘A250e’ hybrid pushes diesel aside for Australia as next-gen Benz A-Class steps up

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Mercedes-Benz logo27 Apr 2018

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS in CROATIA

MERCEDES-BENZ Australia/Pacific will not offer a diesel engine in the all-new A-Class range when the A200 front-wheel-drive petrol hatch launches in Australia in August, with the company instead opting for partial petrol-electric hybrid motivation.

Rumoured to kick off in A250e EQ Boost guise and expected to hit Australian shores sometime in 2020, the as-yet unconfirmed petrol-electric hybrid variants are set to follow the C350e and E350e by wearing the ‘e’ suffix to denote electrification, and will sit above the volume-selling A250 4Matic all-wheel drive and entry-level A180 due in December.

While Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific public relations and product communications manager Jerry Stamoulis would not confirm whether the widely-anticipated A-Class hybrid would join the fourth-generation German small-car line-up in Australia, he revealed that the German brand is committed to offering cleaner powertrains Down Under in the wake of the diesel’s demise.

“Considering our focus on EQ and plug-in hybrids, we hope to have some news maybe next year about a form of electrification for the A-Class,” he told the Australian journalists at the W177-series A-Class launch in Croatia this week.

With the A200d diesel only contributing about six per cent to the total volume of the outgoing A-Class sales last year, it is unlikely that the just-announced A180d powered by an 85kW/260Nm 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel co-developed with Renault will be offered in Australia.

“Due to the low demand and our aim to reduce the number of variants and complexity, we’ve opted not to offer the A180d,’ Mr Stamoulis said.

Mercedes will instead build on the current A-Class’ sporty reputation with a slightly larger but more comfortable and refined proposition, while maintaining the high-performance status quo with a new A35 AMG 4Matic variant to sit below the A45 AMG 4Matic flagship both are headed to Australia inside the next 12 months.

“Early next year we will see our first AMG variant in the all-new A-Class and later we will release a more powerful variant,’ Mr Stamoulis confirmed.

Unveiled in Amsterdam in early February, the new A-Class is a complete redesign of the successful previous A-Class launched in 2012 that Mercedes says had a 60 per cent-plus conquest rate in Europe last year, and lowered the average age of owners by 10 years compared to the original two versions released in 1997 and 2004 respectively.

To date, about three million examples have been produced over the three iterations.

Based on an evolution of the MFA modular front-wheel drive architecture with the last generation, almost no components are carried over on MFA-2.

The addition of partial electrification underpinned the development of a torsion beam semi-independent rear suspension system to supplant the previous multi-link fully independent setup that, for now, will continue as an option in the A200.

It will, however be standard in the A250 4Matic and above in Australia, and will be coupled with adaptive dampers to help provide a suppler ride.

The latter was seen as one of the biggest issues in the old A-Class, with Benz engineers working hard to improve occupant comfort by reducing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels, while increasing rear-seat passenger space as well as luggage capacity.

Incorporating S-Class limousine levels of active and passive safety, in a lighter yet stronger car offering greater quality, sophistication and user-friendly technologies, were other priorities when development on the new car commenced more than four years ago. Dimensionally, the hatch measures in at 4419mm long (+120mm), 1796mm wide (+16mm) and 1440mm tall (+6mm), and sits on a 2729mm wheelbase (+30mm). Elbow room increases by up to 36mm, shoulder room is boosted by up to 22mm and headroom increases by up to 8mm.

All-round visibility is boosted by 10 per cent and boot volume has grown by 29 litres to 370L, along with a wider aperture for easier loading and a 115mm longer floor.

Despite all this growth, kerb weight has dropped by about 30kg, the body is 30 per cent torsionally stiffer and noise levels fall by up to 3dB over the old model.

One big factor is the newly incorporated rear axle subframe, which now isolates the bodyshell by rubber bushings so that fewer vibrations are transferred from the suspension through to the cabin. Thicker door seals and (on higher-grade models) a double bulkhead too help quell NVH.

A completely flat underfloor and detailed attention to the A-pillars, roof, rear spoiler, wheelarch treatments and tyre specs further assist the A-Class’s hushed and slippery ways. Note, though, that a class-redefining 0.25Cd drag co-efficiency rating is for Europe only, since the newly devised grille shutters and skinnier wheels will not be available locally.

While it is too early to talk specifics, expect a lift in standard features to push the recommended retail price above the $38,700, $44,300 and $55,200 (plus on-road costs) of the existing A180, A200 and A250 Sport 4Matic respectively.

Standard features will include twin widescreen 10.25-inch displays (instead of the 7.0-inch items offered elsewhere), an all-new voice-control with so-called AI artificial intelligence technology dubbed ‘Hey Mercedes’, ‘MBUX’ Mercedes-Benz User Experience multimedia system with touchscreen and touchpad interfaces, LED headlights, keyless start, satellite navigation, reversing camera, nine airbags and high-end audio system.

While autonomous emergency braking (AEB) will be included, a Driver Assist Package from about $2500 ushers in adaptive cruise control and active steering assist, among other items.

Wheels for Australia will begin at 19 inches for the A200. More will be revealed closer to the Australian launch.

As mentioned, both front-drive cars for Australia in their standard form (A180, A200) will employ the new torsion beam rear suspension design known as ‘Progressive’ an AMG Line option on A200 lowers the ride by 15mm, while the A200 AMG Exclusive adds the multi-link rear end with adaptive damping control for an as-yet undisclosed premium. The latter are standard on the A250 4Matic and above. And speaking of AWD, it moves from a hydraulic to electro-mechanical controlled multi-plate clutch, for faster reaction times.

Both the A180 and A200 will be powered by a 1.3-litre direct-injection four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine (also co-developed with Renault), but we only know the outputs of the latter which delivers 120kW of power at 5500rpm and 250Nm of torque at 1620rpm.

For Australia, a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission supplied by Getrag will drive the front wheels. In Euro spec, the A200 needs eight seconds to hit 100km/h on the way to a 225km/h top speed. It can also average 5.2 litres per 100km and 120 grams per km of carbon dioxide emissions – the upshot of cylinder deactivation tech. While power rises 5kW, torque falls 10Nm compared with the outgoing A200’s 1.6L turbo and is two-tenths slower to 100km/h. Kerb weight is 1375kg.

Details of the A250 4Matic are scarce, as only the not-for-Australia front-drive version’s stats have been released, using a heavily revised version of the previous 2.0-litre direct-injection four-pot turbo-petrol engine delivering (this time) 165kW at 5500rpm (up 5kW), 350Nm at 1800rpm, via Mercedes’ in-house seven-speed dual clutch.

This makes for a 0-100km/h sprint time of 6.2s, a 250km/h top speed, fuel consumption of 6.2L/100km (a sizeable 0.7L slide) and CO2 emissions of 141g/km. All W177 engines meet Euro6 emissions requirements.

Our cars will come standard with the free-standing ‘Widescreen’ display, turbine-style circular air vents and MBUX infotainment system, operable via touchscreen, console touchpad or steering-wheel spoke-sited buttons.

Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, smartphone charging, predictive navigation entry with real-time forward camera with direction overlay, Wi-Fi hot-spot, cloud-based car-to-X communication, Mercedes Me app-operated remote car sharing, natural voice recognition, a head-up display and seat cooling and massaging all debut.

More intuitive active cruise control, revised traffic sign assist and upgrades to the driver-assist functions including blind-spot alert, lane-keep/lane-change assist and auto-park also feature. LED headlights with adaptive high beam and driver’s knee airbag arrive while pedestrian impact severity lessens with the advent of a pop-up bonnet.

So much has changed outside, inside and underneath Mercedes’ smallest model. But do the changes lift the fourth-gen A-Class above its fiercest rivals, the Audi A3 Sportback and BMW 1 Series, as well as the Infiniti Q30, Lexus CT200h and Volvo V40? To find out, Benz held a two-day deep-dive and drive event outside of Split, on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast.

We should add that, while we sampled two of the engines heading our way (the A200’s 1.3L and A250’s 2.0L four-cylinder turbo-petrol units), all the overseas launch cars featured the multi-link rear-end upgrade (and most with ride-enhancing adaptive dampers), rather than the simpler torsion beam set-up that has sparked the biggest controversy in the new car.

Additionally, there were no standard trim versions, just up-spec examples that would send the final price spiralling.

Australia, then, will have to wait until the third quarter of this year to see if the most basic interior is no longer shamed by the cheaper Volkswagen Golf, or if the torsion beam rear axle is as good as that type of layout’s best proponent (namely Peugeot’s underrated 308).

The first thing that is clear about the newcomer is how smoothed out the styling is – to the point where the rear view is Kia Cerato-esque. Contemporary and still pretty the 2018 A-Class may be, but the sinewy, aggressive athleticism of old has been watered down.

All is forgiven, though, the moment the door is open and you slide on to the driver’s seat, for the cabin’s appearance and ambience seem to have leapt at least two generations over the dated and patchy interior that went before. There’s more useful width with more light streaming in via greater glass areas, so the slightly hemmed-in feeling from the old model has gone at last.

Based on the current E-Class’s fascia, the dashboard is a knockout, and probably the company’s best work in decades. At least in the higher-grade examples as sampled in Croatia. Gone are the squeaky cheap-looking plastics, replaced by higher-quality materials that go far further in meeting brand perceptions than before.

Daunting at first, the unimaginatively named ‘Widescreen’ display is easily the best digitised instrumentation we’ve encountered, comprehensively leapfrogging Audi’s conceptually similar Virtual Cockpit with more aesthetically pleasing graphics, crisper markings, pleasing design choices and novel interaction options. Time is required to familiarise, but the ability to alter and customise what you like completely lifts the A-Class’ user-experience.

There’s much more too. The driving position is brilliant the non-virtual dash elements are attractive – from the wheel and newly redesigned stalks (including a much better column gear shifter) to the showy turbine circular vents, lovely central toggle switchgear and wide lower console layout. The effect is expensive, expansive and alluringly tactile, at least in these up-spec variants. The look, aroma and tactility outshine all other rivals for now, and that’s saying something when there’s an A3 involved. Nobody has ever said that about any small Benz hatchback.

The same more-or-less applies in the back seat, which is easier to access, offers significantly greater space for larger people, and works in terms of accommodating them. Substantially quieter and more refined, the interior is free from the cellophane-crunch cheapness of the early outgoing versions, or the relatively small hatch aperture and tiny cargo capacity that ruled out the old car for so many potential owners. Storage is more than adequate and there are a few surprise and delight features, like the hooped door grabs and classy cupholders.

Granted. There are foibles, such as the patchy voice-control interface, which did not live up to the company’s claims in responding to commands the lower plastic trim front and rear is still a bit hollow and cheap in a way that Volkswagen/Audi equivalents avoid and the optional (and fabulous) AMG tombstone seats and other goodies will add thousands to the price of the A-Class. But, then, this is a Mercedes-Benz.

Push the button and slot the column stalk into D, and the A200’s all-new 120kW/250Nm 1.3L turbo is a raring, rapid responder, sprinting off the line and revving all the way past the 6200rpm red line with terrier-like enthusiasm, for lively and lusty performance.

However, there’s also a shrill side to the new heart’s aural experience, meaning that it lacks the premium civility of the old 1.6T. As this sort of downsized turbo thrives on revs, the strain is only noticeable when exploring the tacho’s upper regions.

In contrast, the A250’s 165kW/350Nm 2.0-litre continues to be a calm yet colossal turbo tearaway, delivering forceful punch right across the spectrum. Out on the freeways, the larger powertrain offered terrific oomph coupled with the expected refinement. At speeds almost doubling Australia’s open-road maximum, the feeling was there’s still plenty more grunt left in store. On the flipside, being front-drive only in this case, we feel there is just too much torque cascading through the nose, so we’re glad Mercedes has gone for the AWD spec heading our way.

Riding on the multi-link rear axle, both models as sampled seemed to have matured dynamically in terms of quietness and control, with the optional adaptive dampers ushering in a new degree of comfort for an A-Class. Keeping in mind how low and fat the 19-inch rubber is, perhaps the Mercedes doesn’t quite hit the suppleness and pliancy of, say a Golf or 308, but there are no complaints either. At last, the Benz is no longer a punishing ride proposition.

Lastly, we found the steering reasonably responsive and the handling reassuringly athletic, offering a level of determined agility that the series has become famous for. However, at the same time, the helm’s turn-in isn’t quite as crisp or nimble as the current car’s, though whether the demographic would mind is probably doubtful. That’s what the coming AMG alternatives are for anyway.

So, Germany’s latest premium hatch has finally grown up, and it is clear that Mercedes’ decision makers have listened and learned from the shortfalls of the successful preceding models. Almost every issue that blighted the 2012-2018 A-Class has been addressed with determination and panache, especially the ground-breaking dashboard design and functionality that is genuinely novel and exciting to behold and use.

Questions do remain, however. The controversial torsion beam rear end remains an unknown nobody has sat in the more basic iterations and the pricing has yet to be divulged, so we’ll reserve judgement until we this is revealed. Still, we’re confident that now Audi, BMW and co will have plenty of sleepless nights leading up to the latest small Benz’s local launch.

Whether the expected domination will see the Mercedes through when the next-gen rivals arrive from next year, we’re not sure, but at last here’s a small three-pointed star hatch that delivers on the brand promise.

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