It’s kind of funny that the Mercedes-Benz A-class has never been offered in the United States, given that the U.S.—and more specifically, California—was a key reason the brand ventured to launch a vehicle below the C-class at all. See, in the early 1990s, it looked as if California was hellbent on going electric. And Mercedes-Benz felt it needed a car like the A-class to stay in business there. Hence its sandwich-style floor construction, with a space reserved for batteries, and its altogether ultraefficient design.
When legislators of the time cooled on the idea of electrification, work on the A-class had progressed so far that Mercedes-Benz decided to turn the car into a conventionally powered model. It hewed to its dorky/efficient vibe for two generations, until 2012, at which point the A-class morphed into a sporty and lifestyle-oriented alternative to the Volkswagen Golf and the Audi A3. Now comes the fourth-gen A-class, and it follows in the tire tracks of its most recent predecessor.
Unveiled at a large event in Amsterdam, the hatchback version of the new A-class won’t be offered in America. But it will serve as the technical basis for seven further models: short- and long-wheelbase versions of the A-class sedan, a new CLA-class sedan and shooting brake, the next-gen GLA- and B-classes, and an as yet unnamed, rugged-looking small SUV sometimes referred to as the GLB. The U.S. market will receive the A sedan (Canada will get the hatchback, too), the CLA, and the GLA for sure, and the little off-roader is a distinct possibility. That’s reason enough to take a close look at this new model.
Compared with the outgoing A-class, the new version has a slightly longer wheelbase, and it is slightly taller and wider as well as longer. The expanded footprint translates into significantly more interior room and more luggage space. But, remarkably, the A-class doesn’t look a lot bigger than before. The styling is cleaner, sportier, and quite a bit more modern. Its front end evokes the latest CLS with an aggressive grille that flares toward the bottom and slim headlights. The rear is wider and features vertically split taillights.
Mercedes has considerably upgraded the chassis and powertrain portfolio. Depending on the power output, there are two rear suspensions; the U.S. market spinoffs will receive the more upscale multilink axle reserved for more powerful and all-wheel-drive models. The A-class suspension also offers three variations: normal, a lower sport version, and a setup with adjustable dampers. Wheel sizes range from 16 to 19 inches in diameter.
The gasoline-powered engine portfolio will consist of a 1.3-liter turbo four and a 2.0-liter turbo four, both available in several power levels; there is also a 1.5-liter turbo-diesel. The diesel and the smaller gasoline engine were co-developed with Renault, while the larger gasoline engine belongs to Mercedes’ new four- and six-cylinder engine family. There are a six-speed manual and two different seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmissions.
The U.S. market will only get the powerful 2.0-liter four, likely to be rated at 221 horsepower and mated exclusively to a dual-clutch automatic. Later, we will see an AMG version with close to 400 horsepower, likely to be called the A53, and there could be an A40 model with around 300 horsepower to split the difference. Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel drive will be optional on the A250 and standard on the AMG models.
Inside the A-class, the changes are even more sweeping. The dashboard features a free-standing panel with two screens; it looks a lot like those of the E- and S-class, but it is even more advanced. The user interface, which Daimler calls MBUX (short for Mercedes-Benz User Experience), is arguably the most advanced in the industry and certainly in its class. It comes with voice control that lets you go ahead and share your feelings (“I am cold”), with the idea being that the car will figure out what you are talking about. You can activate it by casually saying, “Hey, Mercedes.” And the center screen is now touch sensitive. There is a touchpad on the center console, too, and we especially like the multiple styles of the TFT screens.
All of this will eventually migrate to the C-, E-, and S-class lineups, but for the time being, the A-class features the most advanced system. The time of trickle-down electronics is over; today, everything is about being quick to market. Available safety and autonomous-driving systems are virtually on par with the S-class.
Going beyond electronics, the interior also offers three different types of seats, and the dashboard can be specified with real wood trim. The ambient-lighting system offers 64 colors and different modes with changing moods. We look forward to getting behind the wheel of the new A-class hatchback to glean insights about the models we’re destined to see in the United States. The first of those, the sedan version, should be unveiled within the next few months.