First Drive: 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class

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SPLIT, Croatia – Whether it’s trying to reason with a five-year-old demanding chocolate chip pancakes for dinner, or trying to understand why a luxury automaker like Mercedes-Benz insists on pushing its lineup downmarket into more, shall we say, “realistic” price points.

The main issue with this niche is, it’s difficult to see the value in these cars. Where a base B or CLA start just above the $35,000 mark, many lesser-priced compact cars match these two in terms of refinement, and handily outdo them as far as standard equipment goes. Seriously, have you been inside a loaded Honda Civic or Mazda3 these days, let alone a Volkswagen GTI?

It’s tough to make a case for cars like the B and CLA, but the A is a different breed of “entry level” Benz. It’s been around in Europe for more than 20 years, but now the A-Class is finally, officially, coming to Canada. It seems as though Mercedes has learned a lesson or three from the B, CLA and GLA, because the A is legitimately worthy of the badge.

When it hits Canadian dealers this November as a 2019 model, the A-Class will be available in one flavour – the A 250, powered by a slightly evolved version of Mercedes’ familiar 2.0-litre turbo-four. Other markets get the choice of an A 180 with a four-cylinder turbodiesel, or an A 200 with a 153-horsepower, 1.3L turbo-four, on top of the A 250.

So, we’re a little short-changed in terms of choice. This isn’t a first for Mercedes, considering the otherwise lovely C-Class wagon can be had with just one powertrain. But that’s OK, because the A 250 makes a healthy 221 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s a punchy little engine, with more than enough juice. Wring it out and, working with the standard seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, it hardly breaks a sweat. No, it doesn’t feel as quick and percise as a Golf GTI, and if you nail the throttle hard enough, a bit of torque steer gets through and wiggles the wheel a touch, but the A 250 is a snappy little bugger nonetheless.

It drives like a Benz should, too. Fitted with the upsized 19-inch wheels, the A 250 can get a little jittery over rough patches and you might notice some extra whistling around the sunroof, but it’s otherwise fairly quiet and it soaks up bumps quite well. Throw it a set of twisty roads, and while there are more fun cars out there for the price, the A 250 takes a corner quite well. Base A 250s will be front-wheel-drive, while four-wheel traction will be optional.

The other sticking point with the B, CLA and GLA are their cabins. Very little of that applies to the A-Class. It’s not flawless – there’s some hard plastic in a few places, and the sun visors and steering column stalks feel chintzy. But in the bits that do matter are soft to the touch, the knurled switchgear on the steering wheel and climate controls add character, and the seats are supportive. The A-Class is roomy; headroom is plentiful all around, but tall front occupants might compromise rear-seat legroom. The A can swallow 370 litres of cargo behind the rear seats. It doesn’t have the supple leather of an S-Class, or the classy open-pore wood as pricier Benzes, but the A’s cabin is miles ahead of its entry-level siblings. Fair warning: Don’t expect a standard heated steering wheel – it’ll be optional. Come on, Mercedes. A heated wheel is standard in a $20,000 Kia Rio.

What is lifted straight out of pricier Benzes is the pair of crisp digital displays spanning most of the dashboard. Two seven-inch screens will come standard, but you’ll have the ability to upsize them to 10 inches. This is the basis for MBUX – that’s M-B-U-X, not em-bucks – the automaker’s new infotainment system. Not unlike Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, you can configure the all-digital gauge cluster to display a ridiculous amount of information, from almost nothing at all to full or partial maps, trip information, fuel consumption data, etc. You can essentially make it as clean and simple, or as cluttered and complicated, as your heart desires.

The central screen is more traditional in its operation, handling climate control – don’t worry, there’s a second set of hard buttons below – along with GPS navigation inputs, vehicle settings, etc. It’s controlled via touchscreen – finally – or a touchpad on the centre console. It’s intimidating at first, but if you’ve spent any time with a smartphone, you will get the hang of it. One rather neat aspect of the navigation system is the “augmented reality” component. Basically, it uses a camera on the A’s nose to project an image of the road ahead onto the central screen. Here’s where it gets interesting – as you approach a turn with route guidance active, it overlays arrows, showing you exactly where to turn. This feature will be optional.

Best of all, MBUX will be standard. No analog gauges for base cars. No COMAND system for base cars. No forcing you pony up extra cash for a higher trim just to get the good infotainment. This almost makes up for the lack of a standard heated steering wheel. A sharp and equally customizable heads-up display, that admittedly doesn’t take too kindly to polarized sunglasses, will be available as a special order option.

MBUX also includes a new voice command system, activated just by saying, “Hey, Mercedes.” If you can accept the somewhat creepy fact that it’s always listening to you, it’s actually one of the more natural voice command systems out there, in that you don’t have to speak to it like a robot to make it function properly. It lets you handle most of the car’s functions hands-free, such as phone calls, climate control, setting navigation destinations, and whatnot. It even tells a joke or two, and learns certain habits. So, if you call your parents in the car every day or drive to the gym often, it’ll remember the time of day and suggest you do those things. That said, the results can be spotty and phrasing certain commands a certain way will trip it up.

Naturally, the A-Class is chock-a-block full of active safety features. Come on, did you expect anything else from a Benz in 2018? Adaptive LED headlights, blind-spot monitoring, a 360-degree camera … you get the idea. Certain features, like an overzealous lane-keep assist system, won’t be available in Canada. Other features, like Mercedes’ semi-autonomous Distronic cruise control and traffic sign recognition, won’t be available right away at launch. And other features, like LED headlights, will be standard. Yup, no halogens. Yup, Mercedes has smartened up.

The 2019 A-Class won’t be everyone’s cup of tea when it goes on sale. There are basically two ways to approach the A-Class  – on one hand, it’s very much a gateway into the brand, and equipped the right ways, it carries appeal for those inseparable with their smartphones. Plus, with the 2019 model year being the last (in North America, at least) for the B, Mercedes needs a hatchback.

On the other hand, not all of the A’s impressive tech will be standard for the estimated $35,000 base price. Mercedes is still working out the final details and packages for Canadian-spec cars, but it’s clear they’ve learned a few lessons – having LED headlights and MBUX standard is definitely a step in the right direction, but there’s room for improvement, as certain features that should be standard, aren’t. This one’s up to you to decide; if all you want is a “nice” small car and AWD or next-level tech doesn’t matter, you’ll probably be happier with a loaded GTI. Hell, a loaded Civic, Mazda3 or Golf will probably fit the bill, even though they’re a touch less powerful.

But really, the only way to fully appreciate the 2019 A-Class is to go all-out with the options. You’ll have to wait until November to figure out for sure whether or not it’s truly worth it, but at least now, there’s no shame in owning “just” an A-Class – even a base one. This is an entry-level Benz finally worthy of the three-pointed star on the trunk. And grille. And wheels. And steering wheel.

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