SA's 2019 Car of the Year: What's it like to drive?

Denis Droppa road tests the Mercedes-Benz A-Class which got the nod from the SA Guild of Motoring Journalists

05 April 2019 - 11:30 By Denis Droppa
The new Mercedes-Benz A-Class was voted SA's 2019 Car of the Year on Thursday night.
The new Mercedes-Benz A-Class was voted SA's 2019 Car of the Year on Thursday night.
Image: Denis Droppa

The Mercedes-Benz A-Class has scooped South Africa’s 2019 Car of the Year title, as voted for by the Guild of Motoring Journalists (SAGMJ).

It is only the second Mercedes victory in the 34-year history of the competition, after the Mercedes 260 won it in 1987.

The winner was announced at a Johannesburg gala event on Thursday night after being selected from 11 other finalists in the AutoTrader-sponsored competition.

We recently road-tested the Mercedes A200 and found that the new fourth-generation premium compact hatch ticks all the boxes by growing in size and offering better practicality, but it’s the Star Trek factor that is likely to hook customers.

The technology inside brings science fiction to life with its high-tech toys and artificial intelligence, which at times makes you feel you’re not merely driving a car, but piloting an intergalactic vessel.

At the heart of this tech is the new MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) multimedia system, which the company calls “a revolution of the user experience in the car”. A digital instrument panel replaces a traditional analogue cowl and the infotainment is housed in a touchscreen interface that comes with a 17.8cm screen as standard or a widescreen 26.7cm display as an extra-cost option.

It’s those giant digital displays that give this car its spaceship-type vibe, along with turbine-style metallic air vents that complete a smart and high-tech look. In terms of fit and finish, it’s like a scaled-down S-Class, and Mercedes’s smallest car really lays on a premium feel.

The jury’s out on how user-friendly MBUX really is, however. There are several ways to interact with it, including the  touchscreen, voice control, a laptop-type touch pad between the seats, Blackberry-style touch-control buttons on the steering wheel and, yes, even some real buttons.

Under that sleek roofline is an enlarged cabin and boot.
Under that sleek roofline is an enlarged cabin and boot.
Image: Denis Droppa

While it does all become easier to use with practice, it’s a very busy and fiddly cockpit that could lead to driving distraction. If you prefer minimalism, an Audi A3 makes a better bet.

In a bid to simplify things, MBUX uses Mercedes’s most intelligent voice control to date, one that recognises natural spoken language. By using the phrase “Hey Mercedes”, you summon an on-board AI with a friendly female voice and ask it (her) to do stuff such as adjust the air-conditioning, change a radio station or navigate to an address.

My on-board pal delivered mixed results, sometimes finding addresses and radio stations right away and at other times failing to discern what I’d repeatedly uttered. She clearly had a glitch, as she was unable to adjust the cabin temperature when I said I was hot or cold. Also, there was no cheery banter as with Siri or OK Google; she ignored my pressing questions about the meaning of life, or what she thought of BMWs.

MBUX’s artificial intelligence is also said to learn the driver’s preferences and habits; for instance, it can remember your favourite songs and the way to work. Based on your habits, it also claims to detect the correct radio stations and display them as favourites. It seems our week-long test wasn’t enough to form any habits, though.

All the high-tech is packaged inside a roomier interior in which four or five adults can fit quite comfortably, thanks to the new A-Class growing a notable 120mm in length to 4,299mm. The boot has also expanded by 29l to a useful 370l.

The cabin is all high-tech glamour, though the artificial intelligence gets mixed reviews.
The cabin is all high-tech glamour, though the artificial intelligence gets mixed reviews.
Image: Denis Droppa

The size increase hasn’t come at a weight penalty and it’s actually 20kg lighter, making for a car that scurries through the urban jungle with good agility. The longer wheelbase has smoothed out the previous generation’s rather jarring ride, and the new car hustles over bumps with more comfort. The rear axle is mounted on a subframe isolated from the body shell by rubber bushings so that fewer vibrations are transferred from the suspension to the body.

Our A200 test vehicle also had adjustable suspension firmness as an optional fitment, allowing the driver to set the ride-handling balance to set their mood.

The new A-Class is initially available as the A200 and the A250 Sport, respectively priced at R500,012 and R596,969, including a six-year/100,000km maintenance plan. Both cars feed the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch 7G-DCT automatic transmission, and there are steering-mounted gearshift paddles.

In 2019 the range will be expanded with the A180d turbodiesel and the high-performance A35 and A45 AMG.

The A200 on test here is powered by a revelation of a little 1.3l turbo petrol engine. Notions of an over-promising and under-delivering badge disappear when you boot the throttle and experience the car’s willing nature.

With outputs of 120kW and 250Nm, claimed performance is 0-100km/h sprint in a creditable 8.0 seconds and a 225km/h top speed. Not quite hot-hatch territory but it’s an enjoyably free-revving car with almost no turbo lag. It’s a refined little four-cylinder too, becoming a little vocal only when pressed into high-revving service.

WE LIKE

Driveability, technology, classy cabin, willing performance

WE DISLIKE 

Over-complicated controls, quite pricey

VERDICT

The future comes alive


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