REVIEW | Why the Mercedes-Benz A200 is still an object of aspiration

13 December 2023 - 08:45
By Brenwin Naidu
Pointy front end bears the famed star proudly.
Image: Supplied Pointy front end bears the famed star proudly.

Premium brands are not pushing the volumes they once enjoyed in Mzansi. Looking back at the new car sales figures for November 2013, German automaker Mercedes-Benz registered 2,794 units locally.

The bulk of that figure was accounted for by the C-Class, with 1,080 examples recorded. In the same month, BMW sold 1,985 vehicles and its top seller was the 3-Series, with 662 copies.

Audi managed 1,502 units and its sales leader had been the A4, tallying 492 cars. In 2023 the Teutonic titans are rather far from top five, or even top 10 status. Mercedes-Benz reported a figure of 648 units for its passenger cars arm in November.

A great deal has changed. The brands in question might counter that while their volumes are smaller, they are more profitable overall. We have seen executives dance around further questions along this line, but at the end of it all, the numbers paint a clear picture.

Of course, there are many reasons why premium firms took a sustained dive. We are not in prosperous, or even, stable times. No need to remind you of the effects driven by issues such as load-shedding, or the pounding our economy suffered as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rear design is perhaps its least flattering angle.
Image: Supplied Rear design is perhaps its least flattering angle.

However, other market forces have upset premium German brands' hegemony. That includes the emergence of competent Chinese products, some of which offer a near-premium experience, laden with standard equipment, for an unbelievable price. Look at the Chery Tiggo 8 Pro Max for instance, with its diamond-quilted leather and standard semi-autonomous driving features — all for R669,900. Sure, the long-term durability of these offerings are yet to be fully proven in our market. But at such pricing, it is hard not to be slightly intrigued.

For that money you could not get into the cheapest BMW or Mercedes-Benz. The 1-Series starts at R691,072 while the A-Class hatchback, the subject of our road test here, has an entry-level sticker of R796,559. I know it is plausible the type of buyer seeking a Mercedes-Benz A-Class in 2023 is unlikely to have a Chinese alternative anywhere near their periphery while shopping. We are talking about brand-conscious buyers, likely establishing themselves in professional arenas and wanting a car that reflects their upward trend.

Earlier this year Mercedes-Benz Financial Services invited us to an event at which it outlined packages on its Agility scheme. One of the more modest prospects we tested that day was the A200d sedan, advertised for R15,899 per month, with a 10% deposit, 48-month term, interest rate of 12.75% and guaranteed future value of just under 60% of the retail price, R1,076,795.

Last week, Mercedes-Benz availed its A200 hatchback in AMG Line trim for us to test. The model costs R825,559 before options, which would work out to a little over R20,000 if you financed it without a balloon payment, over 54-months, at the prime interest rate plus 2%. Your Mercedes-Benz dealership would have an alternative Agility solution to present.

The W177 A-Class has been with us for some time, released globally in 2018 and treated to customary refreshes during its life cycle. That is a product launch I recall attending, in Split, Croatia, with Ignition TV colleague Ziphorah Masethe as my driving partner.

Though its rear design seemed to echo that of a certain Korean hatchback, the A-Class was undeniably striking at first sight. Subtle tweaks have kept it fresh. Its pointy frontal aesthetic, uncluttered side profile framed by a defined pleat and squat, compact profile overall, makes for a car that appears rather dynamic. One could go as far as saying it is the style leader of the pack. Where the 1-Series is all enlarged kidney grilles and the Audi A3 comes across exaggerated, like the Lamborghini you ordered from, the A-Class is a crisp sophisticate.

Modern, progressive cabin with low-slung driving position.
Image: Supplied Modern, progressive cabin with low-slung driving position.

Inside, a sense of glamour is brought by illuminated strips, sculpted surfaces and shiny embellishments giving off a high-end veneer. There are aspects hinting to the idea that material quality is surface level, however. On the road, that sense of skin-deep refinement also asserts itself. First thing you notice on starting A200 is the gruffness with which its 1.3-litre, turbocharged-petrol unit comes to life.

This is the motor developed in partnership with the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance. You will find it in products like the Renault Captur and Nissan Qashqai. I did not recall it feeling so rough around the edges in Japanese crossover. But in the application of the A200, it does not deliver the smooth, unruffled character expected of a vehicle with the three-pointed star.

Output from this four-cylinder is 120kW/270Nm. But you find yourself applying the throttle gingerly, gradually, as having a heavier foot amplifies the coarseness nature of the unit. The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic works well. My best fuel consumption was 5.9l/100km. Ride quality is not dissimilar to how that engine is described. Extra polish is needed to take it to the level of comfort offered by its direct rivals.

Even when outfitted with M Sport or S-Line trims, the BMW and Audi manage superior pliancy to the gritty, firm setup of the A-Class. I also felt the nose was too low for Johannesburg, forcing me to negotiate speed bumps with the prudence of a lowered Golf Mk1 driver.

Which provides a decent segue into pinning down the biggest appeal of the A-Class: its swagger. Its youthful, premium image makes it a pretty desirable mobile accessory. People notice and admire the compact Benz, perhaps even with a tinge of envy.

Say what you will about the car from an objective sense, but from behind the wheel, the A-Class truly does make you feel like one of the cool kids. And clearly they have no qualms paying for the privilege. If you can, get the diesel.