Mercedes A-Class 2019 Car of the Year review

Breathtaking and frustrating in equal measure

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WHEN one of the hottest cars at COTY is also next of kin to one of the most ho-hum, there’s a worrying disconnect going on. Let’s shine the spotlight, then, on the fourth-generation Mercedes-Benz A-Class, and the fact that polar opposites seem to be a recurring theme in the series’ 21-year history.

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Visually similar to its ultra-successful predecessor, the pretty and ultra-aero (if a tad anodyne) W177 hatch smooths out the old rough edges and stretches the completely revamped ‘MFA 2’ modular transverse architecture to liberate much-needed rear-seat and boot space. Entry and egress improve. Vision is better. Packaging is no longer woefully tight beyond the front row. That’s progress.

Better still, the cheapo, pokey plastics of yore have been banished for classier finishes, underscoring a cabin overhaul that ushers in what may be 2018’s greatest leap in dashboard design. The beautiful and functional ‘MBUX’ widescreen multimedia system contributes to the cabin looking and feeling a million euros inside.

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Digging in deeper, almost nothing carries over underneath, with the substantially safer, stronger, lighter and better-insulated MFA 2’s need to be future-proofed for electrification helping prompt the switch to a more compact (and cheaper) torsion-beam rear end in the lower-line petrol front-drivers, in place of the independent multi-link found on higher-grade and AWD versions.

Add a fresh array of four-cylinder turbo-petrol engines co-devised with Renault and, frustratingly, that’s where the A-Class’s schizophrenia becomes all too apparent.

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Representing the latter is the A200. Well-specified it undeniably is – with AEB, MBUX, DAB+ digital radio, wireless smartphone charging, CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility, and other cutting-edge tech – but the 120kW/250Nm 1.3 turbo/seven-speed dual-clutch combo is disappointingly coarse and laggy at lower revs. It’s the antithesis of the sweet 1.6-litre turbo it usurps.

Even worse is the always fidgety ride and noise intrusion assaulting the base A200’s occupants. We appreciate the fuel efficiency, quick steering, and impressive chassis poise, but Ford’s Focus Trend comprehensively outshines the Mercedes for performance, refinement, ride comfort and handling prowess. The A200 seems overpriced and undercooked.

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Let’s end on a high note, though, because the firecracker A250 4Matic is surely, already, one of the all-time hatch greats. With a 165kW/350Nm 2.0 turbo driving all four wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch, it is possessed of a lion’s heart and a mountain goat’s grip, backed up by the levels of refinement and comfort (via the standard IRS with adaptive dampers) synonymous with the marque’s traditional virtues.

Such rousing fun and all for under $50K, or just $2300 more than the A200. This thing is an absolute no-brainer for variant of the year.

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But consistency across the range is a COTY pillar, and that’s where the A-Class is dragged down. Would you want the underwhelming A200 or the hugely overachieving A250 4Matic? It’s no contest. The latter would have catapulted the baby Benz straight into the next round. Sadly the former means it’s going home early.

 

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Byron Mathioudakis
Journalist

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