Building A-Class act
Inwood’s at his best when exercising his options. Here’s proof
- Price as tested: $66,640
- This month: 1056km @ 7.8L/100km
Is there a more intoxicating feeling than spending someone else’s money? It’s a sensation that I imagine only bank robbers and slippery-suited hedge fund managers must experience on a regular basis, but a few months ago, I was lucky enough to taste its heady heights.
It all happened so fast. One minute I was talking to the nice PR man from Mercedes about a possible long-term A-Class, then the next I was shouting “YES!” or muttering “Hmmm, no, pass” as he read through the options list of what was to become ‘my’ A250 4Matic.
The temptation to get carried away was strong, though with the level head of a man who agonises over whether 50c for an extra shot of coffee really is worth it, I tried to spec the car as if I was ordering it for myself. Which kind of spoiled my ‘make it rain’ fantasy a little.
So, what have I ended up with? A cracking-looking hatchback, clearly. While I’m one of the few that thinks the old A-Class actually looked sharper (I miss the confident swage line that kicked up into the rear door. Without it, this new shape looks a little amorphous), there’s no denying that 1NB9EC packs a visual punch. Helping the cause is its Jupiter Red (non-metallic) paint which, happily, comes as standard, and larger 19-inch multi-spoke AMG alloys that add $1390 to the base $55,500 sticker price.
A trick of Merc’s product planning strategy means you can’t option the larger alloys (18s are standard) without also ticking the box for the AMG Exclusive Package for $3190. Crucially, this adds adaptive dampers, which is a must as A250 4Matics run on AMG Line suspension that’s 15mm lower. It also brings other goodies like two-tone leather upholstery (I went all out with the red inserts), plus ambient lighting with 64 colours to choose from, and dual-zone climate control with rear vents.
Slipping inside brings further opportunity to spend up big. As an audiophile, I couldn’t pass up the Communication Package, which for $2490 adds an excellent 12-speaker, 590W Burmester sound system. The fact this pack bundles in a clear and easy-to-read head-up display makes it feel like money well spent. It adds a further sprinkle of luxury to what is a class-leading cabin.
Depending on the intensity and colour of the ambient lighting, it can feel a little ’80s disco in there, especially at night, but dial back the intensity and there’s no escaping the feel-good factor the cabin delivers. The twin 10.25-inch screens are a highlight, and I’m finding the functionality of ‘Hey Mercedes’ and the twin-touchpads on the steering wheel genuinely useful.
My only real interior gripes are the heavy use of piano black on the centre console, which attracts dust and finger prints (you can’t option this out, sadly), and some of the plastics used on the lower doors and the indicator stalks. Normally this wouldn’t be a deal breaker, but as the right stalk acts as your gear selector, you interact with it frequently and its cheap-feeling plastic is at odds with the rest of the cabin.
For just $990 you can also add a panoramic sunroof, so I did, and this is part of the wider Vision Package which bundles multi-beam LED headlights with adaptive high-beam assist and a sensational 360° overhead camera.
The Seat Comfort Package for $1290 gives me fully electric and heated front seats with memory function. And with a view to testing the calibration of Merc’s latest active safety gear, the final option I ticked was the Driver Assistance Package. For $1790 this brings the same semi-autonomous capabilities you get in an S-Class.
So without even trying I’d added $11,140 to the price of ‘my’ A-Class. Sounds quite a lot, when you consider it in percentage terms (20 percent of the purchase price). Do I have any regrets? Not really. My only question mark surrounds the 19-inch alloys, which are a pain to keep clean and look dreadful when dirty. But that’s it. The rest of the package looks and feels special and, as we know from COTY, an A250 4Matic is an absolute hoot when the road gets twisty. More on that next month.
Inwood comes to terms with MBUX, but what’s the odd noise?
Be honest here – how often do you use voice recognition software? Rarely, would be my guess, for beyond asking Siri to explain the meaning of life and how to dispose of a dead body (just kidding, though I’m sure I’m now on some kind of ASIO watch list), I’ve found that voice recognition tends to fall into the same box as tech like Google Glass and virtual reality headsets: clever, but also kind of useless.
Happily, this isn’t the case with the A250. Armed with Merc’s ‘Mercedes-Benz User Experience’ infotainment software (dubbed MBUX), I find myself talking to the A250 so regularly that “Hey Mercedes!” is now firmly entrenched in my lexicon.
It handles all of the regular commands (“Take me home”, “Call the wife”, “How do you dispose of a…”) with ease, though what elevates it beyond Siri or Alexa is its ability to control the car’s functions. “Close the sunroof blind”, “I’m cold/hot”, and “turn on the heated seats”, are commands I use more than I expected.
That’s not to say it’s all been smooth sailing, mind. The hype that “MBUX can accept natural language so you can ask it anything!” is only partly true, and it has an annoying habit of cutting me off mid-command to say “I’m sorry, how may I help you?” Still, the system has ‘learning software’ so these foibles might improve with time (Merc suggests it takes six weeks for it to recognise habits and patterns), and anyway, voice recognition is just one facet of MBUX. The twin, highly configurable 10.25-inch touchscreens are a masterstroke thanks to easy-to-navigate menus, glossy high-resolution graphics and snappy response times. And they don’t cast reflections into the cabin or act like giant mirrors.
What can be a little daunting is how configurable the system is. In fact, the A250’s tech can become so all-consuming that it’s easy to overlook how the car actually drives. But before I could do much of that this month, something started to squeak and chirp intermittently from the engine bay. Sometimes it even rattled a little, though it wasn’t until a fellow Wheels staffer asked, “Is your A-Class a diesel?”, that I thought I should probably get it checked. So back to Benz went the A250 for a quick look over. I’ll report the findings next issue.
Back from the dealer and straight into the fray, goes our A250
- This month: 1101km @ 8.9L/100km
You’ll remember I finished last month’s report with something of a mini cliffhanger as my A250 was whisked back to Mercedes to investigate a curious sound emanating intermittently from the engine bay. As is the way with these things – “Mate, I swear it was making the sound two minutes ago!” – it took some investigating to get to the bottom of it.
The likely cause, it was determined, was a squeaky belt or similar, so the Mercedes tech team dutifully removed and checked all of the ancillaries. Success! With everything replaced, oiled and tightened, the A250 is now back in my care and performing faultlessly.
Good thing too, for the past month has been a mishmash of the drudgeries of everyday life – choking city traffic, airport car parks, rabbit-warren inner-city laneways, speed-bump-riddled backstreets, and a stint as a five-up minicab as I ferried inebriated friends about as designated driver.
Mundane duties, but important. How the A250 performs here is considerably more relevant for potential buyers than how it dissects a winding mountain round, regardless of its sporting pretensions and ability. The upshot? A solid pass. Where the old A-Class was let down by sub-par packaging headlined by a compromised rear seat and small boot, this generation is notably better. It’s still not commodious in the back – a Golf feels roomier and we had to scooch the front seats forward for some much-needed kneeroom – but three adults can sit shoulder-to-shoulder for short journeys.
No complaints about the ride, either, which was another Achilles heel of the previous-gen car. Experience in other A-Class variants suggests adaptive dampers are a vital option, and fitted as they are to this car (as part of the $3190 AMG Exclusive Package), the A250’s ride still errs on the firm side of the wafty/sporty spectrum but never feels crashy or terse. Speed humps require a degree of caution, however, as it’s surprisingly easy to catch the nose should your entry speed be a tad high.
The A250 is a wieldy and impressive city car. The steering is light and accurate (in Comfort mode), and the handling sharp and responsive, making it nicely manoeuvrable in tight spots. The plethora of assistance systems and excellent high-resolution cameras help here too, and in stop-start traffic, Merc’s adaptive cruise control is one of the best on sale. Impressive, too, that this functionality in a $60K hatchback is the same as that fitted to a $400K S-Class.
Also not to be discounted is the A250’s feel-good factor. For while you could argue that a Golf, or even a Mazda 3 like Trent’s long-termer, tick many of the same boxes as the Benz for considerably less, the A250’s kicker is its ability to quash this ‘diminishing returns’ argument by feeling a step above in the premium stakes.
Update 4: Hilling it
Early bird catches the worm given ‘Arthur’ chance
This month: 1020km @ 8.7L/100km
Car of the Year, almost a year ago to the day. Stretching before me is the dirt section at Ford’s You Yangs proving ground and what’s about to follow is the biggest surprise of the event: how Merc’s box-fresh A250 4Matic performs when it gets its wheels dirty.
It’s been well reported how the A-Class range went at Wheels’ COTY; a story of disappointment when it came to the then entry-level A200, and one of quick-witted fun and rorty performance in the A250. In fact, the A250’s chuckability and balance (especially on a loose surface) were enough for me to vote for the A-Class to go through to round two of COTY testing. It didn’t make it, but still, that memory has lingered…
Until now, my A250 has been confined to city duties but with a Sunday morning miraculously free, the wife and I set off for a good ol’-fashioned drive. Arthurs Seat, south of Melbourne, is one of those tourist roads that’s usually a disaster for keen drivers. Slow-moving tourists, puffing cyclists and the sheer volume of traffic make it a place to avoid. Be at the bottom before 8am, however, and its surfeit of tight hairpins, constant-radius corners and decent surface make it one of the best driving roads in Victoria. Ideal for an all-wheel-drive hatch with 165kW/350Nm...
Selecting the right driving mode is crucial to extracting the best from the A250. In Comfort, the steering’s too light and the engine and gearbox response too sluggish to be properly engaging. Sport and Sport+ offer ascending levels of aggression, but the best results come from Individual mode. Here you can set the engine, gearbox and steering into Sport+ but keep the adaptive suspension in Comfort for greater compliance and dial the ESP mapping to Sport to feel the car move around a little.
Do that and the A250 delivers a fair impression of a fully fledged hot hatch. Performance from the clean-revving 2.0-litre four is punchy, if not blistering (0-100km/h is marginally quicker than a Golf GTI at 6.2sec), and the steering is meaty and direct. There’s talent to the chassis, too. A little bit of push on the way in; the suggestion of yaw if you give a big lift or trail the brakes too heavily.
It’s fun, though just how much fun will be thrown into sharper context next month when this red A250 will be replaced by the harder-charging and AMG-fettled A35. Law of diminishing returns? Tune in next month to find out.
Lost for words
After months of singing MBUX’s praises, issues are starting to appear around its much-lauded “Hey Mercedes” voice control system. Commands have been ignored, cut off halfway through, or simply failed to compute. The result? I’m using “Hey Mercedes” less, and the central and steering-wheel mounted touch pads more and more.
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