Mercedes-Benz's duo of compact hatchbacks has been revised for 2008. We drive the new A-Class and B-Class.
Regarded as the small but more practical Mercs, the A- and B-Class, while not selling up a storm, have been quietly inching along since their market introductions in 2005 and 2006.
In all, since the first generation A-Class was first offered here in 2000, 22 000 units have been sold, along with 3 000 B-Class units since 2006.
With the revision, Classic, Elegance and Avantgarde trim packages remain. Mechanically, the cars' have not been changed really and most facelift enhancements are evident on the technical side or within the cabin. However, the four-cylinder turbodiesel unit in the B-Class has been tweaked and is now said to be up to seven per cent more efficient than before.
Merc's biggest news is its new Active Parking Assist, a R4 000 option, but more on that later.
The A-Classis longer by 45 mm than the car it replaces, although its wheelbase remains unchanged. Exterior changes include a front end with three, rather than four, slats across the grille, bigger headlamps, redesigned tail lamps, a new aerial and more prominent side mirrors.
B-Class's exterior is only slightly altered. It's 3 mm longer, although mostly to accommodate asquarer front end designed to be more pedestrian-friendly in the event of a collision.
The bigger hatch of the two also has new front bumpers with mesh inserts, a front end with three slats, bigger colour-coded side mirrors and coordinated door handles and side skirts.
Standard safety upped
New standard features for both A- and B-Class include adaptive brake lights, a crash responsive emergency light system, automatic child seat recognition in the front passenger seat, a new audio system with a six-disc CD changer, Bluetooth functionality and an auxiliary connection in the cubby.
The crash responsive light system activates the hazards and interior lights when the airbags deploy, a definite bonus if you are, for instance, involved in a collision on a dark road. Other road users can see you and you would be able to make your way out of the cabin without having to fumble in darkness. If you're unable to help yourself, it should also be able to assist emergency medical crews in assisting you.
The adaptive brake lights are activated under emergency braking at speeds over 50 km/h. The lights flash at a high frequency to warn drivers in following cars.
Optional features on both cars include, for the first time on A- and B-Class, Comand with Linguatronic voice controls and a 4Gb hard drive (R21 000), a "light and sound" light package that provides auto dimming interior lights, separate lighting controls for the driver and passengers, footwell lighting and ambient and automatic lighting sensors (R4 500).
Furthermore,upgraded ESP with hill start assist, a panoramic sunroof with a two-part sunblind and a three-in-one media interface that allows for iPod, USB and auxiliary jack inputs can also be specified.
The options list on B-Class extends to bi-xenon headlamps and sport package costing R10 000 that adds a lowered sports suspension and a choice of different alloy wheels.
Automatic Parking Assistant
The Automatic Parking Assist mentioned earlier replaces Parktronic park distance control. Operating below 30 km/h, the system uses ultrasonic sensors to recognise a parking space big enough to accommodate the car before alerting the driver with a small P in the driver information panel.
Unlike the Volkswagen system used in the Tiguan, the Merc device is automatically activated at speeds below 30 km/h, so it is not required to punch any buttons to get the system working.
Once the system has identified a bay (it has to be about 1.3 m bigger than the car), all that is required if acceptance of the bay by using keys on the steering wheel, slipping the car into reverse, relinquishing control of the steering wheel, and allowing the car to coast into the bay before applying brakes.
Should more manoeuvring be required, this will be prompted by the car. Touching the steering wheel deactivates the system.
All cars driven on the launch were fitted with optional Autotronic continuously variable transmission that provides quiet seamless shifts without that characteristic CVT drone.
Considering the cars are largely unchanged beneath the metal, both the A200 and B170 driven were neat handlers with more than enough power to outgun the roads lining the hilly KZN coastline.
A170- R212 000
A200 - R252 000
A180 CDI - R242 000
B 170 - R253 000
B 200 Turbo - R303 000
B200 CDI - R308 000
Mercedes-Benz' MobiloDrive 120 maintenance contract is standard.