Cape Town – Second chances - some prevail and others fail hopelessly. Mercedes-Benz, the world’s second largest luxury automaker, has given its smallest car, the A-Class, a midlife rejuvenation.
The A-Class was radically redesigned in 2012 when the third-generation was pitted against the Volkswagen’s Golf, Audi’s A3 and BMW’s 1-Series.
In 2016, Mercedes attempts to iron out some issues its popular hatchback suffers from - it’s no secret that the ride on the pre-facelift car was like driving on pointy boulders.
Image gallery: Mercedes-Benz A-Class
In its haste to market a vehicle aimed at a younger audience, the automaker, known for its pillow-soft ride quality, failed to give its A-Class a comfortable suspension set-up.
Has Mercedes-Benz fixed the problem?
That's what I spent an entire day trying to find out behind the wheel of the facelifted A-Class recently launched in Cape Town.
Mercedes offered its full range of A-Class units, comprising three petrol and two diesel derivatives.
The petrol duo I drove around the smooth (strategically-planned) roads of Philadelphia, Malmesbury and Durbanville was the A200 (115kW/250Nm) and the A250 Sport (160kW/350Nm).
Initial driving impressions are good; the ride is noticeably smooth and supple. The A250 in particular felt rapid enough to keep up with the hot hatch brigade (the benchmark Golf GTI) - a 0-100km/h sprint time of 6.3 seconds is claimed. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard on the base A200.
Improved ride comfort
The Dynamic Select button, located on the lower section of the dash alters driving characteristics such as: engine, transmission, suspension, steering. It has four driving modes; Comfort, Sport, Eco and Individual.
The A220d and the A250 Sport models are equipped with dynamic select as standard. While on the A200 and A200d the driving modes system is optional.
Dynamic select gives access to broad range of settings in combination with the new suspension with adaptive damping (optional).
The diesel engines are largely impressive because of the oodles of low-end torque. Yes, they feel sluggish in comparison to the petrol siblings but for the majority of buyers, who won't drive them in Sport mode, the A200d (100kW/300Nm) and A220d (130kW/350Nm) are composed and comfortable along the test route.
In fact, the only drawback was the short gear ratios but this is normal for diesel engines, as they aren't particularly revvy units. The optional seven-speed dual-clutch 'box felt smooth in traffic and pairs well with the engine. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard on the base A200d.
Inside, what's new?
The interior receives minimal changes though the cabin certainly retains its premium look and feel. Mercedes has upgraded trim and finishes with new materials and hues to keep the A-Class looking more Justin Bieber than Steven Tyler.
The optional infotainment LCD screen is now 20cm, a tad larger than the one it replaces.
The infotaintment menu can be accessed via a rotary dial on in the middle of the cabin, it's intuitive and easy to navigate. With a myriad of options available, Mercedes has added beige/black leather seats as part of an Exclusive style package and a new seat design with red or green highlights in the Style-line package.
The slightly reworked front-end now looks more closely related to recent models from the three-pointed star stable. The new A-Class sports a new, more arrow-shaped front bumper, incorporating a 'diamond' grille and LED headlights (optional extra) are available for the first time. The redesigned tailights and dual tailpipe trim are integrated into rear bumper.
Let's be clear, Mercedes hasn't messed with the sheetmetal but it has added a new colour to its A-Class palette: 'elbaite green' (top Instagram), which stems from the mineral.
Outside, the A-Class employs a new set of headlights both front and rear, with tweaks to the front and rear bumper for a more streamlined motif.
All in all, not a drastic change from the outgoing model. I don't particularly like the A-Class shape, I think it lacks balance in its design and comes across as being 'squashed', especially when viewed in profile or from the rear.
The halo model in the range has also received improvements. Power is up by 20kw, yes, you read that correctly, for a total of 280kW@6000 r/min from the world’s most powerful series production engine. Peak torque is 475Nm/2250 - 5000 r/min.
What is it like to drive?
The A45 AMG plays in the realm of the superhatch (Audi RS3, Ford Focus RS and Honda Civic Type R). I was fortunate to put it through its paces around the Killarney race track. Seated in the snug racing seats, it’s immediately apparent that the engine's power dominates the driving experience like a 'Zuma Must Fall' billboard. It's in your face.
The A45 felt rapid and loud around the circuit and its straight-line pace is exceptional. In fact, Mercedes engineers shaved 0.4 seconds off its claimed 0-100km/h sprint time for an eye-watering 4.2 seconds.
The large, leather and alcantara-clad steering wheel, delivers decent feedback via the electrically-assisted powered steering. It certainly gave me more feedback than Audi's new RS3, which I drove in January 2016.
The down changes on the dual clutch tranmission 'box lacked immediacy and I found tugging the paddles in quick succession without any luck. Perhaps on the track the gearbox's drawbacks came to the fore.
Its grip is fantastic, thanks to its 4-Matic four wheel drive system (like the RS3 and RS). It has a superb amount of traction and understeer was kept at bay like a Sonny Bill Williams hand off.
Is it better?
Mercedes-Benz SA says the average age of its A-Class buyers is 37-years-old, an important injection of youth into the brand.
With the facelifted model, Merc has addressed the shortcoming of the previous model (harsh ride, dated cabin etc) and offers buyers who are looking to downsize, a great option in the luxury hatch segment.
The refreshed line-up offers good comfort levels, with an array of options to suit buyer while pricing has remained competitive, starting from less than R400 000 for the entry-level A200.
The A45 AMG has it flaws but its road presence, courtesy of that outrageous wing, will certainly win a legion of fans. It certainly feels special each time you step inside.
The A-Class faces stiff competition from perennial favorite, the Volkswagen Golf, while the Audi A3 and BMW's recently-refreshed 1 Series are determined to grab their share of the local luxury hatch market. All three are worthy options, depending on what type of experience you're looking for.
A200 - R389 200
A200d - R419 500
A220d - R460 100
A250 Sport - R491 500
AMG A45 AMG - R683 600
2016: A bumper year for Merc
Mzansi be prepared for an onslaught of Stuttgart models in 2016, with no less than nine new models being launched locally:
• C-Class Coupe (April/ May)
• SL ( April)
• SLC (previously SLK) (April)
• E-Class (May)
• GLS (May)
• S-Class cabriolet (June)
• GLC Coupe (September)
Two special models
Smart ForTwo and ForFour – Mercedes-Benz SA’s co-CEO and MBSA Cars executive director, Florian Seidler, told Wheels24 that Mercedes-Benz will introduce two new Smart cars in 2016. The ForFour will compete with Volkswagen's ubiquitous Polo and pricing should in the region of R180 000.
Merc’s bakkie confirmed for 2017 – Mercedes-Benz South Africa’s director of marketing Selwyn Govender confirmed to Wheels24 that the firm’s foray into the bakkie market will happen in 2017. Based on the upcoming Nissan NP300, it will be engineered and designed by Daimler.