by Jonathan Yarkony
Mercedes-Benz sure is serious about having cars and crossovers in every conceivable niche. This decade saw a proliferation of options in the compact premium segment, but small cars like the Audi A3, BMW 2 Series, and Mercedes-Benz CLA have experienced a distinct downturn in sales over the past couple of years in the face of similarly sized crossovers. The A-Class Sedan is an important model globally, so it can't hurt to offer it in the US. The addition of a second option in the car category for Mercedes might not turn the tide in market trends, but it certainly won't hurt to have a more practical (and more affordable) car than the CLA welcoming new luxury shoppers to the brand. The CLA will remain available in its current form as the more sporting, sophisticated option until its replacement arrives next year as a 2020 model.
The A-Class Sedan coming this year is a significant leap forward from the CLA, especially the eye-catching interior jam-packed with technology. The first thing you'll notice getting into the interior is the vibrant, colorful lighting around the cabin, from the vents and dash to the doors and footwells. Not only is it bright and endearing, but the lights cycle through all the colors, gradually transitioning and bringing the ambiance of a nightclub or entertainment district right inside the car with you.
If you get the sense that this is a car targeted at a younger demographic, you'd be right, because the CLA has shown that a more affordable Mercedes appeals to a much younger audience. CLA buyers average eight years younger than the brand overall and in 2017 more than half of CLA buyers were new to the brand, so it's a new generation that Mercedes desperately wants to please and keep, and the A-Class should help them in that regard.
That younger audience is also the reason Mercedes went all-in on technology, introducing several firsts for the brand, mostly under the umbrella of the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) infotainment system. MBUX adds touchscreen functionality to the trackpad (a first for Mercedes), augmented reality for the route guidance, and clever, AI-powered natural-speech voice command much like Siri or Alexa.
The menus are spread across twin screens, 7 inches on base models, 10.25 inches on higher trims, one serving as a gauge cluster with a variety of information, entertainment and driving setting accessible via the steering wheel controls, and the rest of the functions in an intuitive operating system on the central dash-top screen. MBUX is a big win, loaded with functionality and redundant controls, and there's even an optional head-up display.
While loaded with technology and flashy design, luxury has not been overlooked, and the level of quality and choice of materials is also big improvement over the CLA, from the leatherette to the stitched dash and all the buttons and controls. Don't get me wrong, it's still a far cry from the real leather and genuine metal and wood and carbon fiber in the big Benz sedans, but this is satisfying for the $30K to $40K price range in which the A-Class competes.
Another aspect of luxury that Mercedes got very right with the A-Class is comfort levels. The seats are well contoured to be supportive but accommodating and kept us fresh during our day-long drive, and the rear seats even have room for a normal-sized adult with legs and a head, which could not be said of the CLA.
The trunk measures 14.8 cubic feet, which is respectable but nothing special – if you needed more you'd be looking at a crossover, not a small sedan. At least the rear seats split 40/20/40 so you can fold them for various long cargo duties. If you spring for the optional Hands-Free Access, the trunk also opens when you kick the air under the rear bumper.
And it's not just the seats and space that are comfortable in the A-Class; for a small car, the A 220 sedans we drove rode very nicely, and only the roughest cobblestone streets unsettled its composed and settled ride. We tested models with the lowered suspension, but the base setup is taller, and with smaller wheels and higher profile tires should be even more comfortable. At the top end, you can order adaptive suspension with variable damping to give a bit of flexibility between more comfort and more sporty handling. Although it's a tempting option, the lowered suspension that is part of the AMG Line package was just fine, delivering impressive comfort while still turning in sharply and staying flat in corners.
The responsiveness of the car's steering and powertrain will also prompt you to push at the car a little more aggressively. The 2.0L turbo-four isn't overwhelming in its power with 188 hp, but the full 221 lb-ft of torque is available from 1,250 to 4,000 rpm, so if you tap it into Sport mode in the Dynamic Select function and keep your foot down, it stays on a steady simmer and you can really have some fun.
The turbo-four is paired to a quick-shifting dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifters to do it yourself while you're hustling, but it's smooth and seamless when parking or maneuvering at low speeds. All-wheel drive is optional for those that want the added traction, but whether front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, the Mercedes A 220 hits 60 mph in 7.1 seconds.
At any speeds, there are also safety systems to help keep you out of trouble, from the standard rearview camera to help with parking, to the optional Intelligent Drive with semi-autonomous cruise control. It will hold a steady speed, maintain a gap in traffic, steer you to keep you centered in your lane, and even make lane changes when you signal.
The system is also responsible for a few safety functions like forward collision alert and braking, and even recognizing imminent rear-end collisions and braking to prevent a secondary collision with a vehicle ahead.
Whether using the adaptive cruise and back-up camera or trusting your own two eyes, the A-Class is an easy car to drive, mainly stemming from excellent outward visibility in all directions and light steering. If you're more interested in performance than easy commuting or cutting-edge tech, you won't have long to wait, as Mercedes has already shown the new 306-hp Mercedes-AMG A35 in hatchback form, with a sedan in the works and likely to arrive in the US in 2020, and a CLA 45 AMG replacement rumored to be packing 400 hp and a new upgraded name.
The CLA was already a strong entry in the luxury compact car segment, trailing only the Audi A3 these past three years. The 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class is slightly more practical than the CLA (and about the same as the A3), with better interior materials, flagship levels of technology, and well balanced driving manners. With the A220 set to come in at a lower price point than the CLA, it is a relative bargain and shoots straight to the top of the class for small luxury cars.