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2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class Sedan: First Drive Review

The new 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class sedan is not a replacement for the CLA. It may be similarly sleek, sized and shaped, and although pricing hasn’t been announced, its starting price and equipment should be comparable. Its competitors will even be the same. Nope, the A-Class is instead an all-new model that serves as the new entry point to the Mercedes sedan line-up. The next-generation CLA and GLA crossover will eventually be based on it, but for now, the A220 will be sold alongside them as a stark reminder that better things are to come.

Indeed, the new A-Class is substantially better than the existing entry-level Benz choices, correcting their major flaws, adding loads of tech and achieving a cool sense of style that definitely doesn’t say "entry level." Never mind the CLA, you can get things in the A-Class that aren’t yet available in the bigger and pricier C-, E– or even S-Class models.

Goodbye COMAND, Hello MBUX

Specifically, that would be the new MBUX tech interface that debuts in the A-Class before eventually trickling throughout the Benz lineup. It replaces the current COMAND interface, but does share some common elements first seen on the E- and S-Class, including the ultra-wide dual screen display and touch-sensitive control pads on the steering wheel. From there, things diverge.

The touch-sensitive control pad on the center console is larger, flatter and covered in a leather-like surface that’s more conducive to fine inputs than the COMAND pad’s glossy black plastic finish. The COMAND knob is gone, but the control redundancy it provided has been replaced by touchscreen functionality for the right-side display (both screens are a standard 7 inches, but can be upgraded to 10.25 inches).

Like other touchscreens, it responds to sliding and pinching motions as on a smartphone — motions you can also make on the touchpad. The menu layout has been greatly improved as well, resulting in an altogether more user-friendly experience than the occasionally overwhelming and confusing final version of COMAND. It’s also highly customizable, especially the left-side instrument display that can be figured in a dizzying number of ways to show preferred information in one of three basic design aesthetics.

The final, fourth way to control MBUX is through enhanced voice commands that feature natural speech recognition. There’s no need to memorize specific commands and you don’t have to press an engagement button. Just say "Hey Mercedes," much as you would Amazon Alexa or Apple’s Siri, which is actually included as part of the standard Apple CarPlay. You can say "Hey Mercedes" to control a particular vehicle function ("change to Sirius channel 28") or summon information through the internet ("who won the Cowboys game last night?"), then immediately thereafter say "Hey Siri" to do something within CarPlay’s purview like select a podcast or playlist.

This may all sound rather overwhelming, but these multiple control methods allow you to choose your preferred way to accomplish tasks both simple and complicated.

Safety tech, too

Besides introducing infotainment technology, the A-Class also gains access to the latest versions of Mercedes’ advanced safety tech. Forward-collision warning and a driver inattention warning system are standard, but the Driver Assistance package adds a full-speed automatic emergency braking system, pedestrian detection, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic warning, and lane-keeping assist.

Also included is the latest version of Distronic adaptive cruise control that operates in stop-and-go traffic, essentially steers for you when on a divided highway (you must maintain a hand on the wheel), can make lane changes, and even reduces speed when the navigation system’s map data indicates a curve is ahead. Many of these systems are available on most cars nowadays, but few are as well executed.

It’s a legit luxury car

Elsewhere in the cabin, only a few surfaces and pieces of switchgear are of a notably lower quality than what you’d find in a C-Class, and the gap is smaller than it is in the CLA and GLA. The result is a suitably more premium look and feel. It’s also considerably more stylish, with 64-color ambient lighting choices setting the mood, the expansive MBUX screens seemingly sourced from the future, and the slickly moving rotary air vents being just as cool as they are in the swankiest G-Class. In total, your friends will be impressed and you won’t be reminded that you bought the cheapest Mercedes.

It’s still the smallest one, though, so don’t expect a palatial back seat. There’s an extra 2 inches of headroom compared to the CLA, which makes an appreciable difference, but legroom is tight when taller occupants are up front. For a compact car, though, it’s perfectly acceptable and better than the Audi A3.

Mercedes didn’t release a trunk volume number, but eye-balling it with luggage aboard, we’d guess there’s less than the CLA’s rather generous 13.1 cubic feet. We would wager, however, that it’s again better than the A3.

More responsive and refined

The biggest improvements over the CLA and GLA can be noticed behind the wheel. Although the A-Class still uses Mercedes’ 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission, it no longer takes an interminable amount of time to respond to inputs from the sharpened throttle. There’s no hesitation or jerkiness when starting from a stop, nor excessive delays when going from Reverse to Drive. In other words, drivers are less likely to notice the A-Class has something other than a regular automatic transmission (and be constantly frustrated by it).

Connected to that transmission is a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that produces 188 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque. That’s less than the CLA250 (208 hp, 258 lb-ft), but it’s not that big of a difference, the A220 is still a small car, and it wasn’t too long ago where those numbers would’ve represented a healthy amount in much larger luxury sedans. Most importantly, this torque-rich turbocharged engine feels strong and energetic, providing ample off-the-line thrust and easy passing ability. It even sounds pretty good, with a subtle bwap produced when upshifting during full-throttle acceleration.

Fuel economy data wasn’t released but given the lower power output and even more aerodynamic exterior (its drag co-efficient of 0.22 is better than anything else on sale), we would estimate an improvement over the CLA250’s fuel economy of 29 miles per gallon in combined driving for a front-wheel-drive A220. Opting for the all-wheel drive A220 4Matic would likely mean a 1- or 2-mpg reduction.

The rest of the driving experience is impressively grown up compared to the CLA, and ultimately feels more like a proper luxury car shrunk down to size. In this way, the A-Class is far more like its primary competitor, the Audi A3. Its balance between isolation and driver involvement is similar as well. Handling is poised and confidence-inspiring, but the A220 isn’t a sport sedan, and its steering in particular lacks feedback, despite being appropriately and consistently weighted.

Then there’s the ride, which will require further testing with different wheel/tire combinations to fully evaluate. With the optional lowered sport suspension, 19-inch wheels and regular summer tires, it was well-damped and even supple when compared to sportier luxury cars. Driving over potholes and choppy pavement didn’t elicit the sort of tiresome impact harshness that plagues the CLA and GLA. That’s largely due to their standard run-flat tires, which is where things get complicated. You see, the A-Class also comes with run-flat tires when equipped with standard 17- or optional 18-inch wheels, and we’re not confident the ride would be as good with those. As such, we highly recommend test driving multiple wheel/tire combinations, but would suspect that this is the very rare instance when opting for the bigger wheels and sport suspension could result in a better ride.

How it fits in the luxury car landscape

When the 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class sedan arrives in dealers early in 2019, it will find few apples-to-apples competitors. This smallest of luxury sedan segments never took off after the CLA and A3 were introduced, largely because of the increased popularity of small luxury crossovers like the GLA. So, for as well-executed as the A220 may be, changing consumer tastes and low lease rates on bigger luxury sedans will likely make it a niche choice.

Still, the A-Class does provide a glimpse of what we can expect from future Mercedes models. Besides sharing much with the next-generation CLA and GLA (their interior designs and mechanical underpinnings should be identical despite different body styles), its MBUX interface will eventually find its way into everything that wears the three-pointed star. Rarely has such a small luxury car carried such big significance.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle’s manufacturer.

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