When you’re on a lengthy drive with a car that talks to you like a human, then it simply makes sense to have a conversation to pass the time.
That’s what I did during a recent test drive of the new Mercedes A-class compact sedan, the A220, on my way to from Seattle to Yakima, Wash., and back. It uses a sophisticated infotainment system called MBUX, short for Mercedes-Benz User Experience. Here’s a bit of our conversation:
Globe Drive: Hey, Mercedes.
Friendly Woman’s voice: How can I help you?
GD: What’s all the excitement about this car I’m driving?
FW: (Pause) Well, I’m glad you asked. The new 2019 A-class has been designed to be on affordable entry point into the Mercedes brand. Something we hope will attract younger people, who wouldn’t normally be able to buy one of our cars just yet.
GD: How affordable is affordable?
FW: Well, prices haven’t been announced, but you can count on less than $40,000 in Canada, equipped with the premium package.
GD: Wait a minute. You have a state-of-the-art communications system, and you’re putting it in your lowest-priced car?
FW: That’s because people who like new technology tend to be – you guessed it – younger. In fact, at age 46, our compact car buyers are eight years younger on average than the typical Mercedes owner.
GD: Okay. But doesn’t Mercedes already have a compact sedan in the CLA? It just came out in 2014.
FW: This will be our new entry-point vehicle, although we’re keeping the CLA and updating it. You see, not everyone loved the CLA – don’t tell my engineers I said that – because its cabin was kind of tight, and the ride was a bit harsh. The A-class is smaller – just 456 centimetres long, or eight centimetres shorter than the CLA – and yet the cabin is roomier.
GD: It doesn’t look as cool as the CLA, in my view. It looks boxier.
FW: Yes, but you like all that extra headroom in the back seat, don’t you?
GD: True dat. Hey, the Mbucks infotainment system seems amazing. It lets me ask you all kinds of interesting trivia questions, links me via voice command to the navigation system, and even changes the colour of the cool ambient lighting inside. And one of my favourite features is that augmented reality screen that imposes street signs on the video image, showing you where to turn.
FW: We pronounced it M-B-U-X, if you don’t mind. Yes, it was designed by the Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America team right here in Seattle. It sources a lot of information from the cloud. We know it’s not perfect, but we’ll be constantly updating it remotely for owners.
GD: There is so much buzz about M-B-U-X, it seems people almost don’t notice how good a car this is. I love the size, the interior is clean and beautiful – in fact, it looks like a mini version of the S-class interiors – and it handles like a dream. And I can’t believe the jump you get out of that little 2.0-litre four cylinder.
FW: Thank you. It’s a turbo, of course, and it puts out 188 horsepower and 221 lb.-ft. of torque. We’ve mated it to an excellent seven-speed automatic with paddle shifters, so you can pretend you’re a racer. But this is a sedan, not a sports car, so we softened the ride a bit from the CLA.
GD: There’s barely any wind noise – good job on the aerodynamics. But I was shocked at how much road noise there is the cabin.
FW: You must have the optional 19-inch performance tires. The standard 17-inch wheels and tires are quieter.
GD: Hope you’re right. It detracts a little from an otherwise joyful driving experience.
FW: Noted. But did you like the car over all? Would you buy one?
GD: Loved it. I think Mercedes has hit the target rather nicely. I can’t think of another brand that offers as much in a car that size and at that price.
FW: I’m flattered.
GD: You seem very human. Do you know any jokes?
FW: I’m sorry. I was designed by German engineers.
GD: Still, you know a lot. Can I ask you a tougher question? What is the meaning of life?
FW: I’m nervous that you are asking that of a computer.
GD: Fair enough, but I’m really enjoying this chat. What are the chances of starting up a longer term relationship with something like you?
FW: Well, if you want to take this to the next level, replicas of me will be arriving at Canadian dealerships in early 2019. See you there, sweetheart.
The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.
- Base price/As tested: TBA
- Engine: 2.0-litre, four cylinder, fuelled by premium gas
- Transmission/drive: Seven-speed automatic with paddle shifters, FWD (AWD optional)
- Fuel economy (litres/100km): not released, but expect about 7 litres/100 km combined
- Alternatives: Audi A3, Volkswagen Golf
It is very much recognizable as a Mercedes, but form follows function. Swoopy looks have been sacrificed for interior head room.
Beautifully finished with fine leather and a clean dash layout. The “gauges” are actually digital images. Switches are well organized and easy to find once you get oriented. There’s enough leg room in the rear to accommodate two full-sized adults comfortably.
It is sporty, but first and foremost it is a sedan. The 2.0-litre turbo four has plenty of passing power, but is not made for the track. The automatic shifts quickly and cleanly. The car remains highly stable through high-speed curves, and the brakes can pull you down fast.
The MBUX system is still new and has a few bugs. There are times when the cloud is not available to give you the information you want. The voice navigation does not always sync with the image on the screen. Expect upgrades to solve these issues once full production begins.
It’s a compact sedan, so you don’t get huge volumes of space. The 368-litre trunk is good for a weekend away for two. We’d love to try the hatchback version.
The verdict: 9.5
Fun to drive, comfortable, efficient: If Mercedes brings a well-equipped car in at less than $40,000, the A220 will offer exceptional value in an entry-level compact luxury sedan.