The 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class is a refreshing take at the luxury compact segment. It looks dashing—especially in CLA four-door coupe form—comes with fancy tech, drives well and it’s quite cheap too. But as a Canadian, I have to tell you, America, that you’re missing out on the best that is the Mercedes A-Class.
You, who favor sedans and, perhaps ironically, SUVs shaped like big hatchbacks, have rejected the purity in design that is the Mercedes two-box design. Shame on you.
Here’s the thing: Canada is still buying a significant amount of small hatchbacks and wagons. Heck, we buy all the hatchbacks, even the Nissan Micra. Chalk it up to our European heritage. Anyway, our love affair with these types of cars is still so relevant that Mercedes was able to justify a business case for bringing over an A-Class in its purest form: the five-door hatchback.
I’m here to tell you Americans that you’re all deprived from a pretty respectable alternative to a Golf GTI—even if it ultimately loses out to the gold standard hot hatch in terms of pure fun.
(Full disclosure: Mercedes-Benz Canada prepared me a bright red 2019 A250 hatch with a full tank of gas for a week so I could review it.)
What Is It?
The A-Class is Mercedes’ third serious attempt at integrating an affordable, front-wheel drive entry level premium car to the North American market. It basically replaces the B-Class here in Canada (yes, we got that too) selling alongside the all-new CLA-Class with which it shares its platform, engine and transmission.
The A-Class name may be new to the western hemisphere, but it’s been around for quite some time in Europe. Introduced in 1997 as the brand’s first official compact car, the first-generation A-Class looked a bit dinky with its top-heavy appearance and super narrow stance, kind of resembling a Smart car.
It also had a serious safety issue where it would tip over when attempting to avoid a moose, which forced Mercedes-Benz to halt production for three months to find a fix.
The car you see here, now at its fourth generation and internally known as the W177, has significantly evolved from its more awkward city car roots. It now comes through as a well-packaged, well-priced and frankly attractive little luxury car.
Americans get this thing under the A220 nomenclature, powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four good for a claimed 188 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque, offered with either front or all-wheel drive via Mercedes’ 4MATIC system.
In Canada, things are somewhat more interesting, as they typically are. Not only do we get free healthcare and legal marijuana, our hatchback Mercedes is quicker than the sedan counterpart you get. Sold as the A250 (our A220 sedan is identical to yours), this hatch powered by the same engine, except output is significantly increased to 221 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque—which suddenly makes it awfully close to a Volkswagen GTI in terms of specs.
All A-Class models come fitted with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. The hatch, like the sedan, can send its power to either the front or all four wheels. My tester had the latter.
And yes, for those wondering, there will soon be an AMG variant of this car called the A35, with a hatch coming to Canada but not in the U.S. Ha!
Why Does It Matter?
Even with the onslaught of SUVs, these smaller luxury sedans, coupes and hatchbacks have proven to be solid gateway drugs for the premium carmakers. We’re seeing them from Audi with the A3, BMW with the 2 Series, Acura with the ILX and, just recently, Cadillac with the CT4.
The idea behind them is to attract young, affluent consumers to showrooms in hopes that they’ll come back for something bigger and more expensive as they move up in life. Plus, Mercedes shipped roughly 30,000 CLAs in North America last year, as well as similar numbers from the SUV on which it’s based: the GLA. So there’s money to be made here.
For enthusiasts, the return of a small affordable Mercedes is good news. While many of us gave the last CLA a bad rap due to its observable drop in build quality compared to the rest of the Mercedes lineup, it was a good-looking, fun to drive car that was luxurious enough to be taken seriously by the posh world of premium nameplates.
With the A-Class, Mercedes aims at upping the game even further, with the promise of making its entry level car feel just as premium as its flagship S-Class. You’re all about to find out if this is true or not.
“Hey Merced… Dammit!”
There’s one feature in the 2019 A-Class that’s actually a very big deal outside of the driving experience, and that’s the updated MBUX infotainment system. It was debuted in this car, and it’s now slowly integrating into the rest of the Mercedes-Benz lineup.
It essentially uses artificial intelligence and a series of very sensitive microphones to listen to the car’s occupants in real time. Very much like Apple’s Siri, the system responds to the “Hey Mercedes” voice prompt without having to press a button.
For instance, as you’re driving, you can simply shout out “Hey Mercedes,” followed by “it’s hot in here” and your A-Class will automatically lower cabin temperature by two degrees.
It goes further than that; you can ask your Mercedes to open the sunroof while driving, find the nearest coffee or tell you about the upcoming weekend’s weather forecast. And frankly, it’s impressive.
But it still needs a bit of work. It gets clumsy when other people are yapping away in the car. You could ask your passengers to shut up, which they probably won’t do. At least, not to watch you bark away at an infotainment system. And don’t you dare have one of the windows lowered while talking to it, cause it simply refuses to cooperate.
Now, you could use the available physical controls put there to improve your experience, but those are just as useless as the ones from the last generation cars with that awkward track-pad on the center console. I am, however, a big fan of that augmented reality stuff for the navigation system. It’s not only cool as hell; it simply makes the system more effective this way.
Apart from what was just mentioned, there are not many disappointments here. But I will say that I found the A-Class’ suspension to be very firm, all the time. Even in Comfort mode. It just has that hard way of hitting a hole that punishes your spine.
Then there’s the way the engine sounds. The A250 is a quick car (more on that later), but there’s no engaging mechanical music to go with the performance, not even one of those fake sound enhancements like what you get in a GTI.
On idle, it’s downright loud, clacking away like a diesel. And at full throttle, except for a hum discreetly heard throughout the cabin, there’s nothing hair-rising about the way an A-Class sounds.
Finally, it’s not all that roomy in there. The rear seat is a tight fit for adults. I’d know, because I used the car for a bachelor party, in which I taxied three of my homies. And all of them complained about the rear seat.
As I mentioned, the A250 doesn’t handle potholes well, but on a good surface the ride is generally solid and composed. My tester had the optional Sport package, which gave it some super attractive and supportive sport bucket seats. They just wrap around you and hold you up nice and straight. You can tell there was some thought put into them.
Oh, by the way, I totally dig this car’s interior. It’s stylish, modern, and that enormous slab of two side-by-side LCD screens that now house everything, from gauges to the infotainment system, looks stylish and futuristic, like the more expensive stuff Mercedes sells. The entire cabin also lights up to the color of your liking at night. It’s all very classy and impressive for an entry level car.
My A250 proved to be quite frugal as well. You can set it in Eco mode, which I wouldn’t recommend as these features simply feel like the throttle pedal is broken. I also can’t recommend leaving the Start/Stop feature on as it stumbles when turning back on, leading to a loud thump in the transmission.
Just leave your A-Class in Comfort mode and you’ll easily pull off 30 mpg. If only it didn’t require premium gas, though.
Unsurprisingly, the hatchback configuration gives this car more practicality than the sedan, but not as much as I had expected. Fold those rear seats down, and the A250 will engulf 43 cubic feet of your gear, which is significantly lower than a Golf’s (54 cubic feet). Hell, even a Mazda3 Sport does a better job at 47 cubes.
So, when I say the Mercedes A-Class is a great rival to a Golf GTI, that’s because its off-the-line performance and handling abilities are up there with the best hot hatches currently out there.
The problem is that the A250 is not as entertaining to drive as a GTI.
Smash the accelerator pedal from a standstill in an A250, and it scoots forward with very little drama, bouncing to 60 mph in a brisk six seconds, according to Mercedes. So it’s a respectfully quick car, enough to not get humiliated by some dipshit in a Focus ST or a Civic Si.
It also loves highway offramps with flat, composed, and serene handling that just keeps taking in the hits. This is an exquisite chassis, so good in fact, that you quickly forget you’re actually going fast, and that it can take a lot more power. I’m looking at you, AMG A35.
The same can be said about the gearbox, which shuffles through the gears with no sweat, always picking up the right cog for your next move, downshifting almost telepathically when turning into a corner.
Sport Mode is the one to select here, as it firms up the otherwise dead steering and quickens the speed at which the transmission responds. You can use the available paddle shifters, but I actually preferred letting the gearbox do all the work, as you typically do in a Benz.
In other words, you could follow a GTI on a winding road with an A-Class hatch no problem, but the car wouldn’t be as enthusiastic about it. It’s far more laid back and smooth. While a GTI executes its performance in a “wheee, we’re going fast!” kind of way, the A250 is more like: “are we doing this now?”
The way Mercedes priced its little car is actually quite witty. Here in Canada, these things kick off just under $35,000 (CAD), for the sedan, while yours sells for $32,500 US dollars. That’s cheap for a Mercedes.
The interesting thing about the hatch is that it’s only about a grand more for more power, more torque, and all the hatchback goodness. The one you see here, fully-spec’d with 4MATIC AWD and the Sport Package stickers for about $42,000 (CAD), which puts it neck to neck with a Golf R up here.
Granted, your A250 won’t be as quick as the hot Golf, but you’re still getting a fully equipped, all-wheel drive Mercedes hatchback for the same money. So yes, there’s a lot of value in the A-Class. I would personally ditch all-wheel drive for a more affordable ride.
That way, the A250 really becomes a direct rival to a well-equipped Golf GTI, with similar performance too.
Mercedes did such as good job with its A-Class, that it makes you wonder if you should even get that top spec Honda Civic or Mazda 3. There’s a lot of substance for your dollar coming from a nameplate normally associated with unattainable luxobarge limousines.
With this new A-Class, you’re finally getting a hint of S-Class refinement at a price that won’t immolate your wallet, a quality which has never been attributed to a small Benz’ before, so kudos for that.
But more important than the A-Class being a home run, is the fact that Mercedes is one of the rare carmakers that actually understands the distinctions between the Canadian and U.S. markets.
We Canadians get all the fun stuff taking away from us because of America’s desire to drive lifted all-wheel-drive contraptions instead. Granted, we also buy SUV’s by the masses, but we’re also buying a shit-ton of VW SportWagens which we’re about to lose because of America’s buying habits.
If there’s a new car that represents Canada’s solidarity to America’s car-market, it’s the 2019 Mercedes-Benz A250 hatch. And we’ll make sure not to ruin our opportunity to have one.
William Clavey is an automotive journalist in Montreal, Canada and contributes to Jalopnik. He runs claveyscorner.com.