2,173 total views, 4 views today
In its strictest sense, the word “whelming”, to paraphrase the Oxford English Dictionary, means to engulf, submerge or bury something. Of course, that word has long fallen out of everyday use, because the English language really does work like that sometimes, okay?
Over the ensuing centuries, the hyperbole variant, “overwhelming”, has largely assumed the original meaning, and most people these days use it to describe something that’s too much to bear. There’s also “underwhelming”, which just means that whatever it is you’re describing is not very good.
The thing is, since these words have been reframed for modern tastes, shouldn’t “whelming” be redefined, too? There are so many grandiose terms for something that is “just OK” – “milquetoast”, “middle-of-the-road” and so on. Surely a retooling of this fairly regular word would be perfect for something so modest?
What’s all this doing in a car review? Because as the entry-level model of the V177 Mercedes-Benz A-Class Sedan (and the W177 hatchback), the A 200 is good, but not great. You can certainly do better if you’re spending well north of RM200,000, but you won’t exactly be shortchanged if you settle for this, either. Is that such a bad thing? Well, yes and no – but it’s all relative.
There are quite a few elephants in this room, so let’s get to the most relevant one first. The weakening ringgit and the upwards repositioning of the A-Class lineup – combined with the continued lack of local assembly – mean that the A 200 is now priced at just under RM230,000, or around RM20,000 more than where the previous W176 hatch used to start. That’s a lot of money, although the discontinuation of the bargain-basement C 180 means that this is still the cheapest new Mercedes you can get away with.
The four-door sedan body style is new for the fourth-generation A-Class, catering to those who need a separate boot but aren’t willing to sacrifice practicality in return for the CLA‘s swooping roofline. The notchback adds 130 mm to the rear and six millimetres to the height, with measurements totting up to 4,549 mm long, 1,796 mm wide and 1,446 mm wide (the wheelbase remains the same as the hatch, at 2,729 mm).
All the hallmarks of the five-door remain, including that long, low shark nose front end that continues to divide opinion, with angry tapered headlights and a large trapezoidal grille. Obviously, it’s the rear that sees the most change, and what a difference it makes.
The pert rump may seem a little awkward and truncated in profile, but in real life it looks completely natural. The addition of a lip at the trailing edge of the bootlid helps lift the rear end visually, adding some balance and transforming the hatch’s slightly fat-bottomed look. The Y-shaped tail light graphics also gives the sedan a more distinctive light signature at night – a lot less Kia Cerato-like than the hatch.
Taken as a whole, it’s a pleasingly handsome design, and the simpler, more organic form is a refreshing change from the angular, line-heavy aesthetic everyone else is going for. The more sober look of the sedan also means it’s better suited to the cleaner Progressive Line styling of the A 200, rather than the A 250’s ultra-aggressive AMG Line package that is littered with unnecessary fake inlets and vents.
Step inside and again it’s much the same as what you get in the hatch. The dashboard is designed in typical Stuttgart style – think massive freestanding flatscreen display panel and lots of flashy metallic trim – and even though it’s much bigger than the W176 on the inside (and certainly roomier than the CLA), just like the hatch, the sedan still not exactly overflowing with space.
Mercedes claims that the sedan offers the most rear headroom in its class (which include cars like the Audi A3 Sedan) and above-average shoulder and elbow room, but while legroom has grown usefully over its cramped predecessor, it’s still not a patch on something like a Honda Civic. At 420 litres, the boot is also not exactly massive, but it’s useable all the same, with a sizeable opening and minimal wheel arch intrusion.
To its credit, Mercedes-Benz Malaysia has kept the kit count largely identical between the A 200 and A 250, even though the former is nearly RM40,000 less expensive. The full Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) is still the defining feature of this interior, and the twin high-definition 10.25-inch displays are as bright and as gorgeous as ever. However, after spending some time in various A-Classes, I can conclude that the interface still isn’t quite as intuitive as BMW’s benchmark iDrive system.
The menu layout, which now includes a proper homescreen with clearly-defined sections, has been greatly improved over the old Comand system, but some things still don’t make sense. How is it, for example, that the steering wheel can now have eight switches, two scroll wheels and two touchpads, but still doesn’t have dedicated controls to skip a song or switch radio stations? And why, after having gone through all the trouble of fitting a widescreen display, is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto still stuck in a 4:3 aspect ratio?
But the main sticking point is the jettisoning of a handy rotary dial in favour of a laptop-style touchpad. Yes, the centre display is now a touchscreen, but it’s positioned too far away for my liking, so most of the time I’m forced to use the big black square. And even after fiddling with the various sensitivity settings, it’s still oh-so-easy to overshoot the item you’re looking for when you’re scrolling. It’s Lexus Remote Touch all over again.
Of course, no review is complete without mentioning the Linguatronic voice control system with its headline-grabbing “Hey Mercedes” command prompt. It should be pointed out at this juncture that we don’t get the full functionality of this system at the moment, as there’s no connection to the cloud. That will only arrive with the local introduction of Mercedes me connect services, which the AMG A 35 will receive first.
For now at least, the system is kinda broken. Voice recognition is poor, there’s not a lot you can ask it to do, and while you can control the air-conditioning, it has a weird quirk of raising the temperature when you’re in fact telling it that you’re feeling too hot. It’s far from the impressive system we tried back at the international media test drive, but hopefully that will change in the not-too-distant future.
The rest of the cabin continues to impress and disappoint in various ways. Perceived quality from chest height upwards is impeccable, with plenty of plush soft-touch materials and lots of neat little touches, like the turbine-style air vents that feel even better than they look. The trademark 64-colour ambient lighting system can also now play a colour-changing light show that is just as flashy as it sounds, but I love it.
Things are not so peachy lower down, where hard, scratchy plastics are abound. The sore point for me is the swathe of gloss black trim all along the centre console. While classy open-pore wood decorates the upper portion of the cabin (I prefer the A 250’s brushed aluminium myself), the stuff lining the transmission tunnel feels cheap, attracts dust and scratches like they’re going out of style and just looks plain unfinished.
And while the A-Class finally gets automatic climate control as standard, the fitment of only a single-zone system on most models means you don’t get rear air vents (I know, right?), the resulting cubby hole mocking you for not buying the much pricier A 35. Don’t get me wrong, this interior still exhibits the super-slick premium polish that is typical of the brand, but it’s a veneer that doesn’t go quite as deep as you’d expect.
It’s a trait that carries on through to the driving experience, where the A 200 adequately covers all the bases without ever being outstanding in any one area. Nowhere is this more evident than in the powertrain, which provides decent performance but falls some way short of mechanical excellence.
Unlike the A 250, which gets a proper Mercedes 2.0 litre M260 turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the A 200 receives a much smaller 1.3 litre unit (still a four-pot, mind). Don’t be fooled by its unique M282 codename – this engine was developed in collaboration with Renault and is pretty much identical to the Renault H5Ht/Nissan HR13DDT found in the new Renault Clio and Captur and the European-market Nissan X-Trail and Qashqai. Quite why the company didn’t use its own 1.5 litre M264 mill from the C 200 is beyond me.
On paper, this dinky engine looks to be a potent powerhouse – despite barely having any more swept volume than a base Perodua Myvi, it makes nearly double the amount of power and more than double the torque, at 163 hp at 5,500 rpm and 250 Nm between 1,620 and 4,000 rpm. But just like how your mother told you not to judge a book by its cover, the bald figures don’t quite tell the full story.
As is typical of a downsized turbocharged engine, this mill is somewhat lethargic when it’s off boost, and it’s only when it makes its peak torque that you feel like you’re getting somewhere. Anywhere below 1,500 rpm, it seems like nobody’s home, and pulling power tails off significantly above 5,000 rpm.
Make no mistake, however, this is by no means a slow car. Midrange performance is a particular strong suit, and once you get the engine in its sweet spot, you’ll be surprised at how hard this thing pulls, given that the outputs are still relatively modest by modern standards. But whereas the A 250 feels significantly gutsier at all speeds, the A 200 is a little lacking in some areas.
Perhaps in response to this, the seven-speed dual clutch transmission (a Getrag wet-clutch unit in the A 200, not Mercedes’ own) has been tuned to downshift often to keep the engine on the boil. Sometimes it’s a little too eager – it tends to kick down a gear or two even when you’re only applying moderate throttle inputs, resulting in the car lurching forwards instead of accelerating gradually.
Elsewhere, the gearbox hinders more than helps, being just a bit too hesitant to engage its clutches when you’re moving off. This not only blunts performance slightly from a standing start, but also makes it quite a frustrating car to drive at lower speeds – especially when you’re reversing over a bump or on a slope. It also slurs its upshifts, feeling more like a traditional torque converter automatic than a sharp, snappy DCT. Whether that’s a good thing or not is dependent entirely on you.
Then we come to the refinement. Of course, there’s nothing wrong at all with sharing engines with a mainstream carmaker, especially if it’s a good one. But you expect certain things from a premium brand – and while this engine would be perfectly acceptable in any other car, for something that costs this much, it’s just not quite as smooth or as quiet as it should be.
It idles unobtrusively enough, but it’s a little coarse and makes quite a bit of a racket anytime you go near the throttle. That’s a shame, as noise suppression elsewhere has been markedly improved over the previous A-Class, although there’s still a tinge more road and wind noise at the national speed limit than I’d like.
Thankfully the chassis is able to claw back some brownie points. Doubtless a lot of you would want to know about this car’s ride and handling, especially since the A 200 has switched from multilink rear suspension to a torsion beam. This cheaper, more rudimentary setup naturally brings with it a few drawbacks from a dynamic standpoint, but they’re not quite as obvious as you would expect behind the wheel.
So supple is the suspension that most of the time you won’t even notice that something has changed underfoot. Over minor surface imperfections the ride is well-damped, maintaining a good balance between poise and pliancy. Given that Mercedes hasn’t exactly had the best track record in tuning passive dampers (I’m looking at you, W205 C-Class), this is a great step in the right direction.
It’s over larger bumps and potholes that the rear axle starts to show its lack of sophistication. Whereas the front of the car stays tied down and composed, the back end tends to skip about, and it also transmits quite a lot of suspension noise into the cabin. It’s more apparent in the rear seats, where the ride is particularly rough over uneven roads – but let’s face it, this car will only ferry one occupant most of the time, anyway.
Guide it through a series of corners and it’s obvious that while the new A-Class won’t deliver the last word in agility or precision, it does an admirable job of handling whatever you throw at it. The steering is fairly muted but is nevertheless much quicker than is usual for a Mercedes, helping the car feel more nimble. Turn-in is sharp and there’s ample grip from the Hankook tyres, so you can carve an accurate line through a bend.
Despite the aforementioned torsion beam, body control is very good, up to a point. Drive it up to seven tenths and there’s not a lot of roll to speak off, and it’s only when you really fling it around that the rear end starts to become unruly. Then again, this is an A 200 we’re talking about, not an A 45, so the boy racers among you will have to temper your expectations a little bit.
You can see a pattern forming here, can’t you? Going back to what we said at the start, “whelming” would perfectly describe the A 200. It’s certainly an appealing prospect for status-conscious types in the market for a small premium car: it’s very good looking inside and out, comes with the all-important badge and now that it’s available with four doors and a boot, it has an even more upmarket image – whether deserved or not.
But the reality is this car doesn’t quite reach the high standards of the segment. The interior isn’t as luxurious as the ritzy design would lead you to believe, the ride isn’t consistently comfortable across all surfaces and the engine and gearbox just aren’t polished enough for this application. The latter is the most jarring aspect of the whole car and it’s this – not the torsion beam – that would stop me from buying one.
The choice, then, is clear. If you’re in the market for an A-Class, you’re better off stretching to the A 250 – you’ll be getting a powertrain much more in keeping with the rest of the car, as well as a slightly better ride. But if you can’t, don’t fret – the A 200 is still just about good enough to wear the Three-pointed Star. Just.
The Mercedes-Benz A 200 is on sale in Malaysia now, priced at RM227,888 for the W177 hatchback and RM229,888 for the V177 sedan. Browse full specifications and equipment for the new A-Class Hatchback and Sedan on CarBase.my.