By Jonathan Crouch
Back in 2018, the fourth generation Mercedes-Benz A-Class offered an even stronger proposition to buyers in the premium compact hatch segment. If you define luxury in terms of technology and you're looking for a posh-badged family hatch from the 2018-2023 period, you're going to like it a lot..
Mercedes-Benz is a company often portrayed as being deeply conservative, though in fact, no other manufacturer has such a record of innovation. Today, the brand is bolder, more forward-thinking and younger in feel, attributes that were very much in evidence in this fourth generation version of its smallest A-Class model, launched in 2018. In this form, this car was pitched even more directly against sporty premium compact family hatches like Audi's A3 and BMW's 1 Series thanks to key new driving features, sharper looks and extra media connectivity, plus this car set a fresh standard in terms of interior design.
From launch, we were told to regard this A-Class as what the market calls a 'compact premium family hatchback' - in other words, a Focus or Astra-sized car with superior quality and a bit of extra badge equity. It's the kind of very profitable product that all the mainstream makers wish they could sell but which is primarily defined by this car and its two closest competitors, the Audi A3 and BMW's 1 Series. The frumpy tall-sided first and second generation 'W168' and 'W169'-series A-Class models were paragons of design and space efficiency, but they didn't really threaten these two rivals in any meaningful way. This car's MK3 model 'W176'-series predecessor though, which switched to more of a conventional sporty hatchback format, very definitely did. Over 60% of its sales were to people who'd never bought a Mercedes before and it lowered the average age of an A-Class buyer by more than a decade.
There were certainly things to work on though. The cabin of the old MK3 design still wasn't quite as spacious and well built as that of a rival Audi A3. And in their efforts to make the MK3 A-Class sporty and dynamic like a BMW 1 Series, the development team made its suspension fidgety and overly stiff. That's why so much effort and investment went into this fourth generation model, which according to its maker at launch 'completely refined modern luxury in the compact class' - quite a claim. The brand thought that this 'modern luxury' should now be partly defined by technology, so that got a key focus thanks to the introduction of a completely new 'MBUX' ('Mercedes-Benz User eXperience') infotainment set-up, built into sophisticated cabin design that instantly made rivals look dated.
There was an all-new range of efficient petrol and diesel engines too, all of it sat on a fresh 'MFA2' platform that was planned to underpin a whole future generation of compact Mercedes models. This made possible the 30mm wheelbase increase needed to release extra cabin and luggage space. Plus there was autonomous driving tech, a new era of headlamp technology and another step forward to terms of safety provision. This then, was the compact hatch that Audi and BMW always feared Mercedes might build. But both will be developing products to beat it. It sold until Mercedes introduced a significant facelift in early 2023. It's the pre-facelift MK4 A-Class models we look at here.
What You Get
In analysing the styling of this MK4 A-Class, let's start in profile so we can see the way that this model is visually extended by its longer wheelbase and this sharp character line that runs from nose to tail below the glass house. The wing mirrors are mounted mid-way along it, rather than being integrated into the windscreen pillar, and the bonnet slopes down more heavily than it did with the previous car, emphasising what Mercedes hopes is a more dynamic, upright front end.
Inside, it'll be like nothing you've ever previously sat in when it comes to a car of this class, the key change being the lack of the kind of cowled instrument binnacle that almost every other car on the market has to have. Instead, two elongated square colour TFT screens are provided, one for the centre-dash infotainment system, the other for the dials you view through the sophisticated three-spoke multi-function steering wheel. These monitors are both 7-inches in size with base-trimmed variants, but are upgraded to 10.25-inches in size with plusher trim levels. The central one is your main interface for the brand's 'MBUX' ('Mercedes-Benz User eXperience') multimedia system, which includes hard disc sat nav and the brand's latest - but sometimes rather frustrating - 'Hey Mercedes' voice control system. Aside from connectivity, the trimming's classy and though material quality isn't class-leading, it's all put together in a way that really raises the bar for interiors in this segment.
In the rear, a six-footer might still struggle a little to sit behind another adult of similar height but overall, there's significantly more room for knees and legs than there was with the MK3 design. We wouldn't though, put too much store in Mercedes' claim that this is a 'five seater', a statement which seems to be at odds with the way that the cabin in the back was styled very much to suggest accommodation for two. And the boot? Well at 370-litres in size, it's 29-litres bigger than the trunk of the previous model. Thanks to the two-section rear lights, the loading aperture is 200mm wider than before and the luggage compartment floor is 115mm longer. Fold down the seats completely and 1,210-litres of total capacity can be freed up.
What to Look For
Most A-Class owners in our survey were satisfied, but inevitably, there were some who'd experienced problems. Both automatic and manual gearboxes on this W177 model can sometimes cause problems. With the automatic, they will be highlighted by the ECU giving you a prominent warning on the dashboard along with the relevant fault code. This might well be accompanied by a loss in power and limited gear selection as the car is forced into limp mode. If the fault is with one of the rarer manual gearbox models, then you'll probably experience some kind of crunching or whining, which might be the result of bearing wear or failure. Correcting automatic transmission problems might require a complete replacement of the gearbox ECU, the solenoids, the valve chest and the coding that accompanies such a repair. Problems with manual gearboxes will need a synchromesh repair.
On diesel models, you might experience the particulate filter warning light coming on if the car has too often been used for short journeys. A quick blow-out on a dual carriageway might well solve the problem. We've heard a few reports of misfiring engines caused by a problem with the ignition coil pack which will see the engine management warning sensor coming on. A few owners have complained of sticking boot catches and windscreen washer failure too. Otherwise, it's just the usual things. Check the interior for child damage, check the alloy wheels for scratches and insist on a complete service history. Check for uneven panel gaps and paint flaws. Inspect the electrics and the air conditioning functionality - it should blow our really chilled air. Some owners in our survey complained of un-Mercedes-like squeaks and rattles; try the car you have in mind across a bumpy bit of road to try and expose any nasty noises.
(approx based on a 2019 A 200 - Ex Vat) An air filter is around £21. A pollen filter is around £26. Front brake pads sit in the £45 to £76 bracket for a set, while rear brake pads cost around £10 upwards for a set. Front brake discs can cost around £100-£157. Rear brake discs can cost around £78-£80. A headlamp is around £331. A water pump is around £56-£89; a wiper blade is around £12.
On the Road
This fourth generation A-Class built on the sporty-handling legacy of its predecessor. We don't think the 'Direct-Steer' steering system's quite as feelsome as it was in the MK3 model, but it still enables you to place the car where you'd want through the curves and really enjoy this Mercedes if you're a keen driver. Body roll's kept well in check and you're favoured with prodigious grip that's impressively untroubled by mid-corner bumps. Thanks partly to this model's slightly longer, slightly more sophisticated MFA2 platform, ride quality is a match for the premium segment competition - but could be better. And would have been had Mercedes not decided to equip all mainstream variants with low-cost torsion beam rear suspension rather than a more sophisticated multi-link rear set-up.
As for engines, well the popular versions get engines developed by Mercedes in conjunction with its European Alliance partner Renault. As before, there's a 116hp 1.5-litre diesel for the popular A180d derivative - or a couple of 1.3-litre petrol units: either the 136hp engine fitted to the base A180. Or the variant most original buyers chose, the 163hp A200, which features cylinder deactivation technology, enough to help this particular A-Class deliver reasonable efficiency figures - 47.1mpg on the combined cycle and 136g/km of CO2. That's with a manual gearbox, but it's the 7G-DCT automatic that most original buyers preferred. You have to have this self-shifter if you go for the rapid petrol 2.0-litre A250 model, which offers up 224hp and almost hot hatch performance.
Once, Mercedes was merely known as a purveyor of traditional luxury: today, its products champion modern luxury. As any rival brand will tell you, the difference is important. That's something you can tangibly feel on acquaintance with this 'W177'-series A-Class. Head of Design Gorden Wagener reckoned this MK4 model was a generation ahead of the competition and in certain respects, he was right. The cabin for example, redefined the segment standard and the 'MBUX' infotainment system was also potentially standard-setting.
And in summary? Well you're probably aware that most German models require you to spend plenty if you're going to experience all they have to offer: that's even more the case with this one. Without the fancy larger interior screens, this A-Class lacks a bit of its showroom uniqueness, a selling point that's vital for this car to have in the face of renewed competition from BMW, Audi and Volvo in this segment. Even so, those who can afford the asking prices will find this hatch sporty, self-assured and possessed of a feel-good factor that really does make you feel special if you've specced your chosen variant correctly. Which is exactly what owning a car of this kind should be all about.