Mercedes-Benz enjoys a carefully curated image of luxury. The name evokes top-notch engineering, supreme levels of comfort, the latest cutting-edge technology, beautifully finished interiors, superior driving dynamics and near-perfect style.
This image applies to a substantial chunk of the Mercedes lineup — even the C-Class compact sedan, one of the brand’s entry-level models in the U.S. While the current-model C-Class is starting to show its age (it debuted in 2015), it delivers the look and feel of a top-of-the-line S-Class at a more affordable, fuel-efficient level.
But the C-Class starts at more than $42,000, which left room for Mercedes to introduce new value-focused models underneath it.
This began in 2014 with the Mercedes-Benz CLA, which boiled down a high-style Mercedes sports sedan into a compact car priced from around $30,000. The CLA looked great, but its front-wheel-drive-based platform lost the vault-like feel of a traditional Mercedes-Benz, and its cramped interior made sure you never forgot it was a small car.
Though it was not perfect, the CLA sold well. Well enough, for Mercedes to raise its starting price, which now stands at $37,645.
That meant Mercedes once again had an open slot for an entry-level model — which brings us to the all-new 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class tested for this review. (No, A-Class doesn’t mean “class A”; you want later letters, not earlier ones, to get the best Benz.)
The A-Class has been Europe’s cheapest Mercedes for more than 20 years, though until now it was available only as a five-door hatchback. That is still what Europeans will buy, but America received a sporty-looking four-door sedan that’s very much like the CLA.
Mercedes says that the CLA’s very slightly lower roof makes it a coupe and the A-Class a sedan. The CLA also helps justify its higher price tag with a more powerful engine than the A-Class (221 horsepower versus 188). Otherwise, the cars share the same mechanical equipment and most styling cues.
Like the 2014 CLA, the new A-Class does deliver on its fundamental promise: providing some Mercedes-Benz flavor at a lower price. The only version sold in the U.S., the A220 sedan, is priced from $33,495 with front-wheel-drive or $35,495 with all-wheel-drive. That is several thousand dollars less than the cheapest BMW or Lexus sedan, though Audi and Acura sell direct A-Class competitors (the A3 and ILX, respectively) at similar or lower prices.
The A-Class also delivers the strong first impression of a Mercedes-Benz. It wears well the handsome, subtly aggressive face found on the latest Benz models — classier than the old CLA.
More impressively, its cabin features the latest cutting-edge Mercedes MBUX infotainment system. The car’s jaw-dropping features include an augmented reality feature for the navigation system, which embeds turn-by-turn directions on a real-time view of the road ahead, and advanced voice-recognition software. It is a real treat to find such goodies even on the entry-level Mercedes.
Based on a brief preview drive, the A220 rides and handles with more grace than the bumpy old CLA, making it competitive with the Audi A3 and a cut above the Acura ILX on the road. It is still more Honda Civic than Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but it does now drive better than the Civic. You could not say that about the old CLA.
Despite the progress, some new and familiar flaws still haunt the A220.
The little sedan’s cabin remains cramped, with a tighter rear seat and smaller trunk than most of today’s cheapest economy cars. The rear end looks more generic than the handsome front or sporty profile; aside from the Mercedes badge, the A220 could be any compact Chevy or Kia from the back. And, perhaps worst of all, the prices soar in a hurry.
However, the base model provides plenty of creature comforts and technology, including simulated leather upholstery, automatic emergency braking, a panoramic sunroof, a memory function for the power-adjustable driver’s seat, and touchscreen infotainment with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration. If you do not need any more than that, the A220 is indeed a tempting value proposition.
But for every generous standard feature, there’s another that you need to pay dearly for — including valuable driver-assistance technology such as blind-spot monitoring, automatic cruise control and lane-departure warnings that come standard even on some economy cars. To get that suite, you need some $4,000 worth of other features.
Other commonplace features that cost extra here include heated seats, an upgraded infotainment system (from a tiny 7-inch screen to a fully-featured 10-inch one) and SiriusXM satellite radio. And many features are wildly expensive.
It is how our tested A220 reached a sticker price of more than $49,000, well into the range of roomier, more powerful luxury sedans.
What’s more, you will find increasingly sophisticated experiences from even some mainstream-brand compact cars for much less money than the A-Class, such as the compact Mazda3 and the midsize Honda Accord. And as we mentioned, the A220’s rear seat and trunk are small even for a small car.
But if you are looking for luxury, technology, style and the prestige of the Mercedes-Benz brand, the A220 puts forth a credible case, especially if you choose your optional equipment with surgical precision to keep prices in check.
Especially if you love Mercedes in particular or small luxury cars in general, and especially if you’re a technophile when it comes to infotainment, the new A-Class has a clear appeal.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.