Premium family hatchback gets subtle update for 2023, including mild-hybridisation of petrol engines
Take a look around you and it would be easy to assume the SUV has won the battle for on-road supremacy. Yet glance at the sales charts and a slightly different picture emerges, featuring a far greater variety of cars. Sure, there are plenty of crossovers in the top 10, but they’re mingling with small and large hatchbacks, from mainstream and premium brands alike.
One of the more surprising showroom success stories has been the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, its blend of smart styling, upmarket vibe, cutting-edge tech and the lure of that three-pointed star on the front grille proving sales catnip. Some fairly juicy PCP finance deals did it no harm either. As a result, the entry-level Mercedes was the fourth-best-selling car in the UK in 2021, with more than 30,000 buyers, ahead of such mass-market luminaries as the Volkswagen Golf and the Nissan Qashqai. Quite the result.
However, by the end of 2022, the mini-Merc had slipped off the chart – and the picture hasn’t looked any rosier in the early months of 2023. Of course, the increased drive towards electrification hasn’t helped sales, but it’s clear the German machine’s mid-life facelift hasn’t come a moment too soon.
Even so, with the 2030 deadline for new ICE car sales looming and the inevitable drain that’s having on R&D budgets, Mercedes has done a makeover, rather than plastic surgery.
There’s tech titivation (natch), some equipment enhancements, a smattering of trim changes and even some enriched electrification, but externally the overhaul is of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety.
In fairness, in both hatchback and saloon guises (both get the same updates), the A-Class was always one of the handsomely chiselled compact family cars, so the designers didn’t need to expend much pencil lead. There are new LED headlights sitting either side of a reprofiled front grille, while at the rear is tweaked bumper and eye-catching LED lights.
Perhaps the most noticeable change is the addition of a pair of power bulges to the bonnet, underneath which sits a new 48V mild-hybrid system for the A180 and A200 petrols. This combines the familiar 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine with a 13bhp belt-driven starter-generator (ISG) that can deliver a little extra muscle at lower engine speeds. There’s also a more powerful 212bhp plug-in hybrid system for the now-saloon-only A250e, while the 200d diesel and AMG performance models are mechanically unchanged.
Inside, the solidly built and richly finished A-Class feels even more upmarket, particularly when trimmed in our car’s new Sage Grey leather-effect upholstery that’s made from 90% recycled materials. The widescreen MBUX infotainment and instrument cluster looks as slick as ever and gets the latest upgrades from the new C-Class, including the ability to learn your preferences and with improved functionality of the ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice-control system.
The latter certainly works effectively and intuitively, which is a good thing, because operating the system manually using the multiple haptic controls on the nappa leather-trimmed wheel (also from the C-Class) is a fiddly and frustrating experience that can result in your eyes being off the road for rather longer than is desirable.
This issue is exacerbated by the fact the old car’s touchpad controller that sat on the centre console between the front seats has been ditched, deemed unnecessary when you can access the system in so many other ways. On the plus side, its removal has freed up space for a large and rather useful lidded cubby that also holds the new USB-C port.
Get moving and the A-Class feels much as it did before, because, well, 48V electrickery aside, it is.
In the 134bhp A180 tested, the extra torque of the ISG delivers a welcome boost to the four-pot when accelerating from low revs, but its efforts are relatively brief and outright urge is modest. Even in the heavier B-Class, the 161bhp 200 option feels far more potent.
On the plus side, it’s a relatively refined unit, and while it sounds a little strained when extended, it’s never intrusive. It’s also aided by the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox (the diesels get an eight-speeder) that, slightly eager step-off aside, is smooth and responsive.
There have been no changes to the chassis, which means all the same qualities and quirks remain, although overall the A-Class is nicely resolved. You sit low in the car, the steering is quick and naturally weighted, turn-in bite is sharp and it can be hustled through corners with accuracy and very little body roll. The BMW 1 Series and Ford Focus are more engaging, but there’s little wrong with the way the A-Class attacks an apex. It’s not exactly an uplifting experience, but it is poised, grippy and predictable and rarely upset by mid-corner bumps, despite the relatively firm ride.
Ah yes, the ride. As before, there’s a little inconsistency, the A-Class coping well with smoothly surfaced undulations at speed but feeling brittle and stiff-legged around town or over sharper imperfections, a situation no doubt exacerbated by our AMG Line model’s standard 18in alloy wheels wrapped in low-profile 225/45 rubber. There’s also a surprising amount of road roar, spoiling the otherwise impressive isolation of the cabin.
Speaking of which, the A-Class provides just as much practicality as you would expect for its footprint. Those in the back get decent head and leg room, but the small side windows and high-backed front seats mean you feel a little hemmed in.
Elsewhere, the 355-litre boot is only average for the class and its versatility is undermined by the fact that any underfloor storage space is taken up by some of the 48V gubbins and a subwoofer for the sound system.
Despite the fairly limited changes, the A-Class remains a classy and composed contender in the under-pressure family-hatch segment. Is it enough to muscle its way between the EVs and SUVs and lift it back into top 10 contention? That’s probably a tough ask, and that’s before you consider prices that start at a hefty £31,880, which is around £1000 more than an equivalent 1 Series.
Still, with its blend of premium appeal, classy looks and a relatively polished driving experience, it has as good a chance as any of its traditional rivals as the ICE car faces its twilight years.