Mercedes-Benz's new A-class is the small car with big aspirations

It's been a tough time for premium small cars, with sales sliding over the past couple of years.

But Mercedes-Benz is hoping to reverse the trend with the arrival of the fourth generation A-Class.

A top seller in its class, the smallest, most affordable Mercedes-Benz has big – and luxurious - aspirations.

Class act

It's all class with the A-class, with upmarket flavour oozing out of every corner, most notably with the instrument cluster.

Instead of traditional needles and gauges there is a digital screen in front of the driver.

The high-def 10.25-inch screen is customisable between Sports and Classic displays, plus there's further customisation of what sits between the digital speedo and tacho.

You can even tailor the (optional) head-up display, its trio of colour modules able to be toggled to show everything from the speed limit and basic nav directions to how fast you're going and how much torque is being produced in real time.

Other standard kit includes digital radio, wireless phone charging, satellite-navigation, blind spot warning and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Speak up

The big news with the A is the debut of MBUX, or Mercedes-Benz User Experience, which is a fancy name for how you operate major functions within the car.

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It includes a far more intuitive touchpad in the centre console – complete with haptic feedback – and one of those giant touchscreens, which borrows some smartphone thinking with pinching, swiping and touching.

There's also an advanced voice recognition system, reaffirming the A's extensive equipment list; it has features and equipment some $100K machines don't have.

Speech recognition is nothing new in cars. Many mainstream models have the ability to make phone calls or even adjust infotainment and comfort functions by pressing a button and remembering some key phrases.

'Hey Mercedes'

But the A-Class has what is claimed to be natural speech recognition; the only phrase you need to remember is "hey Mercedes", the magic words to kick things off.

We gave it a thorough test, asking it to open the sunroof, turn on the seat heaters, change radio stations and make us warmer. It nailed them all.

It also helped locate some nearby restaurants and was fantastic for entering destinations into the navigation system.

But its smarts were ultimately limited. It wouldn't turn the seat coolers on, for example, claiming it was unable to operate the ventilation at that time.

Requests to open the rear window also resulted in the front window demister blasting hot air.

And while it could find a digital radio station to "play '80s music", a similar request for "1980s music" had it stumped.

Curiously, while it could find restaurants, it couldn't find hospitals or police stations nearby.

Think small

It's not only small on the outside but also small beneath the skin.

The A200 gets an all-new four-cylinder engine displacing just 1.3 litres.

A joint development with Renault, the new turbocharged unit focuses on efficiency, claimed consumption just 5.7 litres per 100km.

Despite the diminutive size it musters a full 120kW of power, something backed up by 250Nm of torque.

It's that torque figure that makes itself most known in the A200, kicking in low and early.

Torque time

From the moment you press the accelerator there's a solid surge, the turbo quickly leaping to life.

It makes for easy progress when you keep the engine in its sweet spot, between about 1500rpm and 3500rpm.

Push it beyond that and the equation is less impressive; it's not particularly smooth at high revs and starts to get breathless as it lurches towards its 6000rpm shift point, in the process reaching its modest 120kW power peak.

Driving the front wheels through a seven-speed twin-clutch automatically it's generally intelligent and well behaved, the self-shifter only stuttering occasionally on successive reapplications of the throttle.

Softly does it

The A-Class also gets a big dynamic step in the right direction courtesy of a new, lighter architecture.

However, base cars make do with a basic torsion beam rear suspension system.

Our car has the Dynamic Select system, which is teamed to a more advanced multi-link system and allows the dampers to be softened or stiffened. In its Comfort setting it's by far the most comfortable A-Class to date, absorbing bumps nicely, even with the low-profile 19-inch tyres on our car.

The A200 also maintains its athletic demeanour, too, confidently devouring corners for some genuine fun.

It's a decent blend of larger car maturity with small car engagement.

Stepping up

In the past Mercedes-Benz has competed with mainstream brands with its tiddler, but the new A jumps up in price.

The A200 starts at $47,200, thousands more than the model it replaces, with more equipment the lure.

Of course, the A-Class family with expand. Next year an A180 will arrive with a bit less power and a lower entry price, although still expect it to start with a 4.

There will also be an A250, powered by a 2.0-litre turbo driving all four wheels.

And, for the performance fiends, an A35 and A45 are currently being readied for some AMG excitement.

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