2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class Sedan first drive review: A class above

The 2019 A-Class will serve as Mercedes' new entry-level offering. But make no mistake, there's nothing entry-level about it.

The CLA-Class (that the A-Class does not replace, by the way) was a car designed to hit a sub-$30,000 price point, and those budget bones plagued even its most expensive trims. So rather than go that route a second time, Mercedes isn't simply striving to hit some low, low price with its new A-Class sedan. The end result is a car that's a bit more expensive, to be sure, but actually delivers a properly luxurious experience in a subcompact footprint.

Beauty that's more than skin deep

The A-Class makes a solid first impression. Its design takes a minimalist approach to exterior surfacing -- almost as if to intentionally distance itself from the overly stylized CLA -- with smooth surfaces and soft edges, and only a single character line across its profile. All US-market A-Class models get standard LED head- and taillights, with 17-inch wheels on the base cars, and larger 18- and 19-inch options for uplevel trims. Interestingly, despite its more upright shape and lighter emphasis on swoopy sculpting, the A-Class sedan has a super-slippery 0.22 drag coefficient, which is actually more aerodynamic than the CLA.

If the exterior doesn't impress you, the interior surely will. A pair of 7-inch displays come standard, but I can't imagine anyone will buy this thing without the $2,100 Premium Package and its double-wide 12.3-inch screen upgrade. Beyond just looking cool, these screens bring a level of tech and functionality unheard of in the subcompact class -- more on that in a minute. Below the huge displays are prominent air vents that are backlit and have a substantial, premium weight to their action, and the slim row of switchgear beneath the center stack both look as good in this subcompact A-Class as it does in more expensive Mercs.

Despite its small stature, the A-Class' interior packaging is fantastic. Where the CLA's rakish roofline too severely cut into rear seat headroom, two adults can actually sit in the back of an A-Class with room to spare. There's a sizable trunk that's neatly disguised in the A-Class' short rear deck, and lots of well-placed cubbies and cupholders offer plenty of storage for your daily tagalongs.

The only real evidence of the A-Class' price point is found in the cheap-feeling plastic used in several places throughout the cabin. But Mercedes smartly restricts use of this material to surfaces you won't normally interact with day to day, like the base of the transmission tunnel or the underside of the steering column. The stuff you actually see and touch and use is all very high quality. And considering the fact that one of the CLA-Class' biggest problems is its low-rent interior, this is one of the A-Class' most noticeable improvements.

The A-Class Sedan is a better-looking, better-proportioned car than its so-called "four-door coupe" CLA-Class sibling.

Michael Shaffer/Mercedes-Benz

Top-shelf tech

I'll admit, I wasn't totally sold on Mercedes' new MBUX (which I intentionally keep mispronouncing as "M-Bucks") infotainment tech when I first tested it in the European-spec Sprinter van earlier this year. But after a day of living with MBUX in and around Seattle, I definitely think the system is ready for primetime, albeit with a few small quirks.

MBUX brings with it the first integration of touchscreen functionality in a Mercedes-Benz car, with a high-resolution display that quickly responds to swipes and pinches, and offers standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. My brain still isn't quite used to the idea of touching a display in a Mercedes, and if you're the type who'd rather not smudge up that screen, a redundant trackpad controller is found in the center console, in addition to small thumb pads on the steering wheel. One big important point of clarification here: the A-Class' trackpad is not like Lexus' horrific Remote Touch interface. Rather than controlling a cursor on the screen, you swipe in different directions to defined points on the display. To be perfectly honest, I found myself using this interface more than actually touching the screen itself.

The tech Mercedes is really pushing with MBUX is its improved, natural-language voice control, which I'll admit, is the one part of the MBUX equation I'm still not completely in love with. Say "Hey, Mercedes" and the AI assistant asks how she can help you, and you're supposed to be able to ask for information or vocally command actions in myriad ways. Yes, MBUX was able to tell me the weather in Los Angeles when I asked, "Is it cold today in LA?" And yes, it read off definitions of various queried words, and even made me laugh out loud when I asked it to "tell me a joke" and its response was "I'm sorry, my engineers were German." But two things stand out that still make this system imperfect.

If you've been burned by trackpad infotainment controls in the past, give Mercedes' implementation a shot. It's good.

Michael Shaffer/Mercedes-Benz

First, the always-listening mic is perhaps too sensitive. MBUX is supposed to come alive when you directly command "Hey, Mercedes" or "Hi, Mercedes," but indoor-voice conversation that involves the word "Mercedes" is often enough to wake the beast. (This is just as annoying as my iPhone bringing up the Siri assistant when it hears me say "seriously.") If you wish, you can turn off the call-and-response functionality, and only operate voice commands via the button on the steering wheel. Given how interruptive MBUX was during just one day of testing, this is likely what I'd do.

The bigger issue is what happens when MBUX doesn't know how to help. In conversational speech, if you ask someone a question they don't exactly understand, they'll likely tell you why or work with you to figure it out. MBUX, however, just repeats its "How can I help you?" line until, if you're like me, you just get frustrated and yell "CANCEL" at your dashboard. I get that natural speech voice control is an ever-evolving technology and that not every system will understand every person every time. Thankfully, Mercedes says it's continually working on improving this tech, and will be able to push updates to vehicles over the air.

Driver assistance tech is in similarly high supply, with things like adaptive cruise control, steering assist, braking assist, lane-change assist, route-based speed adaptation, blind spot monitoring, lane-keep assist and more all bundled into a $2,250 Driver Assistance Package. A head-up display is also optional, but given how great the big, reconfigurable, digital gauge cluster is, I can't imagine needing redundant information projected onto the car's windshield.

The A-Class' interior is fantastic, and its high-resolution MBUX infotainment tech is housed front and center.

Michael Shaffer/Mercedes-Benz

Solid on-road manners

We'll get the A-Class in front-wheel-drive A220 and all-wheel-drive A220 4Matic variants in the US, both powered by the same 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine with 188 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque. That's a fair bit less than the 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet made by the CLA250's 2.0-liter engine, but don't let that discourage you. The A220 is far peppier than its numbers might suggest.

A seven-speed dual-clutch transmission handles shifting duties, with only a bit of occasional weirdness when engaging first gear off the line. Otherwise, regardless of drive mode -- Comfort, Sport or Eco -- the transmission delivers smooth, quick shifts and behaves best when left to its own devices. Steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters are fitted to the A220, and with no real improvement in shift quality or solid driver engagement, they're best left alone.

The A220 is pleasant and easy to drive, with appropriately weighted steering and stable cornering characteristics. All US-market A-Class sedans use a MacPherson front strut and rear multilink suspension setup, with lowered springs on AMG Line cars like the one you see here, as well as available adaptive dampers. Oddly, the front-drive A220 exhibits a much nicer ride quality than the 4Matic version, with well controlled body motions and a firm but totally compliant ride. The all-wheel-drive car, meanwhile, combines harsh initial impacts with a lot of bouncy, vertical secondary motion. Hopefully this weirdness is just a result of the test car's early pre-production build status. I'll revisit this when an A220 rolls into Roadshow's Los Angeles office in a few months.

The A220's 2.0-liter engine is nicely suited to both city and highway driving alike.

Michael Shaffer/Mercedes-Benz

Worth every pretty penny

That's also when I'll be able to reveal full pricing and fuel economy data, as both are still unknown right now. The CLA-Class made headlines when it debuted because of its sub-$30,000 price, but again, that isn't the A-Class' mission. Right now, Mercedes says the A220 will start "under $35,000." I'm guessing $34,000. Or like, $34,990.

Much like the CLA, you probably won't see many A-Class models at the lower end of the price spectrum. My test car wears about $15,000 in optional extras, so I have no doubt it'll be easy to push an A220 4Matic well over $50,000. At that point, a lightly optioned C-Class, which starts just above $40,000, also comes into the picture.

Then again, the A-Class is in many ways a more compelling option than the larger C-Class. It's arguably more attractive, just as nice to drive and offers a more robust in-car tech experience with cabin appointments that are still properly befitting of a Mercedes-Benz. It's what the CLA-Class should have been all along. It won't carry that sub-$30,000 price point, but make no mistake, you'll get what you pay for.

This may be Mercedes' budget offering, but there's nothing budget-feeling about it.

Michael Shaffer/Mercedes-Benz

Editors' note: Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.