AMSTERDAM -- Mercedes-Benz aims to lure young European buyers to its latest A class by turning it into what CEO Dieter Zetsche calls a true "smartphone on wheels" by offering what the automaker says is the most advanced human-machine interface it has developed.
The all-new multimedia system, called Mercedes-Benz User Experience or MBUX for short, serves as the centerpiece of the brand's next generation of compact cars.
"When we drew up the product specification catalogue, we decided that would be the core element," Zetsche, who is also CEO of Mercedes parent Daimler, told reporters at the A-class hatchback's presentation here on Friday. He added that the A class could be the first true "smartphone on wheels" thanks to MBUX, which Mercedes says offers better displays, improved speech recognition capabilities – which can be activated either via a button on the steering wheel or by simply saying "Hey Mercedes" -- as well as predictive learning abilities.
With predictive analytics, A-class drivers can be prompted at a certain time of day if they want to change radio stations to listen to the news or change navigation to head to the fitness studio. This is possible because the car can recognize repeated patterns in behavior.
For the first time, A-class drivers can order an optional head-up display that is also configurable, something that was previously unheard of in the segment, according to Mercedes. The carmaker also said the model boasts the highest level of active safety in the compact segment and is capable of driving semi-autonomously in certain situations, a feature previously only available in the more expensive S- and E-class families.
Other features familiar from larger siblings include 360-degree parking assist that uses four tiny cameras to transmit a bird's-eye view of the car's surroundings onto the center console for easy maneuvering into tight spaces.
Replacing a winner
The fourth-generation A class succeeds a model that set a new tone for the brand in the segment when it arrived in 2012. That happened because of an aggressive redesign that was a dramatic improvement on the boxy look of the previously two generations of the car. Mercedes said design is the biggest reason customers give for purchasing the A class today, while Zetsche added that the styling change reduced the age of the average A-class customer by 10 years. "In the car industry that's a world apart," he said. That might explain why the new generation's exterior is far more evolutionary.
While the current S class upper-premium sedan has been a hit for the brand, allowing it to defend its domination of the segment, the current A class helped bring all-new customers to Mercedes. Mercedes said that more than 60 percent of its compact hatchback sales in Europe last year were conquests from other brands. Once they made the switch, customers tend to stay as Mercedes said that more than 70 percent of A-class drivers remained with the brand the next time they bought a car.
"It was a tremendous step and it didn't just lead to selling more compact cars, rather I'm convinced that the brand was viewed differently - more relevant, cooler and ultimately had an impact all the way up to the S-class Maybach," Zetsche said. "Along with the volume growth effect it's really energized the brand."
Despite being in the final full year of production for the current compact range, which includes the GLA crossover and CLA, volumes reached their second-highest level at 620,000 in 2017, according to Mercedes. Zetsche pledged that the new A class, whose biggest markets are the UK, Germany and Italy, would be even more profitable than before without going into specifics.
When it comes to the new car's interior, all versions come standard with a virtual cockpit. In addition, Mercedes removed the cowell over the instrument cluster and added a special coating that prevents glare reflecting off the glass surface, resulting in a fully freestanding display.
The new A class is powered by a wide range of gasoline and diesel engines. One of the new four-cylinder units offers displacement on demand for the first time. In partial load circumstances this feature shuts down the second and third cylinders to boost fuel efficiency.
"With the fourth generation of the A class, we are redefining modern luxury in the compact class," Mercedes sales boss Britta Seeger said.
Customers can start ordering the new A class in March. It is expected to arrive in European showrooms in May. The model will be sold outside of Europe in markets such as China and Canada during the course of 2018.
The A-class hatchback will not be sold in in the U.S., where local tastes prefer sedans over hatchbacks. Mercedes plans to show the A-class sedan at a later date.