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Image credit: Chris Velazco/Engadget

Mercedes' new, affordable A-Class sedan is as smart as it is sleek

You can even talk to it like you would a smartphone.
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There's a lot to say about Mercedes-Benz's US-bound A-Class. It's a car of many firsts: The first A-Class model to appear in the US when it hits dealerships later this year; the first A-Class sedan, well, ever (earlier Euro-spec models were glorious hatchbacks). And since we've been dutifully tracking the ways our cars are becoming more like smartphones, it's important to note that this is the first vehicle to feature Mercedes' voice-driven MBUX interface.

That might not seem particularly impressive when you consider the A-Class -- the carmaker's least-expensive luxury vehicle -- also packs a more-than-capable straight-four turbo engine under the hood. But Mercedes' goal with the A-Class was to capture the imaginations of a new breed of luxury-car owners: They're younger, they have more nuanced expectations from their devices, and Mercedes is keen on keeping them for life. No wonder the infotainment system has received so much attention.

Smartphones have raised the bar for the kind of thoughtfulness people expect from their devices, and Mercedes seems to understand that very well. As a result, you can issue commands to the A-Class with a simple "Hey, Mercedes." Importantly, commands that deal specifically with the car's hardware are processed immediately without pinging a far-flung server, to ensure your cabin temperature is just right as quickly as possible.

Other tasks, like asking Mercedes to show you nearby restaurants on its spacious, center-mounted touchscreen, do require the car to pass your query to the cloud. The A-Class we tried was unfortunately stuck on the roof of an overly fancy Brooklyn hotel and running European software, so we couldn't get a proper feel for the hardware or software just yet. That said, I've jumped into my fair share of new, smarter cars (a fringe benefit of being one of the few Engadget NY employees with a driver's license), and little I've seen out there compares to MBUX's thoughtful utility.

The "Hey, Mercedes" commands worked surprisingly well when automotive journalists weren't jabbering in the back seat, and a company spokesperson confirmed that none of the car's interface methods get locked out while the car is in motion. For better or worse, that means you -- or whoever is in your passenger seat -- is free to browse the web on Google Chrome while barreling down I-95.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Best of all, MBUX is capable of surprising intelligence. Over time, the system adapts to your behavior and personalizes your driving experience. Are there certain songs you like to listen to on your commute to and from work? Are there certain people you call at specific times? These are factors MBUX takes into account, and as a result, it feels like the most seamless in-car control experience I've come across yet. It's not dramatically different from interacting with Siri or Google's Assistant, and considering its a car maker, that's among the highest compliments I'm able to offer.

There's more to the A-Class than just its infotainment system. It packs features you might not expect from a relatively basic vehicle. Most notably, the autonomous driving features in the pricier E-class and S-class models are present and accounted for, and that's not nothing considering we're looking at what passes for a lower-end luxury car.

Beyond the interior's technical trappings, Mercedes says this next-generation A-Class has the lowest drag coefficient of any commercially available vehicle on the market right now -- the company's chosen design language might not work for everyone, but it certainly has its advantages.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

Normally, a few hours of rain would be enough to put a damper on any company's outdoor product unveiling. The Mercedes A-Class, however, has enough going for it that even a downpour couldn't dampen proceedings. It may well be one of the automakers' most important cars of the year, and at this point, Mercedes seems to deserve the praise. It's a fun, functional, relatively inexpensive vehicle that may just be what the company needs.

Of course, you probably aren't going to buy an A-Class solely because of its infotainment system, but the elegance and fluidity of Mercedes' approach here definitely doesn't hurt. It's a clear sign that the smartphone-ification of cars isn't just persisting, but changing the way we interact with one of the most expensive products we buy.

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