Payne: Entry-level Mercedes A220 samples S-class luxury

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
Starting at $33,475, the Mercedes A220 offers an entry-level Merc with the classiness of a $100k-plus S-class.

Say hello to the entry-level Mercedes A220. Honey, I shrunk the S-class.

I have driven the King of Luxury, the Mercedes S560 (S for Simba) 4MATIC, and it is an exquisite thing. Gorgeous looks, smooth all-wheel drive power, an interior fit for a, well, king. It also costs a king’s ransom to own with a sticker that starts — starts — north of $100,000. And that’s before you add fundamentals like blind-spot assist. I tested a S560 Coupe last year that tipped the scales at $152,195 (cough).

Emerge from a drive with your spouse — drunk on luxury, giggling like schoolchildren — in this divan on wheels and you’ll seriously consider blowing your savings for a summer home to afford it.

You: Comfy cabin up north for weekend getaways with a kitchen and porch looking out on God’s green creation ... or a Mercedes?

Spouse: Oh, the Mercedes, hands down.

You’ll come to your senses eventually. But the wonderful thing about the new entry-level compact A220 sedan is you can sample S-class luxury in an affordable package. Like one-third the price of that coupe. 

Hooking customers on a delicious appetizer to reel them in for the more expensive entrée later in life is not a new idea for Mercedes. Five years ago, the German brand introduced the CLA sedan, the first Mercedes under $30,000.

It was a knockout. A gorgeous, slinky Barbie doll. And just as empty inside. The CLA’s interior seemed an afterthought. Its fit and finish were sloppy, the infotainment screen tacked on to the dash like someone had nailed an Apple tablet there. Reviews were lukewarm even as it warmed new customers to the brand.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try the A220.

Compact sedan 2.0 is a revelation, a junior S-class. Except for decadent items like seat-belt extenders, quilted seats, night vision and a rear wine-bar (OK, I made that last one up), the A220 cub offers everything Simba has.

Twin configurable instrument and infotainment screens are embedded behind a single 10.3-inch horizontal pane of glass. A row of silver aviator vents line up like champagne glasses. There's an exquisitely engineered steering wheel with a tiny touchpad on each spoke to control the multipurpose screen in front of you. Panoramic sunroof. Head-up display. Adaptive cruise-control with auto lane-change. Chrome-flecked grille.

(Pause to catch breath)

Nineteen-inch multi-spoke wheels. All-wheel drive. Automatic high-beams. Automatic windshield wipers. Personalized settings including interior lighting. Multi-way seats. And more.

If you want it all, a fully loaded A220 will ring the cash register at $50,660 — a steep bill, but still a third of a loaded S560. And that’s the point. The entry-level buyer gets a real taste of what a five-star luxury menu is like. It’s delicious.

Faced with this smorgasbord of options, customers might naturally separate the caviar from the tenderloin to arrive at their preferred order. Spec a Mercedes A220 with the all-wheel drive AMG package (which gets you that “Diamond Block” grille and multi-spoke wheels), panoramic roof and red-leather interior (well, a little caviar never hurts), and you will walk away with a properly premium Merc for about $43,000.

Regular readers of this column will recognize that price point as VW Golf R territory, my favorite all-around mainstream car. Can the Mercedes justify its three-pointed star snobbery at the same price point as the rockin’ roomy V-dub?

The Golf R exposes the A220's biggest weakness — powertrain.

Simba 560 boasts a buttery smooth twin-turbo V-8. It's a velvet hammer, one of the industry’s gems. The A220 literally saws big brother’s mill in half to a 2.0-liter single-turbo four-cylinder.

That’s four cylinders, like the VW.

That’s quite a compromise, and it's readily apparent when you put the A220’s hammer down. The eight-speed dual-clutch tranny and turbo are buttery smooth under the cane (though oddly balky at low speed, like a young cub still testing its legs). But they can’t hide the dull buzz of four cylinders straining to put out 188 horsepower.

The Golf R, by contrast, pushes out a gob-smacking 288 horses and will run rings around the Mercedes through Michigan hill country.

Still, the new A220 oozes style from that lovely grille to the LED-piped taillights to the first-class cabin inside.

Automakers have been forced to raise their game by Silicon Valley and its revolutionary Teslas. The Model S and Model 3 have thumped German sedans in sales with phone-like operating systems. Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) is up to the task.

A220 comes with multiple infotainment controllers — touchscreen, the aforementioned steering-wheel mini touch-pads and console touch-pad. But the MBUX voice commands are so good — so phone-like — I usually ignored the hardware. I drove around town talking to the car — its “Hi, Mercedes” command like Android’s “Hey, Google” — and rarely took my hand off the wheel.

Hi, Mercedes, set the temperature to 72 degrees.
Navigate to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
Play Sirius XM Comedy Greats channel.

It understood my hillbilly West Virginia accent like an old friend.

That luxury separates the A220 from the mainstream. Sure, it looks stubby next to Simba (what doesn’t), but the cub has the family DNA, and that’s what counts.

Visuals matter, too. The Golf R is a VW hatchback. The A220 is a gem smoothed by Mercedes craftsmen.

Even the CLA has benefited from the A220’s transformation as it will now be offered as the compact-class “coupe” version with the same interior. So if the A220 is too conservative and underpowered, then let the pricier CLA turn up the heat with its raked roof and 221 ponies.

The beauty of Michigan, of course, is it can test any beauty’s temperament in winter weather. The A220 proved it was no diva, but an all-season athlete. German politicians have spent the last three decades warning of global-warming induced snowless winters. Thank goodness German engineers ignored them.

As Michigan February dumped snow and ice, the A220 and I took to the roads like skiers to Pine Knob. The all-wheel drive system is superb under throttle, allowing me enough juice to power-drift around snowy corners (unlike many nanny systems out here) — and then stopping with superb anti-lock brakes.

At $42,000, that is quite a cub. And you’ll still have money left over for that little cottage up north.

2019 Mercedes A220

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $33,475 base, including $975 destination fee ($50,660 4MATIC model as tested) 

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, inline-4 cylinder

Power: 188 horsepower; 221 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.1 seconds (mfr.); top speed: 130 mph

Weight: 3,285 pounds (3,417 4MATIC as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 25 city/33 highway/28 combined

Report card

Highs: Intimate MBUX connectivity; first-class interior

Lows: Weak turbo-4; price tag may have you looking to upgrade to C-class instead

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.