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Mercedes Benz A Class

The German auto maker brings its "A Game" to the popular premium compact segment

by Ryan McManus in Design on 07 March 2012

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"A is for Attack." So said Daimler AG chairman Dieter Zetsche as he took to the stage to introduce the new A Class, a car that Mercedes Benz has designed from the ground up as an entry point for aspirational consumers eager to experience the quality Mercedes offers. No longer a tall compact—Mercedes is shifting that focus to their B Class—the new A is designed as a premium compact to appeal to the newest car buyers. Mercedes sees the 1992 190 as the spiritual predecessor to the A, and while the term "Baby Benz" used to be derogatory, this new A is intended to be less a car you settle for and more an entrance into a lifetime of Mercedes Benz ownership.

The philosophy of the A Class originates in the concept of a young driver's always-on connectivity, with Mercedes believing that a car is meant not only transport you, but to share and experience those journeys as they happen.

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Having spent the previous few days with Mercedes, we were already becoming familiar with the thinking behind this new car, and how they intended to reach this aspirational audience. We participated in what MB called "Hunting the New A Class", a two-day mission through Switzerland which culminated in the world premiere of the new A. Having first arrived in Zurich, we were tasked with using the Mercedes' in-car COMAND system and its integration with Google maps to find our first waypoint—a lecture on the telemetry and design of the A Class. The A represents the biggest design challenge Mercedes has undertaken as of late: how to you invent a completely new product that both honors your heritage while appealing to an energetic, less stodgy market? Fortunately the design and production of the A drew much of its cues (externally, at least) from the Concept A Class, which envisioned the Mercedes style through a near-futuristic lens inspired, in part, by the work of Zaha Hadid.

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Our next waypoint utilized COMAND's Facebook integration to navigate us. We "friended" a Mercedes employee who then checked in on Facebook. By asking our test car (an SLK 200) to find our friends, we were able to map a route automatically to where he was waiting.

These types of integrated social tools, while novel and useful, are far from unique to Mercedes. Even the reading of status updates via text-to-speech is available on most mid-level Ford vehicles. The real ace in the hole for the A Class is the close integration with Apple's iPhone, and SIRI in particular. The 2013 A Class is the first vehicle to offer built-in SIRI integration as part of the car, through a free iOS app called DriveStyle.

The Achilles heel of software development for automotive integration is that it is often bound to the development cycle of the car, meaning innovations and upgrades would happen every few years, not months. Mercedes has solved this by decoupling the A's app development from the car itself: the social, navigational and entertainment systems are tied to the iPhone app that is mirrored on the car's display when the phone is docked. Drivers can start their car in the morning to find new functionality already added, without a trip to the dealer. Mercedes also has plans to have an "app store" of sorts for DriveStyle in the future, allowing users to decide which functions they would like to add.

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In creating an independent system, the app's evolution and refinement can happen at a much more rapid pace, adapting to the ever-shifting connectivity requirements of its user. Mercedes-Benz recognizes the need for this seperate development cycle, and has invested in the strategy by starting an 80+ person office in Palo Alto assigned specifically to keep up with progress (and stay close to Apple). They call them their "in-house geeks". With that many people working with a full-time focus on digital experiences, don't expect DriveStyle to stay exclusive to the A for long.

While the new A is only available in Europe to start, we can't imagine it being kept from the U.S. for long—with Audi's new A3, BMW's 1 series and a new Volvo V40 all available here, the A can't be far behind. While it's only available as a five-door to start, we were promised that Mercedes sees this as the start of a family—one we hope includes a three-door like the original Concept A.

The new A Class represents a sort of critical moment for Mercedes: can a car company so rooted in history and tradition bend toward a very non-traditional emerging consumer while still staying true to their brand's image and promise? Will the new A cost Mercedes some exclusivity, or will it extend their brand's reach to the very beginning of car ownership? While only driving the A Class will answer this question definitively, we expect this represents a bankable future.

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