The new generation of ‘Baby Benz’ was launched at the 1997 Geneva motor show, with this year’s event mere days away, we take a look back at this model’s chequered past.
The A-class was billed as the car of the future when it was launched nearly twenty years ago. Yet today, it has become a conventional five-door premium hatch, boasting none of the radical features of its previous incarnations. What happened to cause one of the industry’s leading innovators to backtrack?
The automotive world was caught in a real buzz by the new ‘Baby Benz’ in 1997, the same year that Tony Blair became Prime Minister, the Lion King debuted on Broadway and Princess Diana sadly perished in a car accident. It was Stuttgart’s first stab at a market segment traditionally held by Volkswagen; known in Germany as the Golf class. The boss of Volkswagen at the time, Ferdinand Piech, thought the A-class was an unnecessary challenge to their sovereignty and in response, he ordered his engineers to design a vehicle that would rival Mercedes’ S-class, resulting in the Volkswagen Phaeton.
The A-class was a development of the Vision A93 concept car from the 1993 Frankfurt motor show, showcasing Mercedes’ first front-drive vehicle. Industry experts at the time believed that the nose and tail of the production vehicle would grow to accommodate a larger engine and boot area. They were to be proved wrong when the car was finally launched at Geneva, three and a half years later.
Mercedes’ engineers managed this by creating what they called a ‘sandwich’ layout. This added 200mm of height, but crucially, shortened the vehicle by 500mm compared to its rivals. The passengers sat on a flat floor above the major mechanical and electrical components, creating a void that could be adapted to incorporate either a battery pack or hydrogen fuel cell.
When it was launched in 1997, the A-class was powered by brand-new 1.4 and 1.6-litre petrol engines, and a 1.7-litre direct injection diesel. Its engines were designed to slide under the vehicle in the event of a front impact, rather than into the passenger compartment. This allowed the engineers to give the vehicle an incredibly short front end.
The press liked the efficient use of space but had their concerns about the new car’s stability. This became a major issue when the Swedish magazine Teknikens Värld rolled an early example whilst conducting an ‘elk test’. To their credit, Mercedes acted swiftly by halting A-class production and developed a fix within four weeks. They lowered the ride height, extended the track, fitted stiffer suspension and a thicker anti-roll bar at the front. They also fitted ESP (Electronic Stability Programme) as standard, which has only been a compulsory requirement for car manufacturers since 2014.
Obviously, this was a major story back in 1997, but it wasn’t the only vehicle to suffer a major safety gaff at the beginning of production. Believe it or not, it was the A-class’ arch rival, the then-new Volkswagen Golf IV, which suffered from weak spot welds on its B-pillar. This was only highlighted during side-impact crash testing conducted prior to its German launch. Over 5000 new Golfs were scrapped because of this and start-up production was cut by a half whilst the issue was resolved.
By the end of production in 2004, 1.5 million W168 A-classes were built. A long-wheelbase A-class joined the range in 2001, along with a higher roofed Vaneo in 2002. The innovative sandwich concept was further refined and carried forward the second-generation W169 A-class: which gained a much better interior and improved ride quality.
However, because of the higher development costs of a unique platform and the lack of compatibility of its engines with other Mercedes products, this innovative concept was dropped for the W176 generation car. Mercedes was by now facing much stiffer competition from the likes of the Audi A3 and BMW 1-series, both of which used cheaper, more conventional hatchback designs which outsold the MPV-like A-class by a considerable margin.
In the end, the A-class managed to prove that the Mercedes brand could be stretched to include downsized vehicles without damaging its premium image. True, there were better handling rivals out there, but nothing could match it for its practicality. The revolutionary ‘sandwich’ design may not have taken off in the way that Issigonis’ FWD MINI did, but it has been the only vehicle to have created an interesting alternative, one which managed to succeed in being both smaller and safer than its peers.