A brief history of… Mercedes-Benz A-Class

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Author: | Updated: 15 Feb 2019 15:25

Like so many 21-year olds, the Mercedes A-Class has been through several trials and tribulations to emerge as the very rounded machine it is today. Little wonder it’s the most popular car to lease so far in 2019, but how did the German firm arrive at a car so many drivers now want?

A brief history of Mercedes-Benz A-Class

The A-Class tottered, in a very literal sense, into the public conscience back in 1998 when Swedish car magazine ‘Teknikens Varld’ conducted its now-infamous elk test with the first-generation model. This emergency avoidance manoeuvre found a chink in the sophisticated Merc’s armour that could, and we stress could, cause the car to tip onto two wheels.

The images that accompanied this test were spectacular and quickly made it into the mainstream press. It caused a safety sensation that Mercedes most definitely did not want, but the company was quick to react and recalled the first 3000 or so cars that had already been sold. The solution was to retro-fit ESP stability control and this driving aid was instantly made standard on all A-Class vehicles going forward. It not only reinstated confidence in the car’s handling but proved a handy marketing tool at a time when safety was becoming a major selling point as this video shows:

Mercedes would rather have made more of the car’s clever design than having to solve an unforeseen safety issue, as the A-Class used a ‘sandwich’ floor structure that placed the cabin’s seats higher than was normal for the period. Underneath was space for the fuel tank to free up room in the boot and, in the event of a frontal collision, the transversely mounted engine and gearbox would be deflected down into this cavity instead of into the cabin. This was possible because of the motor’s slanted design with only the cylinder head visible under the short bonnet for easy maintenance and servicing.

The result was a car that mixed the disciplines and skills of a small hatch and MPV, which was very much the growth category at that point. So, the A-Class was an early adopter of the crossover genre we know so well even if it had no SUV pretensions.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class sandwich floor

Quickly, the A-Class became the school run small hatch of choice for the chattering classes. What wasn’t to like? You had a car that was more spacious inside than a Ford Focus yet smaller outside so it was easy to park, it had a raised driving position for good vision and there was that all-important three-pointed star on the bonnet.

Granted, there were some build quality issues with the first generation of A-Class that were common to all Mercedes of the period. The cost of trying to absorb the ill-fated merger with Chrysler into the Merc portfolio led to this cost-cutting, yet the A-Class went on to sell more than 1.1 million cars before its replacement arrived in 2004.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class 2004

If the first A-Class represented the formative years of the car as it established its place in the world, the next stage was a more confident expression of the idea. The looks were similar but more grown-up and so was the driving experience. Where the first iteration was the purest embodiment of the A-Class ethos, the second smoothed the edges, softened the ride. Here was a car keener to fit in with its siblings and rivals.

For some, that made the Mercedes more acceptable while others found their preferences diverted to the burgeoning SUV market. Either way, the W169 second gen A-Class was a step up in every respect. Cleaner, greener, better handling, smoother riding and with a noticeable improvement in cabin quality, the A-Class was an intriguing alternative to the likes of the Volkswagen Golf or Audi A3 and it sold 1 million to prove the point.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class 2012

That intrigue came to an end when Mercedes launched the third A-Class in 2012. The MPV-cum-supermini mash-up had run its course and now it was time for the small Mercedes to get a snappy haircut, pass its exams and head towards a more mature future. It might be mourned by some that Mercedes chose to go down the more conventional small hatch path with this model, but it’s a decision that paid dividends.

Here was a car that could take the fight directly to the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series, majoring on the talent Mercedes is famous for. This new car had a fuss-free ride and drive allied to excellent build quality. The cabin aped its bigger sister models, delivering everything you could want in a Merc just in a smaller package.

It also spawned the GLA crossover to give Mercedes a surprisingly appealing small SUV, while the A45 super hatch outshone almost every rival with its 360hp engine and all-wheel drive. It might not have been the most engaging hot hatch to drive, but it sure was quick and that counts for a lot in the world of fast car one-upmanship.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class 2018

And now, here we are with the fourth A-Class to come from Mercedes and again it’s more of a refinement of its immediate predecessor in looks and approach. However, don’t discount it on those grounds as this is one of the slickest small hatches you can park your posterior in. It’s packed with useful and easy to use technology, making the latest A-Class tuned in to the smartphone world we live in.

It’s also handsome, good to drive and, if you dodge the least powerful engine, fun to drive. This is an A-Class that has been to university and graduated with first class honours in small hatch brilliance. Mercedes has made it more comfortable than almost any other in the sector, as good to drive as a Ford Focus and better screwed together than an Audi A3. That is an impressive set of skills.

All of this is why the Mercedes A-Class ranks as the most popular car to lease so far in 2019. Given the attractive machine it has grown into, we wouldn’t be surprised if that remained the case now it has the key to door.

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