WHO would have thought that the frumpy, upright hatchback launched by Mercedes-Benz in the late 1990s would wind up having such an interesting journey?
Now 21 years old, the Mercedes-Benz A-Class nameplate has morphed from grocery-getter to perhaps one of the hottest hatches on the planet - and the next generation model promises to take the A-Class to new, more luxurious heights.
From humble beginnings to high-end aspirations, here’s everything you need to know about one of Benz’s most intriguing – and strategically important – models.
You could look at Benz’s thoroughly quirky 1982 NAFA Concept (above) as the car that sowed the seed for the A-Class, with its upright stance, front-wheel drive, tall seating position and almost impossibly short snout, all coupled with a tiny footprint that was better-suited to tight European backstreets than the hulking Benz sedans of the day.
It looked like it rolled straight off the set of some dystopian movie too.
There are greater similarities with Benz’s smart fortwo , given the two-seat layout and triangular silhouette, but making something so small safe enough for the road proved too challenging for Benz in the early 80s. The idea of a compact Mercedes city car would have to be shelved for a decade until safety tech advanced enough.
In 1993 Mercedes revealed the Vision A93 concept at the Frankfurt Motorshow, laying its ambitions for a sub-C-Class compact bare.
The styling would evolve a lot further before the production A-Class finally showed its face in 1996, however the Vision A93 set the template – tall body, five doors, and an innovative architecture underpinning it all. Read on.
First generation – W168, 1997-2004
Debuted as Benz’s answer to Audi’s Golf-based A3 that arrived in Europe in 1996, the A-Class’ primary mission was to give prospective owners a means of putting a three-pointed star in their garage without having to spring for the bigger C-Class.
And it represented a major shift in thinking for Mercedes. Not only was it the first front-wheel drive hatchback to roll into its showrooms, which up until that point had been filled with longitudinally-engined, rear-driven sedans, wagons and coupes, but it also debuted a fairly revolutionary platform.
Informally dubbed the ‘Sandwich’, the W168’s platform was essentially a double-layered floorpan that pushed the passenger compartment up and laid the engine (below) virtually on its side, allowing the crankcase and transmission to sit nearly entirely underneath the front footwells.
Not only did it allow Benz engineers to give the A-Class a cabin that was almost as long as the vehicle itself, but it also enabled the car’s mechanical package to slide underneath the cabin in the event of a crash, rather than push through the firewall.
Safety, then, was a high priority for the A-Class, however that all came undone once Swedish magazine Teknikens Varld capsized a press car while conducting their infamous ‘Elk Test’. Inherent instability issues with the top-heavy and narrow-tracked A-Class were exposed, and weren’t rectified until Mercedes modified the suspension calibration and added electronic stability control.
Nevertheless, the A-Class won favour with older buyers for its high hip-point – a byproduct of the Sandwich floorpan – and production ended with over 1.1 million examples sold. It wasn’t a terribly exciting machine, given the most powerful engine offered was a 103kW 2.1-litre. AMG never fettled a road-going version, but a few hand-built “A38 AMGs” were created by taking an A190 and squeezing the powertrain of another A190 between its rear wheels.
The madcap device had the requisite bodywork and AMG-tuned suspension yet still retained a functional boot space. Only four are believed to have been made – two of which are said to be in Australia.
Second generation - W169, 2004-2012
The second incarnation of the A-Class continued to utilise Benz’s Sandwich platform, however the design matured as Benz moved away from the organic curves of its late-90s lineup and toward a sharper design language.
A three-door bodystyle was added, the C-pillar lost its funky twin-window graphic and the headlamps became pinched to impart a sleeker look to what was still a fairly awkward and egglike form.
Still a bit frumpy, then, but Mercedes did at least turn up the heat with a 144kW/300Nm A200 Turbo variant. Not quite a hot hatch, but with some added herbs the A200 was at least able to accelerate with a little more fervour. AMG elected to steer clear of the second-gen A-Class, however.
The potential of the Sandwich platform was explored further in 2010 with the A-Class E-Cell, a low-volume pure electric car that was never retailed, but was leased as part of an EV trial to select customers in Europe.
Only 500 were planned, but with the space hidden within the sandwich floorpan providing ample room for a 36kWh battery array – supplied to Benz by a fledgling Tesla Motors – and gifting it with an impressive 200km range.
It was also the fastest A-Class to date, with a 5.5-second 0-100km sprint time putting it 0.2 seconds ahead of the twin-engined A38 AMG.
Third generation – W176, 2012-2018
In an effort to boost the appeal of the A-Class among younger, more aspirational buyers – and a tacit admission that the first- and second-generation models were about as visually interesting as a block of commission houses – Mercedes moved away from the ground-breaking Sandwich platform when it wheeled out the third-gen A. In the process, a huge 150mm was chopped from the car’s overall height and 409mm added to its overall length.
There was still plenty of innovation going on underneath, though. The A-Class’s steel skeleton may have reverted to a conventional single-layer floorpan, but the architecture, dubbed MFA by Benz, was a modular platform that could be squeezed and stretched to accommodate a variety of models and thus reduce the cost of vehicle development.
Since the third-gen A-Class launched in 2012, MFA has since gone on to underpin the CLA four-door coupe and shooting brake, the GLA small SUV and the Infiniti Q30/QX30.
And the move to a newer, more conventional platform brought new technology, such as all-wheel drive that didn’t require an extra engine to be grafted on by AMG’s madmen.
AMG’s engineers were nevertheless kept busy with the development of the A45, which debuted in 2013 with the world’s most potent engine on a power-per-litre basis – a turbocharged 2.0 litre petrol inline four with a huge 265kW/450Nm output. Later in the W176’s lifespan those numbers would be cranked up to a scarcely believable 280kW and 475Nm.
Beneath the mighty A45 was the A250 Sport, which arrived first as a front-driver before gaining more power (160kW/350Nm in total) and an extra set of driven wheels in a mid-life update that added 4Matic AWD. Other models in the range are less powerful, but Benz went to great lengths to impart a much sportier flavour in every variant’s appearance and handling in order to attract a younger clientele.
The fourth-gen model is being revealed later this week to the world’s media, and we’ll be there to cover it. What we know so far is this: Benz is aiming for it to have the most premium-feeling cabin in its segment, and will use it to debut its latest-generation infotainment suite. The days of the S-Class being the tech leader for Benz appear to be over.
A sedan bodystyle is also expected, which will be a first for the A-Class. Until now, the CLA has filled the role of a four-door C-segment vehicle in the Mercedes lineup.
The AMG A45 flagship will also be joined by a new AMG A35 variant, which is expected to take over from the A250 Sport as Benz’s entry-level hot hatch. Both will get a performance boost courtesy of electrically-assisted turbos.
And from what we’ve seen of the design, the new A-Class should look more dignified and elegant than before – a far cry from its awkwardly lanky beginnings.