Only those who dare win: looking back, this might have been the mission statement for the development and market launch of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. In March 1997 the brand presented the highly innovative vehicle to the international public at the Geneva Motor Show. The new model known in-house as the W 168 series received plenty of attention – and soon attracted criticism. This was because an A-Class overturned during the so-called "Elk test" by a Swedish motoring journalist. And Mercedes-Benz responded: the A‑Class was given a revised suspension system and the Electronic Stability Programme ESP® as standard. In this way the brand raised the safety of compact cars to a further improved level. This high standard was to put its stamp on the whole industry. It started the success story that is the A-Class.
In 1993, at the International Motor Show (IAA), Mercedes-Benz provided an initial preview of the future A-Class: the brand presented the near-series study "Vision A 93". The front-wheel drive vehicle attracted lively attention. This was because it impressively demonstrated how Mercedes-Benz was able to resolve a classic conflict of aims in automobile engineering for the first time: the A-Class combined small exterior dimensions and a large, variable interior with a safety level meeting the high standards of the brand within a unique overall concept. For this reason the "Vision A 93" was far more than just a design or technical study. On the contrary, it pointed the way to a previously undefined market segment for the brand. It decisively influenced the development of the future Mercedes-Benz A-Class (W 168).
The premiere of this compact model was embedded in the extensive model initiative on which Mercedes-Benz had embarked. This marked the brand's diversification into several new market segments. This also included rounding the portfolio off at the lower end, with the A-Class itself. The smaller SLK Roadster (1996) was aimed at the lifestyle market. And in 1997 the M-Class founded the Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) segment, which retains its great importance to this day.
The spaciousness, comfort and safety of a medium-class saloon
The series production A-Class was presented to the international public at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1997. More than twenty technical innovations previously non-existent in this vehicle category were incorporated into the new model series. The centrepiece was the innovative bodyshell constructed on the sandwich principle: this featured a cavity between the floor panel and the passenger compartment. This was part of the sophisticated safety concept, and also provided space for the components of future alternative drive systems, e.g. batteries or hydrogen cylinders.
With respect to spaciousness, comfort and safety, the A-Class achieved the same level as a medium-class saloon. The innovative rear seat and the optionally removable front passenger seat offer the variability of a minivan and enable the five-seater to be transformed into a four-, three-, two- or one-seater. A total of 72 different seat variations were possible.
With respect to passive safety, the new model series was at the same, high level as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Apart from the unique sandwich principle, this was also attributable to the restraint systems included as standard. They were specifically configured for the concept of the A-Class with its short deformation paths.
In addition to numerous, sometimes very extensive changes, the facelift for model year 2001 brought a version extended by 170 millimetres (V 168). Large windowbags which Mercedes-Benz had first used in the S-Class now also became optionally available for the A-Class.
The W 168-series A-Class not only enhanced the model portfolio, but also required further production capacities. The then Daimler-Benz AG decided to build a new plant in Rastatt, Germany, and this was officially opened in May 1992. Initially the plant completed the assembly of painted medium-class bodyshells from Sindelfingen before Rastatt became the A-Class plant.
Testing of alternative drive systems
The A-Class was envisaged for the testing of alternative drive systems from its inception. Its sandwich floor made it ideally suitable for this. As early as 1997, a version emerged with battery-electric drive and the so-called Zebra battery. In 2011 it was followed by the E-CELL model with a lithium-ion battery in the succeeding 169 series. The A-Class was also powered by the fuel cell: at the IAA show in 1997 Mercedes-Benz exhibited the NECAR 3 (New Electric Car) research vehicle with fuel cell drive. This was developed further in several stages, and renamed the F-CELL in 2002.
Up to May 2004 almost 1.1 million units of the 168 series were produced in Rastatt. 882,661 of these were the standard version, and another 204,212 examples had the long wheelbase. In addition another 63,448 units left the production line at the Brazilian plant in Juiz de Fora by September 2005, which produced the A 160 from 1998 and the A 190 from 2000. The lively demand certainly justified the risk the company had entered into with the first A-Class.
Mercedes-Benz systematically built on this success: in spring 2004 the completely newly developed second generation of the A‑C lass entered the market. It was available in four-door (W 169) and two-door (C 169) versions. The series was systematically expanded into a model family: the next derivative based on the platform was the B-Class (T 245, 2005).
The new generation: compact cars from 2012
From 2011, with the new B-Class (W 246), Mercedes-Benz began to radically reposition itself in the compact car segment. This became particularly obvious in 2012, with the third generation of the A-Class (W 176): this was a decidedly sporty and youthful package that attracted completely new customers to Mercedes-Benz. Further additions to the segment were the CLA (C 117, 2013), CLA Shooting Brake (X 117, 2015) and GLA (X 156, 2014). The B-Class Electric Drive, Mercedes-Benz's first all-electric vehicle, followed in 2014.
No other premium manufacturer can lay claim to such a comprehensive range of compact cars as Mercedes-Benz: five body variants, front-wheel drive and 4MATIC, manual or dual clutch transmission, a whole host of petrol and diesel engines, plus electric or natural-gas drive in the B-Class, and Mercedes-AMG models that take dynamics to a new level. The compact models have already been supplied to customers in 170 markets around the globe. They are produced in a flexible and efficient production network with plants in Europe (Germany, Hungary and Finland) and China, plus Mexico in future.
The expansion and rejuvenation of the product range are key factors behind the sustained market success that Mercedes-Benz has enjoyed. The Mercedes-Benz brand has become noticeably more youthful since the introduction of the third-generation compact models. The average age of European drivers of the current A-Class generation is now more than 10 years younger than for the preceding model series. Around one in two drivers of a current Mercedes-Benz compact car in Europe previously owned a competitor vehicle. The capture rate of the A-Class is more than 60 percent in Europe.