Published on April 1st, 2017 | by Subhash Nair0
A Short History of the A-Class, 2 Decades After Its Introduction
The production version of the A-Class was unveiled to a global public in March 1997 at the Geneva Motor Show. The all-new model series incorporated more than twenty technical innovations that had never been seen before in this vehicle segment.
The centrepiece was the revolutionary new bodyshell based on the sandwich principle, meaning there was a cavity between the passenger compartment and floor plate. This formed part of the sophisticated safety concept, at the same time as providing space for the components of possible future alternative drive systems, such as batteries or hydrogen tanks.
When it came to the disciplines of spaciousness and safety, the A-Class matched the standard of a mid-size saloon. The innovative rear seat unit and the option of a removable front passenger seat gave it the versatility of a mini MPV and enabled the five-seater to transform into a four-, three-, two- or even a single-seater.
In all, there was a choice of 72 different seating variations, while the A-Class had the load capacity of a large estate car: depending on the position of the rear seats, there was 390 to 1340 litres of space, which could be increased even further to 1740 litres by taking out the front passenger seat. The level floor, the large tailgate and the low boot sill all made it easier to load the boot.
When it came to passive safety, the new model range was of the same high standard as the exemplary Mercedes-Benz E-Class. This was partly down not just to the unique sandwich design principle, but also to the restraint systems fitted as standard. They had been specially adapted to the design of the A-Class with its short crumple zones.
The facelift carried out for the 2001 model year heralded numerous modifications, some of them very extensive, as well as a version extended by 170 millimetres (V 168). The large-format windowbags first fitted by Mercedes-Benz in the S-Class were also now available for the A-Class as an option.
Besides enhancing the model portfolio, production capacity also needed to be increased for the W 168 series A-Class. The then Daimler-Benz AG opted for a new plant sited in the German town of Rastatt, which was officially opened in May 1992. At first, painted bodyshells for the mid-size models from Sindelfingen underwent final assembly there, before Rastatt became the production plant for the A-Class.
The A-Class was earmarked for testing out alternative drive systems from the outset. Its sandwich floor made it ideal for this purpose. Indeed, a version with a battery electric drive and a ZEBRA battery, as it was known, was built back in 1997. The 169 model series that followed included an E-Cell model with lithium-ion battery brought out in 2011. The fuel cell has also provided power for the A-Class: at the 1997 IAA show, Mercedes-Benz revealed its NECAR 3 (New Electric Car) research vehicle with fuel cell drive. This was gradually refined in several stages and renamed F-CELL in 2002.
Nearly 1.1 million cars from the 168 model series were produced in Rastatt up until May 2004. Some 882,661 of these were the standard version, with a further 204,212 long-wheelbase units. Up until September 2005, a further 63,448 vehicles rolled off the production line at the Juiz de Fora plant in Brazil, which started manufacturing the A 160 in 1998 and the A 190 in 2000. Such strong demand was proof of how the gamble the company once took with the original A-Class had really paid off.