Richard Kilpatrick on the innovative small car since the 1959 Mini. Sadly, Germany’s reinvention didn’t go on to inspire as many copies as Issigonis’ baby.
A car with a reputation defined by notoriety and bad publicity at launch, Mercedes-Benz’s most blatant display of innovation undoubtedly shook the venerable firm’s confidence. Even as BMW generates a range of front-wheel drive cars under the MINI marque, it is over a decade later that Mercedes is to launch their first directly comparable FWD competitors in the strongly fought Golf and Jetta segments.
With the announcement of the 2012 W176, the innovative sandwich platform monospace A-class appears to have been an evolutionary dead-end, lasting only two generations and spawning only a couple of derivates – the short-lived Vaneo, and the gawky B-class. Yet the W168 was in many ways the perfect 21st century car – compact, generally efficient, incredibly spacious and comfortable, and carrying a prestigious brand. It out-Minis the MINI by a substantial margin.
Innovation – Not a Lost Art (yet)
It is unfair to suggest that car manufacturers have abandoned innovation – yet it’s clear that the fundamentals of packaging and material science are approached with more caution than during the automotive Zeitgeist of the 1950s and 60s. Casting an eye over those heady, and largely free of regulatory limitation decades, it’s possible to find as many bold new experiments hitting the market as it is to find total commercial failures. Even now, attempts to mess with the conventional have not always been a success, with Audi’s innovative aluminium A2 giving way to steel-bodied, unremarkable successors.
Searching for solutions to provide a small city car, Mercedes’ 1982 NAFA concept – a two-seater reminiscent of Minissima – evolved into the MCC Smart and the 1993 Vision-A concept, both using an innovative sandwich floor and crash protection structure. The A-class was a clean sheet design with no partnership or other firms’ past research absorbed, unlike BMW’s MINI – a wholly new car from the ground up, it is pure Mercedes-Benz engineering, and was conceived as a far-sighted platform with possibilities for 4wd, hybrid and electric drivetrains.
The supermini class footprint of the car – just 3.57m long – ensured it took less space on the road than popular conventional models like the Renault Clio and MINI, yet the interior space rivaled that of cars much larger. A width of 1.7m was disguised in part by the height, with the upright driving position already well established as a way of making cars feel more spacious.
A truly super supermini.
The high driving position accorded excellent visibility for driver and passengers alike, even if the thick A-pillars were a sign of things to come for all cars. I’ve driven both short and long wheelbase cars regularly, an A140 manual SWB and an A140 auto LWB, and found them stable, entertaining and considerably nicer than any similarly-sized car on long journeys. The LWB one was regularly pressed into service for drives to and from Scotland, including helping to move house on a couple of occasions, and even took the band DeathBoy for a 400-mile round trip for a gig in the North East.
Not just the band members – four, plus myself driving. Their drumkit, guitars, electronics and overnight bags. And no complaints from the passengers despite the long day and late night. Try that in a Clio or MINI!
And regular maintenance was straightforward enough. Compared to the appetite for wheelbearings and general trim and ‘broken’ bits often encountered on this class of car, the Mercedes proved reliable – a new battery at 8 years old on the automatic, and a suspension recall on the SWB model for rear trailing arms the only notable points.
Both cars crucially had the Lamella roof – a 3/4 length folding sunroof made of slatted solid panels. It’s something I consider an integral part of the car’s character, unusually airy and pleasant.
The drawback of the short wheelbase model was a pitching ride quality, particularly at low speeds. If ever a car could have benefitted from Hydragas…
It’s now a few years since I have driven an A-class, not for lack of desire. The banger-money examples are still the pre-facelift models, with cruder interiors and lacking all of the stability modifications. Whilst only a small number of cars were sold before the standard (recall included) fitting of ESP, the wider tyres and track, the improvements in build quality and the slight finessing of the styling with the bumper inserts make the 2001 models more desirable. And of course, that long wheelbase variant.
The 3.77m long LWB variation introduced in 2001 (with several other revisions and improvements to the car including a mature, refined dashboard design) gave greater passenger space than an E-class, a maximum load capacity approaching 1600 litres (2,000 litres and 2.27m load length if the optional removable front passenger seat were installed), yet even the diminutive original could boast nearly 1200 litres with the rear seats removed. Compared to typical cars in the class, where 600-700 litres was the norm, the flat floor and tall roof allowed the diminutive car to carry things like washing machines upright.
A range of four cylinder engines, of compact alloy design with 8V heads and capacities from 1.4 to 1.9 litres powered the 1100Kg A-class. The M116 was purpose designed for the A-class – the tall engine was slanted quite dramatically in a wedge-shaped power “package”, that in the event of an accident slides under the sandwich floor. This, and the strength of the body, allowed the minimal front overhang and crumple zone to retain a high degree of safety in a collision. Of course, drawbacks existed with this layout – maintenance is far from straightforward for the home mechanic should things fail, though there are no inherent weaknesses in the drivetrain (semi-automatic aside).
Diesel, and a 2.1 litre 16v option (the rare A210 Evo), were also offered.
Such is the package of the original W168 A-class, if legislation came out that required drivers to only own one car, then even as a car enthusiast I would seek out an automatic A190 LWB with the highest spec and sunroof I could find. On all practical levels, and even on some emotional ones, the A-class accomplished something almost unprecedented in terms of packaging, practicality and appeal since the launch of the original Mini in 1959.
With 1.5 million shipped, the W168 may not be the most obvious of unsung heroes – and perhaps grudgingly, the mainstream press forgets the infamous Elk-test occasionally and acknowledges the bold, dramatic step Mercedes-Benz took when launching the A-class as a competitor to the Mk IV Golf and derivatives in a package smaller than a Ford Ka.
Yet it deserves a place as such, not because the song is silent amongst buyers and critics, but because Mercedes themselves have turned to industry standard – the bloated, the inefficient, the conventional, in replacing the A-class. The 2012 model is 4.3m long and 1.8m wide, and weighs 200Kg more, offers less luggage capacity than the LWB original model and less practicality.
Even the Smart marque has suffered the ravages of Euro-NCAP bloat, with a protruding nose, and the ForFour model – the natural placement for the W169/W169 platform – is long gone, with a rumoured replacement based on a Renault shared platform (as the A-class’s relative, the Vaneo, will be based on the Kangoo).
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