At the International Motor Show in Frankfurt/Main in September 1993, Mercedes‑Benz presented the close-to-production study of a prospective new vehicle class with front-wheel drive. The "Vision A 93" attracted instant worldwide attention, having emphatically demonstrated that it was possible to create a unique new vehicle concept which reconciled seemingly conflicting aims – although compact in size, the vehicle offered a large, adaptable interior and Mercedes‑Benz safety standards.
Despite an external length of just 3.35 metres, the generous amount of space on board and ease of access rivalled those of full-size mid-range saloons. The "Vision A 93" was also extremely adaptable: from a comfortable four-seater to an estate with a load capacity of 1000 litres, every conceivable customer wish could be met. The basis for the revolutionary spatial concept was a new, raised floor assembly which – to some extent as a side effect – made possible a level of crash safety never before seen in a compact car.
The "Vision A 93" was far more than just a design or technology study; it was designed to point the way ahead to a market segment at that point not yet defined by Mercedes‑Benz and influence the development of the future A‑Class. Following an overwhelmingly positive response from the public and the media, the company pressed ahead with selecting the production site. On 14 December 1993, after long and difficult negotiations, Mercedes‑Benz decided that the new A‑Class would be produced in Rastatt, thereby favouring the third Mercedes‑Benz Passenger Car plant, inaugurated in 1992, over other locations which had been considered in France, the UK and the Czech Republic.
In 1994 Mercedes‑Benz exhibited the slightly modified concept vehicle at the Geneva Motor Show under the name "Studie A". The US publication "Motor Week" awarded it the title "Best Concept Car 1994".
As the development of the A‑C lass progressed, the press and the public were kept informed of all the latest details – an absolutely unique move in the history of the company, particularly so far in advance of the start of series production. In August 1994, 60 motoring journalists from Germany and other countries got to test drive the DM 1.5 million prototype and experience the practical strengths of the future A‑Class under normal driving conditions.
At the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1995, two years after the world premiere of the "Vision A 93", the company presented the interior concept of the A‑Class and announced that the new vehicle was to be 225 millimetres longer than the study. This meant that the respectable amount of space already on offer, particularly in the load compartment, had been increased further still. The reaction to the extensive adaptability of the interior was very positive. At the same time, the company launched the "Forum for the New Car", the aim of which was to provide a platform which offered an interested public the latest information about the A‑Class.
The company also announced at the Frankfurt Motor Show that it intended to produce the new vehicle not only in Rastatt, but also in Brazil, where it aimed to expand production capacity. The go-ahead was given six months later when, on 19 April 1996, the relevant contracts were signed in Brasilia: from the end of 1998, around 1500 employees in Juiz de Fora, situated between Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte, were to begin producing 70,000 units a year for the South American market.
On 20 May 1996, the A‑Class again took centre stage when the advertising and communication campaign was launched in Germany and six other European countries via television commercials, adverts in printed media and the internet. The reason for this early start was the awareness that interested parties begin to research cars around 12 to 18 months prior to purchase. Because Mercedes‑Benz had created the A‑Class as a totally new vehicle category and potential customers had no predecessor model to refer to, it was all the more important to familiarise interested parties with the future product as early as possible.
Shortly before this the W168, as the A‑Class was known internally, had passed various crash tests at the Sindelfingen development centre, demonstrating that even a compact vehicle with short crumple zones could achieve the high safety standards of Mercedes‑Benz. This was primarily due to the new sandwich-design body which was divided into two horizontal planes, one above the other. The passenger compartment took up the upper area, while the drive assemblies were positioned at an angle in front of and below the intermediate floor. In a frontal collision, the drive unit slid away beneath the passenger cell, presenting no risk of injury to the occupants. The A‑Class not only complied with future EU directives on frontal collisions, but also met the stringent safety requirements set by the European Union and the USA with regard to lateral collisions.
The first official information and photos of the final series-produced version of the vehicle were released to the press at the beginning of December 1996, and the world premiere of the A‑Class followed three months later at the Geneva Motor Show. Just two months after the presentation of the CLK in Detroit, this event marked a further milestone in the Mercedes‑Benz strategic product initiative.
In the new model series over 20 technical innovations were implemented which had not hitherto existed in this product category. Thanks to the unique sandwich principle, the A‑Class delivered the spatial comfort and safety standards of a mid-range saloon. The innovative rear seats and the option of a removable front passenger seat offered the adaptability of a mini MPV and allowed the five-seater vehicle to be transformed into a four, three, two or one-seater. In total, there were 72 potential seat variations. The A‑Class could also rival large estates in terms of load capacity, offering 390 to 1340 litres, depending on the position of the rear seats, or, with the front passenger seat removed, an impressive 1740 litres. The flat floor, large tailgate and low load compartment sill made loading easy.
The robust floor assembly with its combination of straight longitudinal members and cross members was an integral part of the innovative safety concept. At the front end of the longitudinal members was a novel front module made of aluminium, with two lateral crash boxes. These were bolted to the longitudinal members and could be replaced quickly and relatively cheaply in the event of an accident. For the first time in large-scale production at Mercedes‑Benz, a plastic was used for the front wings which quickly resumed its original form following a minor collision, without the need for repairs or paintwork. To save weight, the tailgate was also made from plastic. The easy-to-repair design of the A‑Class not only reduced repair costs following an accident, but also resulted in low comprehensive insurance costs.
In terms of passive safety, the new model series achieved practically the same level as the exemplary model series 210 E‑Class. Besides the unique sandwich principle, the restraint systems installed as standard and specially adapted to the A‑Class concept with its short crumple zones contributed to this result. They included full-size airbags for the driver and front passenger, automatic seat belts, with belt tensioners on the front and outer rear seats, and belt force limiters on the front seats.
When developing the drive unit, new ground had to be broken, since the engine and transmission in the A‑Class, as in no other car, were elementary parts of the spatial and safety concept. The target displacement class and the dimensions and installation position of the engines made a traditional approach impossible and required new designs. The result was a totally new generation of four-cylinder engines with a light-alloy engine block: two petrol engines which formed part of the M 166 series and two series OM 668 turbodiesel engines. As a result of strict weight-shedding, all four engines were over 25 percent lighter than other four-cylinder units in their displacement class. The drive unit was installed at an angle, directly beneath the pedal floor. The upper side of the drive block, facing the passenger compartment floor, was designed as a sliding surface, so that the engine and transmission combination was able to slide downwards along the pedal floor in the event of a frontal collision.
The petrol engines were already available at the start of production and delivered 60 kW (82 hp) from a 1.4-litre displacement or 75 kW (102 hp) from a displacement of 1.6 litres. The diesel engines with outputs of 66 kW (90 hp) and 44 kW (60 hp), launched in the spring and autumn of 1998 respectively, featured four valves per cylinder, turbocharging and electronically controlled, common-rail direct injection (CDI). Both variants had a displacement of 1.7 litres. In the 44 kW version with reduced output and optimised consumption, the amount of fuel to be injected was reduced, the turbocharger was adapted to the altered conditions, and the charge air cooler was omitted. To distinguish between models with the same displacement, the reduced-output variant was offered as the A 160 CDI.
The two direct-injection models, which were presented in Geneva as the A 160 Turbodiesel and A 170 Turbodiesel, did not acquire the name CDI until November 1997. However, common-rail technology, developed by Mercedes‑Benz in partnership with Bosch, made its world premiere in these two models. While conventional systems generated the pressure for each injection process from scratch, CDI engines worked with a common rail, in which the pressure was stored and distributed to the injection nozzles via solenoid valves. The high injection pressure of up to 1350 bar, which was available even at low engine speeds, and the variable control of the injection process resulted in a significantly improved mixture formation, which resulted in high torque, low fuel consumption and low exhaust emissions. This cutting-edge diesel technology was first used in series production, however, in the C‑Class, when, in December 1997, the first models of the C 220 CDI were delivered, having been presented two months earlier in Frankfurt.
The new Active Service System ASSYST, which continuously analyses the oil quality in the engine, allowed the service intervals for all A‑Class engines to be based on actual operating conditions, which meant that intervals could be extended to up to 40,000 kilometres. The innovative four-cylinder engines were produced at the Untertürkheim plant, where passenger car engines had been manufactured since 1904.
Like the engines, the A‑Class transmissions were also new developments, their angled outer surface tailored to the bodywork and safety concept. The five-speed manual transmission, part of the standard equipment, weighed just 32 kilograms, making it the lightest transmission in its torque class. An automatic transmission with five speeds and electronic control, available as an option from summer 1998, was another of the technical milestones of the new model – 315 millimetres long and weighing 68 kilograms, it was the world's shortest and lightest five-speed automatic transmission. As a cheaper alternative to the automatic transmission, there was also an automatic clutch system which made its debut in the A‑Class. When the driver took his or her foot off the accelerator and moved the shift lever, the system recognised the intention to change gear and opened the clutch via an electric motor.
The A‑Class chassis also had to be developed from scratch. It was not possible to adapt existing designs, as these were not compatible with the innovative spatial concept. At the front, a modified McPherson system with coil springs, twin-tube gas-filled shock absorbers and a torsion-bar stabiliser was therefore used. The axle components were mounted together with the rack-and-pinion steering and the engine and transmission assembly on a subframe which was bolted to the bodywork at eight points. At the rear, a trailing-arm suspension with coil springs, single-tube gas-filled shock absorbers and a torsion-bar stabiliser was used. This axle assembly could be arranged beneath the load compartment floor without affecting the interior space. The shock absorbers and springs were mounted obliquely in front of the wheel centre in a space which could not be used in any other way.
Power steering, fitted as standard, worked with an electronically controlled pump with an output that could be regulated according to requirements. For the event of a flat tyre, TIREFIT tyre sealant was available. In the German market, this was included as part of the standard equipment and sealed the damaged tyre for the journey to the workshop. The system included an electric air pump which was connected to the on-board power supply via the cigarette lighter. Alternatively, a full-size spare wheel was available as an option at no extra cost.
The A‑Class appointments followed the proven concept of different design and equipment lines. Three variants – CLASSIC, ELEGANCE and AVANTGARDE – were available, all of which came with a comprehensive assortment of standard equipment. Compared with the basic CLASSIC version, the ELEGANCE variant offered a range of additional interior and exterior features. These included light-alloy wheels, a radiator grille and exterior mirrors painted in vehicle colour, chrome inlays in the door handles and two-tone tail light lenses. The AVANTGARDE was the advanced-technology model variant, featuring light-alloy wheels with wide-base tyres, a silver-painted radiator grille, exterior mirrors in vehicle colour and single-tone tail light lenses.
Sales of the new A‑Class began on 5 May 1997, the prices having been announced on 30 April. The annual production quota scheduled for 1997 sold out very quickly and potential customers soon had to accept longer lead times.
In September 1997, four years after the presentation of the "Vision A 93" study, the series-produced version of the A‑Class was presented for the first time in all three available design and equipment lines at the 57th International Motor Show in Frankfurt/Main. In the same month, large-scale production of the petrol-engine A 140 and A 160 models began in Rastatt. The assembly plant manufactured the first-generation A‑Class in a coordinated production system with six other German Mercedes‑Benz plants: the sheet metal components came from Sindelfingen, the engines, transmissions, front axles and drive shafts from Untertürkheim, the oil and water pumps, crankshafts and camshafts from Berlin, the differentials from Kassel, the steering systems from Düsseldorf and finally the rear axles, steering column tubes, exhaust manifolds and lever-type hand brakes from Hamburg.
In the body shell shop, 290 individual sheet metal parts and 3700 welding spots combined to produce a complete A‑Class bodyshell, which was then painted using a unique process worldwide – one which excelled in terms of environmental compatibility, efficiency and quality. The principal elements of this fully-automated process, which Mercedes‑Benz developed in partnership with BASF and Dürr Systems, were the integrated painting concept which allowed the omission of the filler layer, the powder slurry method for the solvent-free clear coat and a novel corrosion protection concept which did not require cavity conservation.
On 18 October 1997, the market launch finally took place, and the A‑Class was presented to the public at Mercedes‑Benz sales and service outlets and dealerships. Delivery of the first customer vehicles began a few days later. This appeared to mark the end of the first chapter of a story that the public had been following intensively for over four years.
However, on 21 October 1997, an A‑Class tipped over in a driving test in Sweden during an evasive driving manoeuvre known in Scandinavia as the "elk test". This non-standardised test consisted of two successive lane changes and was carried out with a full load and at high speed. The outcome of this extreme driving manoeuvre resonated across the media and threatened to tarnish the image of the new product and the Mercedes‑Benz brand.
An international press conference held in Stuttgart on 29 October 1997 failed to alleviate the situation. In fact, renewed attacks were made, since the media throughout Europe had, in the meantime, carried out their own tests, with varying degrees of proficiency, and had come to significantly differing results. Neither the certificate from the TÜV Südwest technical inspection authority, which had attested to the A‑Class's full safety compliance following tests on 26 October under standardised and reproducible conditions, nor the decision by the Daimler‑Benz Board to fit the A‑Class as standard with the ESP® dynamic handling control system appeared to help.
On 5 November 1997, following extensive testing, the German motoring association ADAC announced its conclusion that the A‑Class had passed their tests in the same way as the other models in its vehicle category. In the meantime, the engineers and technicians at the Passenger Car Development department at Mercedes‑Benz were feverishly carrying out further tests to find a chassis and suspension set-up which would allow the A‑Class to outperform the competition in extreme tests under abnormal conditions.
The argument, which became extremely heated, was finally resolved on 11 November 1997, when Jürgen E. Schrempp, the then Chair of the Board of Management at Daimler‑Benz AG, presented the solution. Through painstaking efforts, the test and development teams had managed to optimise the chassis and suspension set-up to improve handling in extreme situations.
It was important now to implement these findings in production as quickly as possible; the modifications included new stabilisers and a new spring/damper tuning for the axles, lowering of the body and the use of wider tyres. In order to go a step further and secure the A‑Class a lead over its rivals in the field of "active safety" too, the standard equipment now included the enhanced Electronic Stability Program ESP®. ASR and the Brake Assist System (BAS) rounded off the standard equipment for the modified version. With this modified chassis and safety concept, the A‑Class was now able to cope with critical road situations, which no other vehicle in this market segment could master: on snow, on ice and in the wet.
To be able to implement the new concept in large-scale production, a lead time of twelve weeks was required, during which deliveries of the A‑Class had to be halted. Vehicles which had already been delivered to around 2600 customers were retrofitted in specially equipped service centres. The customers affected returned their A‑Class and were offered the use of another Mercedes‑Benz model until the modifications were complete. The skilled retrofit for all European markets took place at four central locations: in Rastatt, Lahr, Turin and at the Hambach plant, where the smart city coupé from Micro Compact Car AG was set to go into production in summer 1998.
On 10 and 12 November 1997, the quality of the new Mercedes‑Benz model was underlined when the A‑Class won two coveted awards: on 10 November, board member Jürgen Hubbert was presented with the "Großer Österreichischer Automobilpreis 1997" [Grand Austrian Automobile Prize] by the Austrian chancellor Viktor Klima, and two days later, the A‑Class was awarded the "Golden Steering Wheel" by the "Bild am Sonntag" newspaper in Berlin. In both cases, the jury had reached their decision before the incident in Sweden. None of the jurors who decided on the coveted Austrian prize withdrew their vote for the A‑Class following the outlined events.
Daimler‑Benz agreed to let an expert member of the jury, which awarded the "Golden Steering Wheel", test an A‑Class with ESP® to provide reassurance. Rally professional Rauno Altonen put the A‑Class through the "elk test" and a standardised slalom test 38 times at different speeds, all above the required 60 km/h, and with different loads. In all of the tests, the vehicle proved good-natured, safe and easy to handle. The ESP® system impressively demonstrated its effectiveness. Even when Altonen tried to provoke critical situations, the electronic system nipped them in the bud.
Any lingering doubts were dispelled when, on 8 December 1997, an A‑Class fitted with modified chassis and suspension technology and ESP® took the "elk test" on a test track near Barcelona and passed with flying colours. Behind the wheel were the German and Swedish motoring journalists whose test results had made headlines in October, and also the former Formula 1 champion Niki Lauda. All testers were unanimous that the modified A‑Class had effortlessly passed the "elk test", even at higher speeds, and they attested to the new compact Mercedes' safe, agile and comfortable handling.
On 9 February 1998, the first modified variants began to roll off the production line in Rastatt, following delivery of the long-awaited ESP® control units. By 26 February, availability at all European sales outlets was assured.
At the Turin Motor Show in April 1998, Mercedes‑Benz exhibited a study which demonstrated the versatility of the A‑Class concept. The magma red "Turin" show car featured special exterior and interior design elements that above all emphasised the sporty, dynamic attributes of the compact multipurpose saloon. The front apron, side skirts and rear apron had been subtly modified in style and, together with the 18-inch, five-spoke light-alloy rims, specially developed for the show car, hinted at sporting ambitions. The design study featured size 225/35 ZR 18 low-profile tyres at the front and rear.
In July 1998 delivery of the A 170 CDI began, marking the start of the A‑Class diesel era. Three months later, the market launch of the second diesel model, the A 160 CDI, took place, sales having commenced in June. In Germany, the A 160 CDI was exclusively available in the CLASSIC design and equipment line, with a five-speed manual transmission and size 155/70 R 15 tyres. In other European countries it was available in all the design and equipment lines and with an automatic transmission, and the A 160 CDI, like the more powerful model variants, featured size 195/50 R 15 tyres.
In November 1998 the "Öko-Trend" environmental research institute in Wuppertal named the A 160 CDI "Germany's most environmentally compatible car", praising its "outstanding environmental qualities". It was the first time that the coveted title, awarded after analysis of over 1000 passenger car models, had gone to a lower mid-range vehicle rather than a subcompact car. Alongside its low consumption, low exhaust emissions and low noise levels, a key factor in the A 160 CDI's emphatic success was the environmentally friendly production of the A‑Class.
A few days after the presentation of this award, the A‑Class made headlines once again. On 14 November 1998, as part of the "Stars & Cars" show traditionally held at the Untertürkheim plant at the end of the motor racing season, the new Formula 1 champion Mika Häkkinen and his team mate David Coulthard were each presented with a luxury edition. The near-production study, known as the A 190 Twin, was equipped with twin 1.9‑litre engines, which together produced an output of 184 kW (250 hp) for exceptionally sporty performance. The A 190 Twin accelerated from 0 to 100 km/h in 5.7 seconds and had a top speed of 230 km/h.
The special development, manufactured primarily from series-production components, underlined once more the flexibility of the A‑Class concept. While one of the two engines was fitted in the usual position beneath the bonnet, the second unit was located beneath the load compartment floor and drove the rear axle. What made the twin-engine drive system possible was the automatic clutch, which was available as an optional extra for the retail A‑Class models. Its electronic control ensured that both engines were operated and coupled in a synchronous manner. The rear engine could be deactivated at the touch of a button and in "mono mode" only the front axle was driven.
The superior power was matched by the high-performance suspension and a modified brake system. The A 190 Twin featured 18-inch five-spoke wheels with size 225/35 R 18 tyres. The high-performance brakes from the E 55 AMG were fitted at the front axle, and the rear axle featured the sporty A‑Class disc brakes. Brilliant silver paintwork underlined the vehicle's dynamic character. A low front spoiler with a large cooling air aperture created space for the rear engine's radiator and enhanced downforce at the front axle. The front and rear wings were subtly flared by ten millimetres to make space for the 18‑inch wide-base tyres. Wider side skirts and a broader, lowered rear apron rounded off the sporty look.
From June 1999 a more powerful A‑ Class model became available to the general public too. The A 190 featured the same engine as the "Twin", but had to make do with one rather than two. The 125 hp (82 kW) 1.9‑litre unit ensured impressive performance and accelerated the A 190 to 100 km/h in 8.8 seconds. The new top model in the A‑C lass series was delivered as standard with a manual five-speed sports transmission with more direct ratios in 3rd, 4th and 5th gear; the more agile performance was also aided by the modified front axle ratio. The brake system was adapted to the increased performance: the A 190 featured larger brakes at the front axle and disc brakes at the rear axle too. As a result of the larger brake system, the rim diameter was increased from 15 to 16 inches, and the A 190 featured size 195/50 R 16 tyres. The most powerful A‑Class was only available in the ELEGANCE and AVANTGARDE design and equipment lines. In the context of the market launch of the top model, the interior of both equipment variants was upgraded with leather dashboard trim, a feature introduced across the model series from June 1999.
The Mercedes‑B enz developers and designers provided a glimpse of the possible future of the A‑Class in 2000: the "Vision SLA" was a purist, racy sports car based on the A‑Class. Mercedes‑Benz exhibited the 3.77-metre long study at the Detroit Motor Show in October 2000. In terms of design, the study borrowed from the legendary Silver Arrows, but formal features of the Mercedes‑Benz SLR McLaren were also apparent.
From December 2000 Mercedes‑Benz offered even more individuality when it came to equipment for the A‑ Class, with a designo range for model series 168. This programme for individualised vehicle design used a selection of refined materials for the interior and exterior. Wood, leather, carbon fibre and other materials were used to create the exclusive equipment options. Even more extensive refinement of the standard models was offered by Mercedes-AMG GmbH.
In spring 2001 the facelifted version of the A‑Class was presented. Up until this point, Mercedes‑Benz had sold over 550,000 model series 168 vehicles in three and a half years of production. An extensive package of technical and stylistic facelift measures made the A‑C lass even more attractive. In total, around 980 components of the innovative compact car were modified or redeveloped.