Mercedes A-class (W168)

Mercedes started its small car invasion in the early 80's by introducing the W201 series ( 190E ). The result was very successful, which sees the 190E became its best seller alongside the bigger W124. In fact, the European market structure is changing. Bigger cars are no longer selling good while the market bias towards smaller cars. Therefore, in the fall of 1997, Mercedes stepped deeper into the small car segment by launching the new A class, a car which is set to compete with Volkswagen Golf. 

To distinguish itself from other cheap hatchbacks, Mercedes has to emphasis its superior build quality and safety of which it is famous. On the other hand, it should not be much expensive than its competitors because a survey found customers are not willing to pay exceeding 10% more than other cars for Mercedes' quality. (Men are always greedy !) If Mercedes-Benz were another manufacturer, it would have chose a compromise solution and made a car with slightly better quality and slightly higher price. Obviously that will not do good to the company's image, because it has the reputation of making the best cars in the world, not the best compromise.  

Luckily, Mercedes-Benz is no other manufacturer. Instead, it applied the most radical concept since Sir Issigonis' Mini : A tall body, near-zero overhangs and sandwich structure chassis. The structure is called "Sandwich" because the horizontal-orientated engine is placed above the floorpan but under the cabin. As a result, the cabin is raised by a massive 200mm and so is the roof. What is the advantage of such structure ? Firstly, because of the disappearance of the front engine compartment, it made the car more compact than any other cars but simultaneously offers class-leading cabin space (actually runs close to C class). Secondly, it provides exceptional crash-protection. Under crash, the engine will be pushed under the cabin instead of pushed towards the driver's legs as conventional cars. Therefore A class will pass any foreseeable crash test in the future. Thirdly, due to the inherent advantage in crash-protection, no additional crash structure is needed, thus a lot of weight is saved. Weight saving may benefit performance if A class has a proper engine (say, a 1.8 litres 16 valves unit), but instead Mercedes selected 2 tiny sohc engines ( 1.4 litres 82hp and 1.6 litres 102hp ) in order to enjoy lower cost and better fuel consumption.  

A class is exaggerate tall - 1598mm ! At 1719mm, it is as wide as C class, but the height make it looks narrow. Its length is only 3575mm while wheelbase is as long as 2423mm. For comparison, Volkswagen's Golf has longer wheelbase (2475mm), less width (1690mm) but a lot longer length (4020mm). Although A class has shorter wheelbase, its rear seats are actually placed several inches back because the raised cabin is less obstructed by the wheel arcs. By some mathematical calculation, we can see both cars has similar cabin space, but the weight saving sandwich structure of the baby Mercedes enables an unbelievable weight of only 1020kg (A160), while Golf IV will probably weigh at 1150kg.  

A class is a real one-box design. Its short front end extends straightly towards the windscreen, this made it like a MPV. Besides, clever details make it looks pretty in any direction. Young people must love its styling.  

Inside, the cabin is nearly as spacious as C class, although the roof is not as high as the appearance suggests. ( Because the floor is raised, too. ) Equipments are OK, but the trim level is disappointing. No wood, no leather in this baby Mercedes are not what we have expected. The plastic dash and central console looks exactly plastic, unlike VW Golf's. The thick C pillar kills the airy scenery and rear 3 quarters vision. This cabin is very unfamiliar, with nothing suggesting it is a Mercedes.  

When comes to road, the sandwich structure finally finds its disadvantage : excessive height leads to excessive body roll. Particularly in "Elegance" setup, the soft springs deals badly with fast corner, and the steering lack of feedback. To somebody who really want this car, I strongly recommend the sportier "Avantgarde" setup, which improved the roll and steering dramatically, though still not a hot hatch. Luckily, the sohc engines run lively, smoothly and quietly. Combine with the slick-changing 5 speed manual box or an optional 5 speed clutchless manual, A160 is capable of finishing 0-60mph in 9.6sec. In today, few 2-valves engines could be so lovely. We even suspect whether a 4 valves per cylinder engine could be more versatile and suitable for A class than this one.  

Can A class revolute the future of cars ? Very possible. If it can improve further the road behaviour, our answer will be definitely positive. 

The above report was last updated in 1998. All Rights Reserved.

Mercedes A160 vs VW Golf vs Renault Scenic

This is a very interesting comparison. A class represents radical idea, Golf represents old tradition while Scenic is something between them - new idea implemented by traditional method.  

Volkswagen Golf is the best selling car in Europe since its introduction in the 70's. The latest fourth generation still follows the old rules strictly, but build quality has been improved so much that even the baby Mercedes seems inferior. To offer the same performance as A160, Golf needs at least a 1.8 litres multi-valver. Of course, it is much thirstier than A160. Mercedes sohc engine is marginally sweeter and quieter, mates perfectly with the transmission. The Golf wins back convincingly in handling, not because it is remarkable, but mainly because A class is too tall. In cabin, A class has more room and offers MPV-like versatile layout, but material used and assemble quality are inferior. For styling, A160 must attract your first sight while Golf IV is hardly distinguish from Golf III.  

Renault Scenic is based on the ordinary Megane platform. Taller body provides roomier interior than both rivals while removable seats enable the most versatile layout. It drives like an ordinary car, that means handling is close to Golf. However, being a cheaper car, it does not provides the build quality of the German cars. Old engines lack top-end punch while refinement is so-so.  

As a result, Scenic wins in practicality and price, Golf is the quality choice while A160 is the funniest. 

The above report was last updated in 1998. All Rights Reserved.

Rollover Crisis

In November 1997, when A class was ready to deliver, a Swedish magazine rolled over the A class under test, caused injuries to the testers. In then, they were performing "ELK" test, which is commonly required in Sweden to prevent the car from knocking down big deers suddenly appears in the road. When they drove the A class at 60km/h and suddenly steered to avoid the dummy deer, the car simply overturned and crashed.  

This incident stunned the world, newspaper and TV news reported it extensively, not only aroused the buyers to withdraw their orders, it seriously damaged Mercedes' world-wide image as the safest cars.  

Management responded quickly, added fatter tyres, ESP (electronic stability programme), lowered ride height and further strengthened anti-roll bars. All were done without extra cost. As a result, the problem was solved. Meanwhile, it launched an extensive advertising program in all media to rescue its image, invited the journalists who involve the overturned incident as well as ex-F1 champion Niki Lauda to publicise how good the new car became. Mercedes lost hundreds of millions dollars in this crisis. 

The above report was last updated in 1998. All Rights Reserved.


Since its relaunch, Mercedes' engineers gradually and silently improve the A-class, one of the example is that they tuned the post-rollover suspension setting to offer smoother ride without harming stability. The dark days has gone, production raised back to planned level, now it's time to inject more performance to the A-class. 

A190 is not really intended to be a real GTi, as suggested by its height. However, that doesn't mean the A-class can't be fast. The sohc 8-valve engine in A160 has been stretched to a maximum of 1.9 litres, added with Silitec coating to the alloy block's cylinder wall to reduce friction as well as wear. Maximum power is up to a class leading (for 2-valve engine) 125hp and an impressive 133lbft of torque. Dealing with the modest 1080kg kerb weight the A190 offers remarkable performance faster than most warm hatches - 123mph, 0-60 takes 8.7 sec, claimed officially. Revised final drive and gear box ratio also contribute to eagerness. 

Like other A-class models, there are 3 choices for transmission - the standard 5-speed manual, the clutchless 5-speed and 5-speed automatic. There is no modification made to the already improved suspensions, but brakes are strengthened : front discs grew from 260 to 276mm in diameter, rear 258mm discs relace drums. 

Confidence is getting back to Stuttgart. Next project ? would it be the 250hp twin-motor A-class ? 

The above report was last updated on 15 May 99. All Rights Reserved.

A-class LWB

The original A-class is already a packaging brilliance, offering so much space from the shortest length. Now Mercedes create a long-wheelbase version by adding 170mm to the wheelbase and 200mm to the overall length. What for? to make it a mini limousine? to out-roomy the S-class? yes, it does offer more interior space than the S-class, although that S-class is not the LWB version. Sitting at the back, you'll realize nearly all the extra space is spent to please rear passengers, who have too much legroom now. Perhaps this is the first ever hatchback Shaq O'Neal will consider. However, not just O'Neal but you and me might find the A-class too narrow to offer sufficient shoulder room. With 3 regular passengers back there, all the extra leg room seemed rather useless. A Honda Civic hatch can easily beat this baby Mercedes. 

The LWB is inevitably heavier. According to my record book, a A190 LWB is a massive 140 kg heavier than the SWB equivalent, that's why the 190 engine is highly recommended. As before, this is one of the best 2-valvers available, with plenty of torque and sweet manner. Surprisingly, Autocar managed to launch the car to 60mph in barely 8.2 seconds, which must be an extraordinarily-good sample. 

LWB actually improves handling and ride, especially the latter. As everybody knows, the longer the wheelbase the less amplitude of bump transmit to the occupants. Now this A-class has a wheelbase matching most family hatches, so it no longer rides as harsh as before. In most conditions it damps well, even can be called supple, although never as supple as Ford Focus.  

Interior gets new dashboard, including a new center console looking like the ML-class. Plastic quality has been upgraded, though you won't compare it to the best rivals. There is still no sign that Mercedes would go back to its root of placing quality in first priority. What a pity. 

The above report was last updated on 19 July 2001. All Rights Reserved.

A210 Evolution

Mercedes used to use the name "Evolution" for its very hot 190E 2.5-16 in the late 80s. Mitsubishi even pushed the word to new height, as seen in 7 generations of Lancer Evo. Why Stuttgart reuse this name in the bulky, van-like A-class is a mystery. You may still remember the notorious elk test accident in 1997. After that, A-class was retuned to deliver a lot of safe (but uninspiring) understeer and a slow steering response to prevent from rollover. It occurred to me no matter how the car evolve, it will never be converted into a proper hot hatch.

Mercedes gave the hottest A-class a larger 2.1-litre engine. It is made by stroking the 1.9-litre four-cylinder from the existing A190. Longer stroke and more displacement give it superior torque - at 151lbft, higher than most hot hatches. They also converted the 2-valve-per-cylinder head into a twin-cam 16V design (what took Mercedes so long to do so?), improving breathing thus top end power. Anyway, the long-stroke engine produces just 140hp, not a big leap ahead of the 123hp A190.

As the A210 Evolution is not too heavy - even the LWB version is just 1200kg, a respectable figure considering the space it offers - it can sprint from rest to 60mph in around 8 and a half seconds, qualify as a warm hatch.

It also gets beefed-up suspensions, low-profile tyres and purposeful-looking alloy wheels. However, the inherent disadvantage of high center of gravity (hence a lot of roll when pushing hard) and super-slow steering rack, severe understeer at the limit (which occurs early) are still obvious. The larger engine even upset the chassis by introducing torque steer at tight corners. 

It is expensive too. For that amount of money, you can buy a Golf V6 4motion, or some really exciting hot hatches with less money. Mercedes goes to the wrong direction this time. A-class should not have been developed into a hot hatch. A190 is still the better choice.

The above report was last updated on 30 May 2002. All Rights Reserved.


A190 LWB
A210 Evolution LWB
Front-engined, Fwd
Front-engined, Fwd
Front-engined, Fwd
Size (L / W / H / WB) mm 
3575 / 1719 / 1587 / 2423
3776 / 1719 / 1589 / 2593
3776 / 1719 / 1589 / 2593
Inline-4, sohc, 2v/cyl.
Inline-4, sohc, 2v/cyl.
Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl.
1598 c.c.
1898 c.c.
2084 c.c.
102 hp
125 hp
140 hp
111 lbft
133 lbft
151 lbft
5-speed clutchless
Front : Strut ;  R: Trailing arm.
1119 kg
1221 kg
1195 kg
Top speed
112 mph*
121 mph*
126 mph (est)
0-60 mph
11.1 sec*
8.2 sec*
8.4 sec (claimed)
0-100 mph
40.5 sec*
24.3 sec*
* Tested by Autocar

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