Mercedes A-class (W169)

Debut: 2004
Maker: Mercedes-Benz
Predecessor: A-class (W168)

In 1997, Mercedes stunned the world by introducing A-class to the world. People could not believe Mercedes would bring such a small car to the market, rivaling Volkswagen Golf in the mainstream market. They were also stunned by its innovative design and packaging - a revolutionary "sandwich floorpan" structure enables a very compact body yet provides a lot of cabin room and unrivalled crash protection.

Sandwich structure is probably the most ingenious packaging concept since Sir Issigonis' Mini. It is called "Sandwich" because the horizontally orientated engine is laminated between the floorpan and the cabin, just under the driver’s feet. As a result, the cabin floor is raised by a massive 200mm. That explains the A-class’ tallness. What is the advantage of such structure? first of all, it allows the A-class to pass any foreseeable crash test easily. This is because in case of collision the engine will be pushed under the cabin instead of towards the driver’s legs. Secondly, thanks to this superior crash protection, A-class does not need to provide a large crumple zone up front, thus allows an extremely short front end and a very compact overall length. Thirdly, the raised cabin is less obstructed by the front wheels, therefore the cabin can be pushed much forward to enhance interior room.

Nevertheless, sandwich structure has its weakness too. It made the A-class too tall, led to the rollover crisis in 1997. Mercedes eventually solved the problem, but in the process it introduced severe understeer and a stiff ride to the A-class, ruining its original sweet driving manner. Still, once it restored customer confidence, some 1.1 million cars were sold.

Now here comes the second generation A-class. Mercedes is even more ambitious with this project, planning to sell 300,000 examples annually for the following 6 years. The basic philosophy is unchanged - sandwich structure is carried over - but this time the focus is to correct its faults in ride and handling. Without altering the overall height, Mercedes increased the tracks of A-class considerably (53mm front, 99mm rear) to enhance its cornering stability. The torsion-beam rear suspension is an all-new design. It features a Watts link for better wheel control, while revised geometry put the roll axis closer to the center of gravity. These modifications reduce body roll a lot. At the MacPherson front suspensions, a tower brace and a new link between anti-roll bars stiffens the whole structure and separates the longitudinal and transverse forces better, hence improving steering precision.

All these changes made a big difference to the handling. The A-class now understeers less and controls its body more tidily. Body roll is reduced and becomes more progressively, giving its driver plenty of confidence. The speed-sensitive steering is beautifully weighted, light at town and weighs up at speed. It steers the car precisely yet delivers plenty of feel to the driver.

The combination of extremely compact body and light steering is perfect for city driving. However, on German highway the A-class also displays remarkable high-speed stability, thanks to the new mechanical adaptive dampers. In the twisty, it won’t match a conventional hatchback due to its MPV-like center of gravity, but then again many hatchbacks cannot match its fine steering and predictable manner.

And what about ride quality - the weakest area of the former A-class? happily, thanks to the more sophisticated suspensions, the new A-class no longer needs stiff springs and dampers to prevent from rollover. Instead, a softer setup and longer travel suspensions result in a supple, compliant ride. Audi A3 and BMW 1-series must be jealous how cosseting and quiet it rides, especially at low speed.

Externally, the new A-class keeps the original car’s lovely shape and evolves to cleaner and more streamline. The monospace profile and unique C-pillars are still its trademarks, although increasingly imitated by others. An even prettier 3-door version has been added, but it actually measures the same dimensions as the 5-door. Compare to the Mk1 they are 232mm longer and 45mm wider. This increases cabin space a lot - 97mm more shoulder room, 12mm more front headroom and 30mm more rear legroom. Its 2568mm wheelbase is closer to the old A-class LWB (2593mm) than the old standard car (2423mm). Ridiculously, the A-class is actually roomier than C-class. This must thanks to the sandwich structure. Luggage space now grows to 435 litres. Fold the rear seat and it expands to 1995 litres, almost like a real MPV.

The A-class might look like a MPV, but its driving position is by no means MPV-like. The vertical steering wheel, the tilt seats, the position of dashboard and pedals in relation to the driver all work like a normal car. However, what we care most is the build quality. In the past decade, Mercedes was widely criticized for downgraded quality to boost profit. That was especially serious for the cabin’s materials and switch gears. Recently, we saw a revival of quality in the new SLK. Is it a U-turn in engineering policy or just an individual incidence? the new A-class told us it is the former. Quality has really come back to Mercedes-Benz ! look at that soft-touch plastic dashboard, the chromed details, the damped switches (many comes from the recently facelifed C-class)... this cabin finally deserves the name "Mercedes-Benz".

In contrast, the engines are perhaps the least Mercedes-like. They are not shared with other existing models because they are designed for mounted transversely and drive the front wheels, in contrast to the company’s tradition of longitudinal engine / rear-drive. 4 petrol engines are offered: 95hp A150, 115hp A170, 136hp A200 and lastly, a new hot hatch version A200 Turbo which produces 193hp and 207lbft ! Mercedes is confident that the new chassis can handle the extra power. These engines employ aluminum head, block and pistons to achieve a remarkably light weight (92kg for A150 and 117kg for A200 Turbo). Despite of just sohc and 2 valves per cylinder, they run at a 11.0:1 compression (thanks to improved water cooling channels to combustion chambers and sodium-cooled valves) and a 2-stage intake manifold to enable very good power output.

In the diesel side, there are 3 engines - 82hp A160CDI, 109hp A180CDI and 140hp A200CDI. All of them are equipped with particle filter and comply with the strictest EU4 emission regulation. They also employ second-generation common-rail injection to enhance power, economy and quietness. Interestingly, the diesel engines have dohc and 4 valves per cylinder, in contrast to the petrol engines. Despite of the names, they all displaces 2.0 litres. The most powerful A200CDI employs variable geometry turbine.

Transmission include 5 and 6-speed manual as well as a new "Autotronic" CVT. It is the company’s first CVT. It has a manual override with 7 ratios, but most important, a torque converter with a lock-up clutch should avoid the "rubber band effect" found in ordinary CVTs.

As the turbo version has not yet arrived, the 136hp A200 engine mated with 5-speed manual gearbox is the one most journalists tested at launch. This engine is eager, flexible and frugal. The gearshift is short-throw and crisp. Like the rest of the car, the drivetrain combo is neither sporty nor lazy. It is just refined, efficient and highly enjoyable. Mercedes has found the right balance. Unquestionably, the second generation A-class will be another successful story, but hopefully this time it will have a smooth start.
The above report was last updated on 18 Oct 2004. All Rights Reserved.

Rollover crisis of the original A-class

In November 1997, when the first generation 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 rolled over and crashed.

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

The management responded quickly, added wider 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. Nevertheless, the A-class recovered gradually in later years and eventually became Germany's best selling car.

In the second generation A-class, Mercedes did further things to prevent rollover. See the main report.
The above report was last updated on 16 Oct 2004. All Rights Reserved.


General remarks


Front-engined, FWD
Front-engined, FWD

Steel monocoque
Steel monocoque
Mainly steel
Mainly steel
Length / width / height 3838 / 1764 / 1595 mm 3838 / 1764 / 1595 mm
Wheelbase 2568 mm 2568 mm
1699 cc
2034 cc
Valve gears
SOHC 8 valves
SOHC 8 valves

Other engine features

Max power
116 hp 136 hp
Max torque
114 lbft 136 lbft
5-speed manual
5-speed manual
Suspension layout
F: strut
R: torsion-beam
F: strut
R: torsion-beam

Suspension features
Tyres front/rear

Kerb weight
1240 kg
1270 kg

Top speed
113 mph*
125 mph (c)

0-60 mph (sec)
9.2 (c)

0-100 mph (sec)

Performance tested by: *Autocar

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