1 Oct 1998
By CHRIS HARRIS
Probably no Mercedes, ever, has launched into the market with such bad press as the W168 A-Class.
As the first real Mercedes small car, it was in the process of showing its clever, trail-breaking design to the world when a group of journalists inadvertently inverted a test car during a moose-avoidance manoeuvre.
Benz demonstrated its brand strength by surviving the embarrassment, and worked improvements into the A-Class straight away to ensure it didn’t happen again.
In addition to reworking the suspension, the company also made electronic stability control a standard fitment on its smallest and cheapest model range.
So the little five-door, front-drive Benz cam to market in 1998 as the sub-$40,000 1.6-litre A160, with exceptional passive safety (via its double-layer, “sandwich” floor construction) and amazing packaging efficiency.
The A-Class could carry four passengers in surprising comfort, yet fitted into a Nissan Micra-size parking space.
The 75kW single-cam engine did a good job, although the sequential-shifting five-speed manual transmission wasn’t all that pleasant to use, making the regular five-speed auto the preferred option.
Requests for more power were answered by the 92kW A190 in September 1999, while the entry price dropped to the low $30s with the 60kW A140 in February 2000. Long-wheelbase A160 and A190 versions with even more interior space followed in September 2001.
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