It was new and very different from anything Mercedes-Benz had produced previously — and the A Class W168 involved the company in a steep learning curve. This compact car was designed as a mass-market entry-level model that would spread the prestige of driving a Merc to a wider customer base than ever before. It was swiftly nicknamed ‘The Baby Benz’.
Mercedes hadn’t produced a front-wheel drive car before and the project didn’t get off to an auspicious start. Although the debut of the A-Class created a frisson of excitement, this innovative little five-door car with its sloping front and square hatchback was soon in trouble as the wheels flew off — happily not literally. The whistleblower was a Swedish motoring publication, which road tested the new car and discovered that it flipped over during the soon-to-be-infamous ‘moose test’. This involved swerving to avoid an imaginary moose at speed . . . at which point the A-Class turned turtle.
Shock-horror and knee-jerk denial in Stuttgart were swiftly followed by a recall of the few thousand cars that had already been sold, which were fitted with electronic stability control and modified suspension. This was the first stability control system fitted to a small car and helped the A-Class survive its shaky start. There was a choice of models within the range, with various engine options. The four petrol engines were 1.4 litres, 1.6 litres, 1.9 litres and 2 litres. The diesel engine was a 1.7 litre unit. The vehicle did justify the initial optimism of the Mercedes marketing department, going on to become a high-volume seller.
Modifications following the failed moose test gave the original A-Class W168s a stiff ride quality on rough road surfaces, and would-be owner-drivers are advised to look for one of the later, improved A-Class W169 models that arrived in 2004.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
1997 (until 2004)
1,397 cc, 1,598 cc, 1,898 cc or 1,998 cc Straight Four; 1,698 cc Straight Four Diesel
With 1.9 I engine — top speed of 120 mph (193 km/h); 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 9.8 secs
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
The first A-Class W168 may have failed the moose test, but the Baby Benz did have a patented ‘Sandwich’ front-impact protection system that allowed the engine and transmission to slide beneath the floor in the event of a violent head-on collision, rather than entering the passenger compartment.