The first generation of the A-Class (168 series)

  • More than 1.1 million cars from 1997 to 2004
  • The small Mercedes-Benz established itself firmly in the market
  • Long and short wheelbase as well as many engine variants
The two A 140 and A 160 models with gasoline engines were the first variants of the A-Class to be launched onto the market in October 1997. The A 140 had an engine with 1397 cubic centimeter displacement, with which it developed 82 hp (60 kW), while the A 160 with 1598 cubic centimeter displacement generated 102 hp (75 kW). The top speeds were 170 km/h and 182 km/h, respectively.
Within the model range more than 20 technical innovations were incorporated which were previously not available in this car category. The unique sandwich concept for the bodywork had been fully developed and implemented: engine, transmission and axles were housed in front of and below the passenger compartment. This had many advantages. In the event of a head-on crash the drive system unit dived underneath the passenger compartment of the A-Class. The model achieved the safety levels of larger Mercedes-Benz sedans with a vehicle length of only 3.57 meters (50 centimeters shorter than comparable competitors) and with a weight of only 1000 kilograms.
Thanks to the sandwich principle the A-Class also attained the levels of spaciousness of a medium-size sedan. The innovative rear seat assembly and optionally removable front passenger seat provided the variability of a mini-van. In total 72 different seat variations were possible, and in terms of load volume the A-Class achieved the level of large station wagons: between 390 and 1340 liters depending on the position of the rear seat, or even 1740 liters with the front passenger seat removed. The flat floor, the large tailback and the low loading edge facilitated loading of the luggage compartment.
The stable floor assembly made up of a network of straight longitudinal and cross members was an integral element of the innovative safety concept. At the front end of the longitudinal members there was a novel front module made of aluminum with two lateral crash boxes. These were bolted to the longitudinal members and could be replaced quickly and relatively cheaply after an accident. For the first time in Mercedes-Benz large-scale production, plastic was used for the front fenders which resumed their original shape again after a light collision without requiring repair or paintwork. In order to save on weight the tailback was also made of plastic. The easy-to-repair structure of the A-Class not only reduced the cost of repairs after an accident but also resulted in a low insurance classification.
In terms of passive safety the model series achieved practically the same level as the exemplary Mercedes-Benz E-Class. Besides the sandwich principle the restraint systems installed as standard and which were specially adapted to the A-Class concept with its short crumple zones contributed to this result. They included full-size airbags for driver and front passenger, inertia-reel seat belts with belt tensioners on the front and outer rear seats, as well as belt force limiters on the front seats.
Intelligent solutions for the A-Class
The Mercedes-Benz engineers broke new ground in the development of the drive system. For the engine and transmission of the A-Class represented elementary components of the spatial and safety concept like in no other car. Not only the targeted displacement class but also the dimensions and the location of the engines ruled out the use of components from the traditional modular system but required new designs. The result was a completely new generation of four-cylinder engines with a light-alloy engine block: two gasoline engines from the M 166 series, and two turbodiesel engines from the OM 668 series. As a result of strict weight-shedding, all four engines turned out to be more than 25 percent lighter than other four-cylinder models of their displacement category. The drive system was installed immediately below the pedal floor in an oblique position. The top side of the drive unit facing the passenger compartment floor was designed as a sliding surface so that in the event of a frontal impact the engine-and-transmission assembly could slide downwards along the pedal floor.
The new ASSYST active service system which continuously analyzed the oil quality in the engine, allowed maintenance intervals for all A-Class engines according to the actual operating conditions - with intervals thus being extended to up to 40,000 kilometers. The innova­tive four-cylinder engines were produced at the Untertürkheim plant where passenger car engines have been manufactured since 1904.
The chassis of the A-Class was also a completely new development. The design engineers were not able to carry over 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 anti-roll bar was therefore used. The axle components were mounted together with the rack-and-pinion steering and the engine-transmission assembly on a frame-type integral support 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 anti-roll bar was used. This axle assembly could be arranged beneath the load floor without impairing interior space. The shock absorbers and springs were mounted obliquely in front of the wheel center in a space which could not be used in any other way.
Three equipment lines
The A-Class appointments followed the proven concept of different design and equipment lines. In 1997 three variants - Classic, Elegance and Avantgarde - were available. The three design and equipment lines were presented at the 57th Frankfurt International Motor Show a few weeks before the market launch.
All lines had comprehensive standard equipment in common. Compared with the basic Classic version, Elegance offered a range of additional equipment related to both the interior and the exterior: light-alloy wheels, radiator grille and exterior mirror casings painted in bodywork color, chrome inlays in the door handles and two-tone tail light covers. Avantgarde was the technically progressive model variant. It was characterized by light-alloy wheels with wide tires, a silver-painted radiator grille and exterior mirror casings painted in bodywork color, as well as monochrome tail light glass.
The model series was very well received. Public opinion was matched with accolades from the experts. In 1997 the A-Class received two coveted prizes. On November 10, Jürgen Hubbert, member of the Board of Management, accepted the "Großer Österreichischer Automobilpreis 1997" (Grand Austrian Automobile Prize) from Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klima. Two days later the A-Class was honored in Berlin with the "Goldenes Lenkrad" (Golden Steering Wheel) awarded by the newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
Manufactured in an integrated production network
Large-scale production of the gasoline-engined A 140 and A 160 models began in Rastatt in 1997. Daimler-Benz's third passenger car assembly plant manufactured the A-Class as part of an integrated production network with six other domestic plants: sheet steel panels were obtained from Sindelfingen, engines, transmissions, front axles and drive shafts from Untertürkheim, oil and water pumps, crankshafts and camshafts from Berlin, differentials from Kassel, steering systems from Düsseldorf and finally rear axles, jacket tubes, exhaust manifolds and lever-type parking brakes from Hamburg.
In body-in-white assembly, a complete A-Class body was produced from 290 individual sheet steel panels with 3,700 welding spots, and then painted in a globally unique process with high levels of environmental compatibility, efficiency and quality. The principal elements of this fully-automated process, which was developed in collaboration with partners 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 as well as a novel corrosion protection concept which did without cavity conservation.
1998 - ESP® and BAS as standard equipment
From February 1998 onwards the ESP® Electronic Stability Program and the BAS automatic brake assist system were part of the standard equipment of the A-Class. Mercedes-Benz thus positioned the model at the top of its market segment. With ESP®, BAS, side airbags in the front doors, seat belt tensioners and belt force limiters, the A-Class is equipped as standard better than any other vehicle in its category. In total the Stuttgart engineers accommodated 25 new technical developments in the A-Class, which were previously not available in this category of cars.
The upgrading of the A-Class was also a reaction to a road test in Sweden , in which a W 168 flipped over in October 1997. The so-called "moose accident test" consisted of two lane changes in succession and was not standardized. It was later replaced by the German Association of the Automotive Industry's (VDA) lane-change test conforming to international standards. In further tests by TÜV (Technical Inspection Authority) and ADAC (German Automobile Club), the A-Class proved to be stable. However, at the end of October Mercedes-Benz decided that it would in future equip all cars in this series with the ESP® Electronic Stability Program as standard. The ESP® controlled the brakes at each of the wheels individually in critical driving conditions in order to stabilize the car. During a twelve-week delivery stop of the A-Class the modification was carried out across the series. Furthermore, the model received new stabilizers and modified spring-and-damper tuning on the axles. The lowering of the bodywork and the use of wide tires completed the changes. Mercedes-Benz also retrofitted the 18,000 vehicles already delivered.
With the integration of ESP® in the standard equipment of the A-Class, the Stuttgart brand set a new standard in this category of cars. In early 1998 representative polls showed that the brand's likeability had increased considerably thanks to the swift reaction to the "moose accident test". The safety image was compromised only temporarily and to a minor degree. The market success also showed that the trust in the brand and the small Mercedes-Benz had not been affected.
CDI in the A-Class
The selection of drive systems for the A-Class was expanded in 1998 with the addition of two diesel models. The A 160 CDI and A 170 CDI, with a fuel consumption of 4.5 and 4.9 liters on 100 kilometers (NEDC consumption), respectively, were among the most environmentally compatible automobiles on a global scale. Like the gasoline models they were equipped with ESP® as standard. The A-Class models with compression-ignition engines featured the new common rail direct injection (CDI), which, compared with older diesel engines, allowed considerably improved fuel economy in combination with dynamic handling and smooth-running characteristics. The "Öko-Trend" Institute in Wuppertal, Germany, therefore awarded the A 160 CDI the title of "Germany's Most Environmentally Compatible Car".
The A-Class diesel engines with 90 hp (66 kW) and 60 hp (44 kW) were characterized by four-valve technology, turbocharging and electronically controlled direct fuel injection based on the common rail principle. Both variants had a displacement of 1.7 liters. In the model with reduced output and optimized consumption, the amount of fuel to be injected was reduced, the turbocharger was adapted to the changed conditions, and the charge air cooler was omitted. For the sake of differentiation between the models with the same displacement, the reduced-performance variant was offered under the name A 160 CDI.
At their first public appearance in Geneva in 1997, the two diesel models were still presented using the model designations A 160 Turbodiesel and A 170 Turbodiesel. The common rail technology developed by Mercedes-Benz in collaboration with Bosch celebrated its world premiere in these vehicles. While conventional systems generate the pressure for each injection operation anew each time, CDI engines operate with a common rail in which the pressure is stored and distributed to the injection nozzles by means of solenoid valves.
The high injection pressure of up to 1350 bar which was available even at low engine speeds, as well as the variable control of the injection process resulted in considerably improved mixture formation. This provided high torque, low fuel consumption and low exhaust gas emissions. Where the incorporation of the CDI engines was concerned, however, the A-Class was beaten by the C-Class in December 1997: the Mercedes-Benz C 220 CDI was the first production car available with this state-of-the-art diesel technology.
Formula One look for the A-Class
In 1998 Mercedes-Benz celebrated winning the Formula One World Championship, and the A-Class celebrated with them. At the 1998 Essen Motor Show in November, the Stuttgart-based company presented a special A-Class with two variants: the Hakkinen Edition and the Coulthard Edition. In honor of Formula One drivers Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, 125 units of each edition were built. The special models were identified by the respective Formula One start numbers: the A-Class Hakkinen Edition sported a red-orange 8, the Coulthard Edition hit the road with the number 7.
In painstaking manual work, lavish paintwork was applied to the cars using airbrush technology. Fascinating color patterns were thus produced from the base color brilliant silver to shades of black and red-orange accents. With this special model, Mercedes-Benz emphasized the dynamism and innovative nature of the A-Class. The Hakkinen Edition and the Coulthard Edition were presented in fourteen European countries.
Continuing the motor sports theme, the A-Class was shown with an AMG styling package in Essen for the first time. This included special light-alloy wheels, side skirts, special front and rear aprons, and a twin-pipe exhaust.
A-Class with dual powerhouse
In November 1998 the Stuttgart-based company also presented the 250 hp (184 kW) A 190 Twin design study with two 1.9 liter engines. The exciting car was presented at the end-of-season motor sports party in the Mercedes-Benz Museum. No other A-Class was as fast as this: the A 190 Twin managed the sprint from 0 to 100 km/h in 5.7 seconds; the top speed of the design study was around 230 km/h.
The specially developed model, which was set up predominantly using production components, once again emphasized the variability of the A-Class design. While one of the two engines was installed in the usual position under the front hood, the second engine was situated under the luggage compartment floor and drove the rear axle. What the drive by means of two engines made possible in the first place was the automatic clutch which was optionally available for A-Class cars from large-scale production. Its electronic control ensured that both engines were operated and coupled in a synchronous manner. The rear engine could be switched off simply by pressing a button, and in the so-called mono mode, only the front axle was then driven.
The superior power of the A-Class with its dual powerhouse was matched by high-performance suspension and modified brakes. The A 190 Twin drove on five-spoke 18-inch wheels with tires in size 225/35 R 18. The high-performance brakes of the Mercedes-Benz E 55 AMG were installed on the front axle, and the sporty A-Class also had disc brakes on the rear axle. The brilliant-silver livery of the body emphasized the car’s dynamic character. A front spoiler pitched steeply downwards with a large cooling air aperture provided space for the rear engine’s radiator and increased downforce at the front axle. The fenders at the front and rear had been discreetly flared by ten millimeters in order to allow sufficient room for the wide 18-inch tires. The somewhat drawn-out side skirt and the broader and lowered rear apron completed the sporty design.
1999 - Launch of the A 190
From June 1999 onwards a more powerful A-Class model was also available to the general public. The A 190 had the same engine as the "Twin" - but just one125 hp (82 kW) unit. The newly developed four-cylinder engine accelerated the car from standstill to 100 km/h in 8.8 seconds. The A 190 represented all-out motoring pleasure - its 1.9 liter engine was good for a top speed of 198 km/h. The top model of the A-Class series was provided with a manual five-speed sports transmission as standard and a modified front axle ratio for more dynamic handling.
The brakes matched the increased performance in that the A 190 was equipped with brakes of larger dimensions on the front axle and disc brakes also on the rear axle. Due to the larger brakes, rim diameter increased from 15 to 16 inches, and the A 190 drove on tires in size 195/50 R 16. The most powerful A-Class was offered only in the Elegance and Avantgarde design and equipment lines.
In the context of the market launch of the top model, both equipment lines were given an upgrade in the interior using leather-covered dashboard trim which from June 1999 were used universally for the model series. From the fall of 1999, the five-speed sports transmission could also be ordered for the A 140 and A 160, as could the variable speed limiter SPEEDTRONIC and individual seats with integrated armrests for the rear.
2000 - The Vision SLA, a purist roadster
This was what a racy sports cars based on the A-Class was said to look like: at the Detroit Motor Show in October 2000, Mercedes-Benz presented the Vision SLA, a 3.77 meter long, purist roadster based on the A-Class. In terms of design the study borrowed from the legendary Silver Arrows, but formal features of the SLR also found their way into the sports car study.
Professor Jürgen Hubbert, at that time member of the DaimlerChrysler Board of Management and responsible for the Passenger Car unit of Mercedes-Benz, described the fascinating intermediate stage which the SLA represented between the upcoming super sports car and the small Mercedes: "On the one hand, the letter combination reveals the close connection with the SLR super sports car, production of which will start in a few years’ time, and on the other hand the name SLA unmistakably refers to the technological basis for this roadster study: the Mercedes-Benz A-Class."
2000 - designo for the A-Class
In December 2000 Mercedes-Benz for the first time offered designo for the A-Class. This program for individualized car design uses a selection of refined materials for the interior and exterior. Wood, leather, carbon and other materials are primarily used for this exclusive equipment option. The even more lavish refinement of the series model is the realm of Mercedes-AMG.
2001 - A-Class with a long wheelbase
At the 2001 Geneva Motor Show, Mercedes-Benz presented the A-Class with a wheelbase extended by 170 millimeters: with the increase in space, this model variant now featured the spaciousness of a luxury-class sedan. Compared with the normal version, the interior volume increased by eleven percent to up to 1930 liters. And because the long-wheelbase version, like its shorter sister variant, enjoyed the innovative sandwich structure, 53 percent of the space in the 3.78 meter long sedan was available to the passengers - a top-class value compared with other of this category of size.
In particular, the increased legroom for the rear passengers attained values which were otherwise reserved for luxury-class models. The rear seat assembly could also be displaced 111 millimeters in longitudinal direction. Some of the space obtained could thus also be used for the load.
Commenting on the long-wheelbase A-Class in 2001, Joachim Schmidt, member of the executive management panel of the Mercedes-Benz Passenger Car and smart unit of DaimlerChrysler with responsibility for Sales and Marketing, said: "With this impressive product we can finally satisfy even those people who were already impressed by the design and concept of the A-Class but who needed more space for their personal requirements."
The long-wheelbase version of the A-Class was a real space miracle which also attracted much interest from taxi drivers. The space of a luxury-class sedan, exemplary variability and new top-class values for cargo space made the model the ideal taxi. Accordingly Mercedes-Benz offered the long-wheelbase version of the A-Class with a special taxi package. This package contained special equipment developed specifically for taxi services in the A-Class: in the center console, space was provided for the installation of a modern two-way radio; the taximeter casing was mounted so as to be visible and easily accessible above the rear-view mirror. On the left-hand roof frame, the prewiring for mounting a single-arm taxi roof sign could be obtained free of charge.
The basic equipment of the taxi version was based on the Classic line and optionally available, amongst other things, with two integrated child seats for the safe transport of small passengers, a stowage box under the driver’s seat, an aerial for radio, phone and GPS, as well as a hands-free system for the two-way radio.
Thanks to the variable rear seat assembly, taxi drivers could decide whether they wished to use greater space in the rear or in the luggage compartment. The A-Class with a long wheelbase thus provided legroom which was 60 millimeters greater than in the normal version - even with the rear seat assembly in the furthest forward position. At the same time the luggage compartment volume with this rear seat position increased by 80 to 470 liters, so that there was now space in the luggage compartment, for example, for three large suitcases with a total volume of 219 liters (normal version: 158 liters).
At the same time the Mercedes-Benz A-Class offered outstanding economy - this applied in particular to the diesel engine with modern CDI technology offered for taxi services. In the European test cycle the 95 hp (70 kW) engine of the long-wheelbase A 170 CDI required only five liters of fuel per 100 kilometers (NEDC consumption). With a 54-liter tank filling, the A-Class taxi could thus travel more than 1,000 kilometers.
2001 - Extensive refinement
The year 2001 was not only characterized by the launch of the long-wheelbase version but also by the A-Class refinement. Thus a true bestseller was upgraded: Mercedes-Benz had already sold 550,000 units of the model series since the start of production in 1997, and in Germany and other European countries the A-Class was one of the top-selling vehicles in its category.
From spring 2001 it was now available at dealerships with new bodywork features, new materials in the interior, more powerful CDI engines and ESP® with hydraulic brake assist system. On the outside the refinement was noticeable in particular in the revised front and rear sections. The fresh design features of the A-Class in particular highlighted the dynamism of the model. The new design included modified bumpers at the front and rear and a radiator grille with four slats instead of the previous three. The modifications made the bodywork appear wider and more athletic, and the A-Class also acquired clear-glass headlamps.
In the interior the entire cockpit was revised and equipped to some extent with new materials which came, amongst others, from the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. In total the engineers and designers modified or redeveloped around 980 components of the innovative car. The fourth-generation ESP® for the first time worked together with an even more powerful hydraulic brake assist system. The A-Class thus provided as standard the latest and at that time the most efficient dynamic handling system. Large-surface window bags were also available as an option for even more efficient occupant protection in the event of a lateral impact.
The performance of the CDI engine in the A 160 CDI was improved to 75 hp (55 kW) through the use of a charge air cooler fitted as standard, and the output of the A 170 CDI was increased to 95 hp (70 kW). The A-Class was also optionally available with a revised air conditioning system which was controlled by a dew point sensor. This high-tech equipment for a comfortable in-car environment was unique in the market segment of the A-Class.
2002 - The top-of-the-line A 210 EVOLUTION model
A new top-of-the-line A-Class model appeared in March 2002: the A 210 EVOLUTION displayed its power even on the outside with AMG styling and 17-inch light-alloy wheels, and inside the driver was greeted with high-quality man-made Alcantara leather. The performance lived up to the car’s appearance: from 2.1 liters displacement the four-cylinder engine generated 140 hp (103 kW) at 5500 rpm and a maximum torque of 205 Newton meters at 4000 rpm This allowed a top speed of 203 km/h and a sprint from standstill to 100 km/h in 8.2 seconds. Yet consumption was just 7.9 liters of fuel according to the NEDC formula. Sports suspension with specially tuned spring and damper elements and a special rear-axle stabilizer allowed dynamic handling.
2003 - One million A-Class cars produced
By February 2002, 750,000 A-Classes had already rolled off the production line in Rastatt. And the success of the model continued: in 2003 Mercedes-Benz produced the one-millionth A-Class. Professor Jürgen Hubbert, responsible for the Mercedes Car Group on the DaimlerChrysler Board of Management, had this to say: " One million vehicles - that is a great achievement for the A-Class as well as a milestone for the Rastatt site and the Mercedes Car Group. The A-Class has long been a solid pillar in the range of the Mercedes-Benz brand as well as in the compact car market segment. It represents the potential and capability of an innovative car concept, and in its first product cycle, sales will already clearly exceed the one million mark."
The A-Class had thus become the iconic example for a young generation of vehicles whose values include innovation and emotion, intelligence and charm. In 2003 alone Mercedes-Benz sold more than 150,000 cars from this model series. The largest sales market was Germany, followed by Italy, the UK and France. More than 40 percent of the A-Class cars were purchased by women; the long-wheelbase version launched in 2001 was chosen by over 40 percent of the customers; the most popular engine variant was the A 170 CDI. Particularly important for the future of the brand was the fact that more than 80 percent of the buyers were new Mercedes-Benz customers.
While the one-million mark was being celebrated, Mercedes-Benz was already preparing the Rastatt plant for the production of the second generation of the A-Class. In 2003, Hubbert attributed it high significance: "We are undertaking the preliminary steps so that through the A-Class successor the model family strategy can be implemented and the success story of this model series continued." In 2003 around 4,700 employees were working in Rastatt.
The 168 series as reviewed by the press
"A shining example." (auto motor und sport of December 13, 1996)
"The A-Class offers the effective load space and the safety of much larger vehicles." (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of December 9, 1996)
"The vehicle is a car of Mercedes standard, which is not ostentatious but generously large inside, coupled with superior crash performance and excellent seat positions." (Auto-Zeitung no. 15/1996)
"A Mercedes in its most youthful form." (Auto Bild of December 9, 1996)
Mercedes-Benz A-Class (W 168, 1997 – 2004). The photo depicts models with the long and standard wheelbase following the facelift carried out in late 2000.
Dynamic roadster study: The Vision SLA of 2000 used tried-and-tested components of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
Fresh accents: The A 140 Classic after the refinement of the W 168 series in 2001.
Plenty of space in a compact format: The Mercedes-Benz A-Class (W 168), 1997.
Safe handling: The A-Class (W 168) was equipped with the Electronic Stability Program (ESP®) and Brake Assist (BAS) as standard.
Rear-mounted engine: The second engine of the A 190 Twin (1998, W 168) worked underneath the trunk.
Two hearts: The A 190 Twin study (W 168), 1998.
Mercedes-Benz Vision SLA of 2000: Motoring pleasure with a purist roadster based on the Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
Sporty looks: The A 170 CDI Elegance (W 168) after the refinement in 2001.
Genuine Mercedes-Benz: The A-Class (W 168) attracted great attention at the 1997 Frankfurt International Motor Show.
ESP as standard: Mercedes-Benz included the Electronic Stability Program (ESP®) in the standard equipment of the A-Class (W 168).
Perfect taxi: The Mercedes-Benz A-Class (W 168) with taxi equipment package.
Popular length: The A 190 Avantgarde (W 168) with long wheelbase.
Well-balanced proportions: The long-wheelbase version of the A 190 Avantgarde (W 168).
Successful model with detail improvements: The refined A-Class (W 168), 2001.
The Mercedes-Benz A-Class Häkkinen edition (168 model series, 1997 to 2004) was produced in 1998 in the colours of the McLaren Mercedes Formula-1 racing car, which for the first time was re-painted in silver, evoking memories of the legendary "Silver Arrow"