With total sales of over a million, the W168 Mercedes A-Class is possibly the best selling flop ever. We chart its fall.
The 2012 announcement of Mercedes’ third-generation A-Class and its radical re-alignment in ethos and market position has been seen by most observers as as an expedient business decision based upon 15 torrid years in the compact car game. While for the most part Daimler’s U-turn has elicited little criticism, it could equally be regarded as a sign that Mercedes has conclusively lost the argument.
The ’97 A-Class is a fascinating study as much for what it was as what it represented, charting the loss of influence wielded by Mercedes’ once dominant engineering function. Ultimately though, it illustrates the limits to which a prestige brand can realistically be stretched.
Under the leadership of Jürgen Hubbert, Daimler-Benz embarked on what’s best described as a cultural revolution. Having made its name with generations of imperious, rational and expensively engineered saloons, Hübbert saw aggressive market expansion to be where Mercedes’ star should henceforth point. Small cars were nothing new at Stuttgart-Untertürkheim. Engineers had already successfully downsized the traditional full-sized saloon with the masterful 1983 W201 series, but a switch to a front-wheel drive hatchback still appeared unthinkable.
With passenger safety a prime concern, engineers adopted a technically intriguing solution to crash performance, interior space and the potential for future electrification. Befitting their heritage, the twin-floor solution was elaborate, well-wrought and expensive. It also allowed for a more compact footprint. Hubbert approved the design, displaying the core principles in the 1993 Vision-A concept.
Launched to an largely unprepared world in 1997, the W168 A-Class elicited little awe, but plenty of shock. Short, stubby and rather upright, it was about as definitive a departure from three pointed norms imaginable. Famed for their sober, conservative and expensively engineered saloons, A-Class was a giant step into the unknown.
Its front wheel drive chassis and twin floor construction raised eyebrows while its compact dimensions straddled super-mini and Golf sectors. But ungainly can be influential; its sharply rising daylight opening providing the template for every small to medium hatchback that followed.
Coupled to confusion over its specification, positioning and appearance was the fact that its very existence aroused a bitter civil war within the domestic industry. Ferdinand Piëch, Volkswagen/Audi’s autocratic Chairman was reportedly so incensed by Hubbert’s perceived encroachment on the Golf’s home turf, he declared total war upon Mercedes’ core market.
Intended to introduce the marque to a younger audience, market projections proved misleading; Mercedes’ traditional sober image blunting the A-Class’ youth appeal. Traditional customers were repelled by its appearance and the wider market found it difficult to pigeon-hole, owing to its compact dimensions and price. Like the earlier 190 Saloon, the A-Class was a car to trade down to, purchased mostly by retirees rather than unfaithful Golf owners. Lacking sufficient customer intelligence, Mercedes was perhaps over-confident. So despite selling in excess of a million cars, Daimler lost a total of over €2.5 billion on the W168 programme.
It’s difficult to view the A-Class as anything other than a colossal error of judgement by a complacent Daimler management. Hubbert gambled the enormous cachet of the three pointed star with a car that failed to deliver on marque values, debasing Mercedes image, squandering €billions and diverting hundreds of engineers. The same engineers who were subsequently blamed for the car’s failings and whose demotion within the Daimler-Benz hierarchy is now plain to read.
Seventeen years and a complete volte-face later and the current W176 A-Class is now unashamedly a Golf rival. Having ignominiously cut their losses, the current ‘A’ is shriekingly conventional, expressive body creasing notwithstanding. Daimler bosses are projecting the current model will just about make a profit – only the slimmest margins being available at this jagged edge of the volume car market.
‘Your good star of the road’: This old Mercedes-Benz advertising tag-line, offered a reassuring image of an unchanging and unchangeable ethos of doing things correctly. For decades, Mercedes encapsulated these values of continuity and incremental change, but that’s all gone now. Because make no mistake, the Three Pointed Star is now a mainstream volume brand, and lest anyone forget, it all began with an A.