The 1993 Vision A and ’94 Studie A were everything the ensuing A-Class failed to be. A genuine Mercedes in miniature.
One doesn’t get to the size and scope of Mercedes-Benz by being incautious, even if at times, an element of risk is sometimes both prudent and necessary. For example, the W201 programme saw the German car giant risk a move downmarket, albeit one taken only after a great deal of consideration and iterative trial. That programme, instigated during the dark days of the post oil-shock 1970’s, wouldn’t see series production as the 190-series until 1982. Under the engineering leadership of the studious Werner Breitschwerdt, this model was stewarded through a lengthy and very thorough development process resulting in a car which embodied all the core Mercedes-Benz values and refinements in a package unprecedented in its compact dimensions and wind-cleaving style.
In 1983, Breitschwerdt ascended to the top job as CEO of the car division and under his aegis, work began on a more compact car project – one aimed into the heart of the c-segment – stomping ground of the hugely successful VW Golf. Around 1986, spies began providing the more adventurous of the automotive press with grainy images taken at Mercedes’ Sindelfingen nerve centre of Escorts, Kadetts and Golfs in various states of déshabillé, evidence of a considerable degree of attrition-led R&D being carried out.
Daimler-Benz’ management looked at a smaller vehicles in the past, but each time ruled it out. Now it seemed, they were serious about getting into the volume car game. However, as before, Mercedes engineers embarked upon their habitually cautious programme of iterative trial and error before committing to a hugely expensive and commercially sensitive development programme, but meanwhile, a bitter power struggle was being played out at Daimler’s Möhringen boardroom which saw Breitschwerdt resign, replaced by former finance chief, Edzard Reuter – a man with somewhat fixed views on how the car division should be run.
Reuter and the Daimler board saw growth and diversification as the key to continued prosperity and independence. Change wasn’t immediately apparent, but as the decade waned so too it would seem, did Mercedes engineering department’s sphere of influence. With sales and marketing increasingly dictating the specification of the crucial W140 S-Class, delayed to allow for the incorporation of additional features that would assure its dominance, there were signs that engineering concerns began to be viewed as secondary – unthinkable in Breitschwerdt’s time.
In 1989, Jürgen Hubbert was appointed as head of the Mercedes-Benz passenger car division, with a remit to expand the model line-up into hitherto uncharted territory. With work continuing on the compact car project, it appears Mercedes’ engineers had concluded that in order for a compact model to offer a similar level of interior space and passenger safety as their larger offerings, they would need to offer something different as well as better.
Their solution was to utilise an innovative form of ‘sandwich’ floorpan construction. This principle would see the powerplant and transaxle drivetrain lying semi-flat in a position below and in front of the floorpan, so that instead of protruding into the passenger cell in the event of a front-impact, it would slide beneath. A further advantage of this construction method was the ability to facilitate battery packs for an mooted electric model.
Prototypes were made and in the Autumn of 1993, one was shown at the Frankfurt motor show. Dubbed Vision A 93, the concept contained all of the safety and space saving features of the ‘sandwich principle, but at 3350mm in length was dimensionally closer to subcompact than c-segment norms. Vision A was presented with three potential power variants. A petrol unit producing 55 kW, a direct-injection diesel producing 44 kW, or more interestingly a version powered by a 44 kW electric motor.
The bodyshell was fully aluminium and styling was overseen by Bruno Sacco’s studios, which combined practicality with the kind of technical sobriety then still associated with the three pointed star. Mercedes’ stylists cleverly managed to de-emphasise the height of the vehicle by employing deep horizontal feature lines to visually lengthen the shape, while the rising beltline gave it an dynamism which prevented the short upright silhouette from appearing too utilitarian and van-like.
With minimal overhangs, a cleverly integrated ‘Mercedes’ grille, semi-enclosed rear wheels and smoked glass tailgate, Vision A looked like the future, yet every inch a Mercedes. Every inch an engineer’s vision too, which probably sealed its fate. While engineers had produced a technically pure concept design which was clever, space efficient and future proof, it was also a good decade ahead of its time.
Nevertheless, reaction was positive, with both press and public lauding the car. The following year, the concept appeared again at Geneva, now named Studie A, featuring a number of further modifications. By then Hubbert had already greenlighted the programme which was given an internal programme number of W168, but the car that launched in March 1997 as the A – Class turned out to be a very different creature.
Looking at them both now, the visual gulf between Vision/Studie A and the production A-Class truly is night and day. One appears timeless, patrician and entirely on-brand. The other, is what was accurately described on these pages as Mercedes’ first wheelie bin. In fact, Vision/Studie A still looks bracingly modern some fourteen years after first being shown. Whereas time has shown the A-Class for the colossal error of judgement and lapse in good taste it was. Some might describe it as a loss of vision, but wasn’t it really more about losing the plot?
Tomorrow, we look at the A Class in detail.