Fallen Star – 1997 Mercedes A-Class

With total sales of over a million, the W168 Mercedes A-Class is possibly the best selling commercial flop ever. We chart its fall.

Green wheelie bin. Image: mercedesclass.net

The 2012 announcement of Mercedes’ current-generation A-Class and its re-alignment in ethos and market position was viewed by most observers as an expedient business decision based upon 15 torrid years in the compact car game. While Daimler’s U-turn elicited little by way of overt criticism, it could equally be regarded as a potent symbol that the Stuttgart-Untertürkheim car giant had conclusively lost the argument.

The W168 A-Class is a fascinating study as much for what it was as what it came to represent, charting the loss of influence wielded by Mercedes’ once inviolate 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, Hubbert saw aggressive market expansion to be where Mercedes’ star should henceforth point.

Having shown the world their intended direction of travel with the Vision and Studie A concepts of 1993 and ’94 respectively, W168 was green-lighted for production. Somewhere around this point Mercedes’ engineers appear to have lost the battle of hearts and minds to the sales and marketing division, then headed by a youthful Dieter Zetsche. Not only did the car grow 225 mm – (although that was still too small it would transpire), but both the exterior and interior styling would change drastically; not to mention its overall execution, which would shift from that of a sober Daimler-Benz product to that of a more ephemeral fashion statement aimed at the youth market.

Mercedes-Benz-Vision-93-Studie-a-Concepts-1993-94-2
1993 Vision A Concept. Image: Autoconcept-reviews

Styling was overseen by director of product design, Bruno Sacco, but it is clear that his ethos of calm (some might say cold) technical precision combined with a disciplined and minimalist form language had fallen out of favour. The eventual styling theme by Steve Mattin embodied a softer, less architectural appearance, aimed it would seem at attracting a more youthful audience. The interior design also carried this through with soft curves and seemingly frivolous touches like the undulating dashboard and ventilation controls. Informal it most definitely was, but hardly in keeping with the Mercedes-Benz tradition.

A blobular 1993 Steve Mattin render for W168. Image: autoconcept-reviews

The A-Class was officially premiered at the 1997 Geneva Motor Show, with cars available in dealerships that October. Once the infamous ‘elk test’ crisis was averted – (Hubbert was said to have offered his head in order to save that of Zetsche’s), the A-Class bedded in with favourable reviews and strong early sales. Initially offered with three engines – two petrol and one diesel – and four power outputs; larger more powerful units came later.

But coupled to unease over its specification, positioning and appearance was the fact that its very existence aroused a bitter civil war within the domestic industry. Ferdinand Piëch, VW AG’s chairman was reportedly so incensed by Daimler-Benz’s perceived encroachment on the Golf’s turf, he tore up the gentleman’s agreement that saw the two entities respect one another’s core market, sanctioning an all out push against Stuttgart-Untertürkheim.

Image: auto.aggress.ru
Image: auto.aggress.ru

Intended to introduce the marque to a younger audience, market projections proved misleading; Mercedes’ sober image blunting the A-Class’ youth appeal. The wider market found it difficult to pigeon-hole, owing to its almost supermini dimensions; a fact the 2001 facelift tacitly acknowledged by the inclusion of a longer wheelbase version. The A-Class quickly became a car to trade down to, purchased mostly by retirees rather than defecting Golf owners. Lacking sufficient market intelligence, Mercedes it seems was over-confident. So despite selling in excess of a million cars, Daimler lost over €2.5 billion* on the entire W168 programme.

W168 interior. Image: mercedesclass.net

What is clear is that not only Mercedes-Benz engineers but in particular, Zetsche’s sales and marketing team got it wrong. The Vision/Studie A concepts were probably too compact, but despite sales and marketing holding sway on the eventual car’s appearance and positioning, (especially in having the production model enlarged – twice), they also clearly misjudged the market potential of the model. Given the huge losses Daimler-Benz incurred over the programme, it’s now difficult to view it as anything other than a massively expensive error of judgement.

Hubbert gambled the cachet of the three pointed star with a car that failed to deliver on marque values, denting Mercedes’ image, squandering €billions and diverting legions of engineers. The same engineers who it appears took the brunt of responsibility for the car’s failings and whose subsequent demotion within the Daimler-Benz hierarchy is plain to read.

“Your good star of the road” paraphrases an old Mercedes-Benz advertising tag-line; one that offered a reassuring image of an unchanging and unchangeable ethos of doing things the right way. For decades, Mercedes encapsulated these values of continuity and incremental change, but that’s all gone now.

With change comes risk and some errors brook no return. Because make no mistake, the Three Pointed Star is now as mainstream a brand as anyone else’s and lest we forget, it all began with an A.

*Figures from Bernstein Research as quoted in Automotive News Europe.

This piece is a revised version of an earlier DTW article from 2014.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

15 thoughts on “Fallen Star – 1997 Mercedes A-Class”

  1. I’ve driven a fair few of these horrid little things in Spain when EasyCar was still in existence. Also drove an A210 that a friend had that worked for Mercedes in the factory in South Africa. Worst driving position ever with a near vertical steering wheel (look at the first photo), a dashboard that was so high up that the vents were above the window line, giving you a letterbox view of the road ahead. But the worst part was that due to this letterbox view the internal rear view mirror formed a HUGE blind spot to the one side!!! The distance from the steering wheel to the mirror could be easily stretched with one hand to touch both! Try that in any car and you will find it is impossible. Nerve wracking thing to drive up and down a Spanish mountain pass with that blind spot. Yes you can lower the seat but then you can’t see over the dash!

    Then another stupid thing the Mercedes designers added to the car was the sandwich floor. Fine and well if you do it as Audi did in the A2 I owned at the same time I rented these A-classes. See the Audi also had a sandwich floor BUT it stopped under the front seats. So the floor dropped behind the front seats to give the rear passengers a fantastically comfortable seating position few cars could match, with the distance from the top of the seat to the floor being so huge. But the Mercedes designers wanted to have space down there for future electric or hydrogen A-classes. So the sandwich floor goes over the ENTIRE floor of the car!!! EMPTY! So rear passengers have awful legroom with a very high floor and their knees around their faces with nothing but air, in a sandwich, under their feet. Utterly stupid and a total waste of space.

    1. My 2nd wife had one of these when I met her. It was truly a hateful thing to drive, highly sensitive to tyre choice, and as an A140 was rather underpowered and thirsty with it.

      I did find the practicality was superb for the footprint on the road. Rear legroom was dramatically superior to a conventional car with the same footprint, and you could remove every seat except for the drivers seat to turn it into a van.

      We both hated the car, and drove it with no rears seats in to make it faster and more useful. We met a middle class mummy who had one to and was unfeasibly proud of her Mercedes, and was quite aggrieved that we used it as a glorified van.

      Reliability was good, it made it to 160k miles with no breakdowns and only wear and tear repairs. It was a 2003 car and buy 2014 was absolutely caked in rust though!

  2. Did anyone within Mercedes ever question whether any of this would actually create something saleable? A car purchase is not a purely rational decision; there has to be an emotive appeal too. Nowadays CUVs mop up both hatchback and MPV sales, higher average transaction prices and all, because they appeal to people’s hearts as well as their heads. Mercedes learned that the hard way, struggling to stimulate desire with a product that looks for all the world like a mobile information kiosk.

  3. A lot of the character of the sketch didn’t get into production. The rear door cut makes sense on the sketch. The production one is expedient.
    I’d forgotten how inappropriate the interior is in relation to Benz values. It says Renault though that’s unfair to Renault whose Megane interiors back then were rather well-resolved.

  4. Were Mercedes in financial difficulties when Hubbert decided to pursue aggressive expansion?

    1. John: I don’t believe they necessarily were, but the prevailing zeitgeist at the time was all about consolidation, with US automakers on a feeding frenzy of storied European nameplates. There was even rumours of BMW being snapped up. Undoubtedly overtures were made and I’m sure the Daimler-Benz board saw expansion as a bulwark against a possible aggressive takeover – something Jaguar feel prey to in late 1989.

      Having said all that, the early ’90s were not a brilliant period for the three pointed star either. The W140 S-Class was a very expensive programme and had not been the commercial success that had been anticipated. The W202 C-Class wasn’t as well liked as its predecessor and suffered from quality issues. And that’s before we get to the W210.

      So, yes, perhaps a mixture of both. W168 was greenlighted in 1993. It must have made sense to the Daimler board at the time. Heaven only knows why.

    2. It’s all about eceonomies of scale, or so I got told. At the time, MB had levelled out on sales of about 600 000 cars per annum. The new regime wanted to double that, later quadruple that into a couple of million cars per year. Their business model was dependent on revenue from premium cars = premium price. Which meant they would be dependent on all their line having up a very high price to reap the profits in. In a cutthroat business, that makes them very exposed for advances from the competition or other factors outside their realm. Right or wrong, they didn’t see sustainability in their then current business model. The new regime saw an opportunity for larger profit in pumping up production but also lowering the real quality vs percieved quality. By making a lesser product at only slightly lesser price, they could raise volume, downsize into mass production, and doing it with a premium price still. What they really did was borrowing against the brand cache flushing all that money down the drain.

    3. Ingvar: that’s a neat summary. Mercedes have exactly slid into mass production. They still throw a lot of effort into the E and S and the roadsters relative to the competition. That said, they remind me of Buick or Cadillac in the 60s who made rather nicer trimmed versions of the same things Chevy and Olds sold.

    4. They were also freaked out by the rise of the Japanese, specifically Lexus, which had come along and thrown down the gauntlet in the US market. Lexus, and the rise of Japan Inc. more generally, made it very clear that Merc’s quality was both not the unique selling point they had convinced themselves it was, and also not nearly as high as they imagined it to be. So, as Ingvar says, they settled on a strategy of aggressive growth to protect themselves.

      That was the plan, anyway.

    5. It could’ve worked if only they had done a Ferdinand Piech and raised the perceived quality of the cars. But the W210, W220,and the W163 are all horrible, horrible cars. I can’t actually believe how horrible they are. Daimlers quality slump from the mid 90’s and for the next fifteen years can only be compared to that of Cadillac of the 70’s and GMs eventual downfall. I still can’t believe what crappy cars they build. It’s fluff for soccer moms, those married to soccer players, that is.

  5. My parents had a ’99 A190, the stretched version. I found it horrible to drive, but they loved it. They’ve had it for about 8 years and just a few weeks ago traded it in for a ’14 Renault Clio because maintenance cost all off a sudden got out of hand. Because theirs was the longer version, legroom in the back was actually pretty good and with rear seats removed it was a great load lugger.

    Maybe Richard’s post explains why they bought a Clio as the Mercedes’s successor.

  6. Well, well. I’m quite blown away by the antipathy expressed in the above comments relating to this car. Before going on about that, I had actually forgotten about the Vision A of ’93, and it’s a lot nicer on my eye than the production car. However, I recall being utterly in awe of the packaging of this car when it was first launched and actually quite devastated when its commercialisation was ruined by the Elk Test fiasco. I really wanted this car to succeed because I loved the concept of it majoring on function over form. It seemed intelligent at a time when I thought cars were dumbing down (I’ve just commented on the C-HR, which I classify in that category). Yes, I can see the missed opportunities and odd element of poor execution, and I prefer the A2, but I lament the passing of this concept of the ‘A’ for its replacement by the odious current version.

    It’s biggest problem was that one could buy a Megane Scenic, which did everything the A Class could, and then some, for less cash outlay. I remember really expecting to buy one as a family car with the impending arrival of my son and disappointing myself by going for the less intelligent but more spacious and cheaper Scenic (as it became post facelift in MK1 guise).

    1. The Scenic is preferable. They did a good job with styling and packaging. It still looks good today too. Plus, I haven’t seen a trashed rusty one yet. The A-class promised and didn’t deliver.

    2. Mercedes came up with a rational answer to a question that few people outside of Mercedes were asking. You only have to look at the popularity of premium saloons to observe that people buy cars for many reasons outside of the purely practical. That the saloon format has taken this long to show signs of waning baffles me, frankly.

  7. IMHO, the problem of MB in the past decade was not the drive towards a large market share, nor was it the basic engineering of the cars, even acknowledging the inevitable stability problem of building something like the W168. The problem was that the Sindelfingener Karosseriebauer simply forgot how to put together a high quality vehicle. The paint was miserable, the rustproofing poor, the trim was of 90’s GM quality, even the wiring was too biodegradable for it’s own good.

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