We carry on our saunter down memory avenue with this look back to the champions of the summer of 1998. Where were you then?
I don’t want to talk about it. It was the second worst time of my life. Times weren’t good at Mercedes either. The A-Class had been moosed and that took some of the attention from its revolutionary cheapening of the Mercedes name and its quite hideous styling.
WhatWhyCar? ran a comparison of the A-class and picked three other, very different cars because they were so baffled by the A-class’s concept. It seems so obvious to us now: a Golf-priced hatchback. However, the consumer magazine decided that the A-Class buyer might also be considering a Ford Fiesta, a Renault Megane Scenic or a VW Golf.
That image of the Fiesta is so very sad: the corrugated zinc walls and non-descript industrial-estate/farm background. This one is more like the way Ford want you to see the car:
And a Golf looked like this in 1998:
The A-Class cost from £14,500. That was £1500 more than a Fiesta Ghia X 1.4. The Renault Megane Scenic 2.0 RXE sold for £16,770 and a for a VW Golf 16 SE you needed to splash out £15520. Mercedes really did put cats among pigeons by landing their base A under the price of a similar Golf.
I’ll put you out of your misery: the Golf won the comparison. Ford’s Fiesta won the nimbleness award and was the most “satisfying to drive”. It also cost the least. Though a year later you could choose a used A-Class for the price of the Fiesta. The Scenic naturally won out on the practicality stakes but for quality VW and Mercedes won. Do you believe the A-Class really had better quality than the Scenic because I don’t. I’ve yet to see a rusty Scenic but a rusty A is entirely routine.
WhichWhyCar? thought the Benz “cleverer” than the Golf but it fell down on ease of use and long range use plus it cost more. Overall, the magazine thought the Golf won, but only just. The VW got to sixty a second faster than the A-Class and had a higher top-speed.
Twenty years on, either a Scenic or Golf pass the kerbside test. You see them in good condition whereas the Benz is often found in a rusted, decayed state quite out of keeping with the brand’s image. Both cars were made in Germany too so you can’t point out some cultural problem if you are looking for an explanation.
Benz clearly spent money on the car but in the wrong place, engineering that didn’t make a difference. Sure, the car was shorter than a box of matches and was roomier than an E-Class but the cost of achieving that square circle came with the need to pare costs everywhere else.
Still, mission accomplished. By the time everyone found out the Benz liked to rust, the sales had been made to the detriment of most of the other similarly priced cars available. Cynical?
** This is the third time this has happened with this series. The title image of the Scenic did not come from the vast database of images now growing in the basement of DTW’s office suites but instead was harvested for this article from this fine site. And yet if you’d asked me this afternoon had we ever written or covered this car I’d have bet on “yes” being the right answer.