June 26, 2009

Great Automotive Failures: the Mercedes-Benz w168 A-Class.

The Mercedes-Benz w168 A-Class created a big buzz in the press months before its launch in 1997. Understandable, it was the first front-wheel drive Mercedes-Benz and it was that firm’s first venture into the relatively new compact minivan market, not to mention one of the first luxury offerings in that market. It caused such a stir that diecast models of it were already available around the time of its launch; I recall red getting a 1:18 Maisto A-Class for Christmas that year.

It wasn’t exactly pretty but compared to the other cars born that same year (Plymouth Prowler, Isuzu VehiCROSS) it didn’t look too bad. Plus, the boxy design meant the A-Class could boast about its exceptional interior room for a car that size. To add to that room, all seats except for the driver’s were removable making for a very versatile car. Mercedes-Benz developed a plethora of safety features including the use of numerous airbags and a system that pushed the drivetrain under the passenger compartment in the event of a front crash.

The excitement this car generated faded when it was released to the press and Swedish magazine Teknikens Värld took the car through their moose test, a test which consists of making a sudden maneuver at high speed to avoid an object in the road. The A-Class rolled, failing the test miserably. The problem wasn't confined to Sweden for very long and other European magazines put the car through similar tests. When these journalists also rolled the A-Class while trying to avoid imaginary moose, the car became the Corvair of our generation; rarely in history has a car suffered from such a notoriously bad reputation after its launch. Even the youngest ones amongst us remember borrowing Auto Plus from our uncle and glancing at the cover to find a brand new Mercedes-Benz A-Class going around traffic cones on one wheel.

Stuttgart’s first reaction was to deny the problem existed, a strategy that had proven remarkably effective in the early 1990s regarding the 350SD’s rod-bending character. When the problems became widely reported in international press, Mercedes realized they were dealing with an issue that they could not afford to ignore.

They recalled all the cars that had been sold already (2,600, according to sources) and stopped production until the problem was fixed. While early speculations centered on the car being fitted with the wrong kind of tires, the problem was solved by retrofitting ESP in recalled cars and adding it as standard equipment across the A-Class range. The rear suspension on all models was stiffened as well, making for a bouncy but safer ride. Lucky for them, these modifications solved the problem and the same readers who saw the A-Class going around traffic cones on one wheel now saw the recalled A-Class going around those same cones on all wheels. These were tested all around Europe and most every magazine found them safe.

Today, the early problems the w168 encountered have mostly been forgotten: the car managed to have a successful career and, along with the Renault Scenic, helped launch the craze revolving around small minivans: the controversial Fiat Multipla was launched in 1998, the Citroen Xsara Picasso in 1999 (still in production, I might add), the Ford Focus C-Max in 2003 and so on. This is a market segment where the Mercedes-Benz star doesn’t matter as much as interior space and amenities and the A-Class shines in both of those respects. So successful was the recalled A-Class that it managed to spawn a successor in 2004, the w169 A-Class, available as a three or four door and capable of avoiding a moose while staying on four wheels from the get go.

Photos of the early rolled A-Classes are hard to find; even as a kid I was impressed enough by the Auto Plus issue where the A-Class is first tested and rolled that I kept it but it is a continent away and therefore useless. All I was able to find is this:

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