If you weren’t around in 1998, you will find it hard to imagine just how excited the car world was at the arrival of the original A-Class, Mercedes-Benz’s first Volkswagen Golf-sized hatchback.
The year before, there had been the infamous elk test, when early cars had tipped over while swerving, and the expensive rectification work that followed. However, with all that behind us, we looked forward to experiencing the new model and discovering how Mercedes had managed to give its compact car the cabin space of a C-Class saloon.
Not only that, but we also wanted to see how it had shoehorned the engine under the floor to improve occupant safety in a crash and how it felt to sit so high. We also wanted to try our hand at sliding and even removing the car’s individual rear seats as well as its front passenger seat. That’s right: the A-Class could go from miniature luxury car to single-seat van in moments.
The elk test was a blot on the car’s copybook but at least it meant that for the fix, the A-Class got a truckload of valuable safety kit as standard.
This included electronic stability programme (ESP), traction control, braking assistance and six airbags. Initially, there were three engines: 80bhp 1.4-litre and 100bhp 1.6-litre petrols and an 89bhp 1.7-litre direct-injection diesel. The 1.4 was available with a five-speed gearbox or a clutchless manual, which was replaced in 1999 by an automatic.
Today, petrols outnumber diesels. That suits us, given the scare stories concerning the latter, in particular their glow plugs’ tendency to seize. Automatic models get bad press, too.
A 123bhp 1.9-litre petrol arrived in 1999. It was available with the poshest trim, Elegance, while the remaining engines were offered with Classic and sportier Avantgarde trims. The latter also added a full-length sliding sunroof that hasn’t proven to be the most watertight.
A facelift in 2001 brought restyled bumpers and a 94bhp 1.7-litre diesel engine. Also at this time, a long-wheelbase version arrived. A year later, the A210 Evolution landed with a 138bhp 2.1-litre petrol engine. (This is rare today, although we did find a 95,000-miler that sold recently for £1500.) At the same time, Classic SE trim joined the range, adding air-con – a feature that Avantgarde trim now also enjoyed at the expense of that sliding roof.
From the off, every trim got electric windows, while Elegance added alloy wheels and Avantgarde leather seats. Of course, all this detail is useless if the A-Class you’re looking at is a bag of nails – which, to be frank, it most likely is. London-based A-Class specialist Nersess Der Nersessian says that it was never the car’s fault, rather technicians without the training or the tools to maintain an A-Class properly. “The first thing you should do when considering buying an A-Class is to find a good mechanic who understands them,” he says. We’ll second that.
An expert’s view - Nersess Der Nersessian, Forrera: “When the A-Class first came out, everybody wanted one, but a couple of years later, I began hearing stories of many of them being scrapped. I wondered why, so I started working on them. I soon realised that it wasn’t the cars at fault but the people working on them. Owners love the A-Class. It’s roomy, practical and, above all, easy to get in and out of. I have a bad back and so do many of my older customers, so we find the A-Class a dream.”
Engine: Check old invoices, if they still exist, for work done, paying attention to small but vital jobs such as spark plug, fuel filter and pollen filter changes. A rubbing sound at tickover might signal that the timing chain is about to snap. On diesels, check the glow plugs aren’t seized and impossible to remove.
Electrics: A low-mileage car might have had to be jump-started several times during its life when its battery was flat. Unfortunately, this can cripple the various ECUs, especially the one for the automatic gearbox (where fitted), so check there are no electrical issues.
Transmission: On an automatic, check for first-gear selection problems. Typically, drivers don’t allow the gearbox oil to warm up and consequently the high oil pressure breaks some of the parts. The letter F being displayed on the dashboard means the automatic gearbox is shot.
Steering, suspension: Perform a three-point turn while listening for strange noises from the steering pump. The A-Class is heavy, so check the condition of the rear springs. They often break but are cheap to replace. Ditto the front suspension, except the whole assembly (shock absorber, spring and top mount) will need to be changed.
Body: Corrosion is especially common around the leading side of the rear wheel arches.
Interior: Check the seats slide, fold and can be removed. Make sure the air-con blows cold, although expect the system not to have been serviced for years. Glowing brake and ESP warning lights are easy to fix and not necessarily an indication of actual system failure.
Also worth knowing: For a car that has all but vanished, there’s plenty of technical support, most notably at aclassinfo.co.uk. There you will also find a buying guide with some useful information. You will also find some helpful technical videos at forrera.co.uk and advice from current owners at mbclub.co.uk.
How much to spend
£400-£999: Most ages and engines at a range of mileages but in fair condition only, including a 2004 A140 Classic with 92,000 miles for £599.
£1000-£1499: Generally tidier cars with up to 100,000 miles. Includes a 2002-reg A140 Elegance with 68,000 miles for £1000 and a 2003 A170 TD Elegance auto with 63,000 miles for £1485.
£1500-£2000: The nicest examples around, including a 2004 A160 Elegance auto with 41,000 miles for £1999.
One we found
2000 Mercedes A160 Elegance, 70,000 MILES, £1000: This is a one-owner car with full service history (not that that necessarily means anything). It has a full cream leather interior and, says the dealer, “drives superb”. It’s a manual so likely less problematic than an auto. Sadly, its alloy wheels are battle-scarred.