Mercedes-benz a-class history guide the cargurus blog e 87 gasoline

When Mercedes-Benz pulled the wraps off its all-new, fourth-generation A-Class earlier this year the story was all about its revolutionary interior. For here is a small executive car with the technology and appearance to match the world’s best luxury motors.

Rewind to 1997 and the debut of the original A-Class and the story was also about revolution, but this time it centred not only on the interior but the whole car. In this guide we look back at the history of the entry-level model in the Mercedes-Benz line-up.

Even those with no interest in cars couldn’t fail to miss the arrival of the original A-Class in 1997, primarily because it was on their television screens toppling over as it underwent the so-called ‘Elk Test’. As a result of that infamous footage Mercedes altered the A-Class’s suspension and ESP system to make its on-limit handling more stable and set about the delicate task of trying to remind people that its revolutionary small car still had many good points.

The majority of them stemmed from the fact that for the A-Class Mercedes had rethought car design from the ground up. The result was what was referred to as a ‘sandwich floor construction’, which placed many of the major components such as the engine and gearbox between two steel floors under the passenger compartment. In the event of a crash these components would then slide between the floors rather than intruding into where the driver and passenger were sitting, making the A-Class incredibly safe for a vehicle of its size.

The other advantage of such a layout was that it allowed for a spacious interior in what was still a compact car. In fact, the A-Class offered as much room for passengers as cars from the class above, and that was before Mercedes also introduced a long-wheelbase version. The light controls and raised driving position (Mercedes reckoned it was 20cm higher than you’d sit in a conventional car) also made it very easy to drive.

The second generation of A-Class was all about refining the concept. To that end it retained the pioneering sandwich floor construction, but introduced the option of having three or five doors, while boot space had grown slightly and technologies including adaptive damping, a CVT automatic gearbox (known as Autotronic) and sat-nav were introduced.

As with the first-generation A-Class practicality was unrivalled for a vehicle of this size; find a model where the optional Easy-Vario-Plus box has been ticked and not only can the rear seats be folded or removed, but so can the front passenger seat.

A facelift in 2009 included the introduction of stop-start technology to allow the engine to cut out when the car was stationary, resulting in what Mercedes calculated were fuel savings of up to 9 per cent in city driving. A USB input allowed for an iPod to be connected, while on the safety front Mercedes introduced adaptive brake lights which would pulse under emergency braking conditions.

While few doubted how innovative the original A-Class had been, there remained doubts that its unconventional design was holding it back from a younger audience. Hence why the third-generation A-Class ditched the sandwich floor construction and MPV-like stance in favour of something with the engineering and appearance of a conventional family hatchback. Front-wheel drive remained the order of the day (although four-wheel drive versions are available too) and although the interior was nothing like as versatile as with the older models, sales soared.

Key to the car’s appeal was the quality feel to its interior (note the circular air vents which, according to Mercedes, stood out ‘like sparkling jewels’) and the hi-tech edge provided by the built-in tablet-style infotainment system. Diesel models in particular were also extremely economical, with the most frugal offering upwards of 80mpg in EU fuel economy tests.

On the safety front all examples of the third-generation A-Class come with a Collision Prevention Assist function that monitors the road ahead and warns the driver if it senses an impact is imminent, while also priming the brakes to deliver their full power the moment the driver touches the pedal.

You can’t talk about this generation of A-Class without also mentioning the A45 AMG (pictured). At its launch in 2013 this four-wheel-drive super-hatch produced an astonishing 355bhp from its turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine, which was enough to launch it from a standstill to 62mph in 4.6 seconds. If you’re looking for an A-Class that’ll get your pulse racing the A45 AMG is it.

A sleeker exterior design is one way to achieve it, but it’s on the inside where the new A-Class has really moved ahead of rivals. For that you can thank the inclusion of a twin-screen instrument binnacle on all models, which act as displays for the dials, fuel gauge, sat-nav, media player et al. Buyers can choose whether these displays measure 7 inches or 10.3 inches each, while Mercedes has also included natural speech recognition as part of its MBUX operating system so that you can converse with the car after giving the command ‘Hey Mercedes’.

It’s all cutting edge stuff aimed at a tech-savvy audience, but that doesn’t mean practicality has been forgotten. Thanks to a longer wheelbase and larger boot this generation of A-Class promises to be even easier to live with than its predecessor, if still not as versatile as the 1997 original.

Unlike previous versions of the A-Class, this latest model will be offered in both hatchback and saloon forms, providing Mercedes with a rival to the Audi A3 Saloon. If you like your cars to demonstrate cutting-edge technology and innovative thinking it’s sure to be worth a look.