The A-Class: Built in Rastatt

  • Production start-p following the positive response to the Vision A 93 and the Study A
  • Outstanding safety: The sandwich concept proves its worth in various crash tests
  • The "A-Motion Tour" - a unique campaign for the market launch
The excitement of the Mercedes-Benz engineers about their innovative car was infectious: public reaction to the Vision A 93 at the 1993 Frankfurt International Motor Show was extremely positive - around 80 percent of participants in a poll were in favor of a small Mercedes-Benz along the lines of the concept car. The response resulted in a swift decision by the Mercedes-Benz Board of Management. In December 1993 the Stuttgart-based company made the decision to produce the A-Class. The project was assigned the model series number W 168. That the experts and the public reacted with unrestrained enthusiasm to the Study A, which was presented in Geneva in 1994 as a slightly revised version of the Vision A 93, was merely a formality after that.
{xtypo_quote_left}The A-Class is produced in the Rastatt plant. Sites in France, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic were also considered.{/xtypo_quote_left}The A-Class is produced in the Rastatt plant. Sites in France, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic were also considered. However, the order was finally given to the Mercedes-Benz Rastatt passenger car plant. The team there was young: the average age of the team members in the A-Class project in Rastatt was just 33 years. When large-scale production of the A-Class began in June 1997, the Rastatt plant employed just under 4000 people, almost twice as many as in October 1996.
1994 - A-Class winner in polls
While the preparations for the production of the A-Class were well underway, Mercedes-Benz asked customers and journalists about the new car concept. The reason for this was the two concept cars. The support for a Mercedes-Benz model in this car class was once again overwhelming. At the large motor shows in Frankfurt, Tokyo and Los Angeles, the A-Class received great praise from the respondents. This new model was a special car which should be launched on the market as soon as possible - that was the general message from the responses. The future A-Class was admired the most in the public perception for its environmental compatibility, the first-class Mercedes-Benz quality, the innovative spirit and its originality.
The poll also gave the engineers and designers a special insight into the customer's desires. The A-Class could thus be developed to closely match customer expectations. The most important factors were motoring pleasure, small exterior dimensions, plenty of space, efficiency and variability, occupant safety, environmental compatibility, low fuel consumption and the use of alternative propulsion systems.
Mercedes-Benz did not involve the public during the process of A-Class creation only through these polls. The public was in fact informed very early about all stages of development. As early as August 1994, international trade journalists were able to test the 1.5-million-deutschmark prototype under everyday operating conditions.
1995 - Presentation of the A-Class interior concept
At the Frankfurt International Motor Show in September 1995, two years after the world premiere of the Vision A 93, the interior concept of the A-Class was presented. The total length of the vehicle had increased by 225 millimeters compared with the design study. And the space provided, which was already respectable, had increased still further, in particular in the luggage compartment.
Parallel to the presentation of the interior concept in 1995, Mercedes-Benz launched the "New Automobile Forum". This program regularly provided interested parties with information about the A-Class.
1996 - Impressive crash safety
The sandwich concept proved its worth in 1996 in various crash tests at the Sindelfingen development center. The tests showed that even a vehicle with small deformation paths can achieve the high standards of safety of Mercedes-Benz. The sandwich bodywork was separated into two superposed levels with the passenger compartment occupying the upper area. The newly developed drive assemblies were arranged obliquely in front of and under the intermediate floor. In the event of a frontal impact the drive system unit slid on an oblique end wall underneath the passenger compartment and thus represented no risk of injury for the occupants. The A-Class however not only complied with future EU directives on frontal impact, but also satisfied the strict safety requirements of the USA and the European Union for lateral collisions.
Advertising campaign for the A-Class
1996 marked the start of the A-Class advertising campaign, in which Mercedes-Benz set new standards. The Stuttgart brand created a new aesthetics and language as the advertising was intended to simultaneously suggest engineering excellence, unconventional innovation and legend: the A-Class is positioned at this interface between future-oriented, youthful design and the traditional values of the Mercedes-Benz brand.
Mercedes-Benz's top-of-the-line model, the S-Class, in particular was at the focus of brand perception and was considered to be the perfect automobile. It was necessary to build on this knowledge in order to address a young consumer group for the A-Class. The brand's existing values had to be preserved in the image; on the other hand themes such as individuality, youth, femininity, responsibility, joie de vivre and automotive reliability played an important role. The Mercedes-Benz SLK had already pointed in a similar direction.
The campaign communicated faith in the next generation as another important theme. This had two meanings. The next generation meant both new young customers, but also the A-Class itself as a new generation in the family of Mercedes-Benz cars. Unconventional engineering solutions which solved apparent contradictions were emphasized as features of the A-Class. Thus small exterior dimensions and a large interior sat alongside each other just as easily as youthful appearance and a high level of safety.
Just as the technology of the A-Class was innovative, the advertising was unconventional with bold and likeable features. In late 1996 there were even A-Class shaped baking-tins - even Christmas biscuits can be advertisements. The A-Class Forum campaign attracted more than 170,000 participants before the car itself was even launched. The precision achieved in targeting was reflected by the distribution. Two thirds of the forum members were not yet drivers of a Mercedes-Benz, but only considered the Stuttgart brand because of the A-Class.
1997 - Premiere in Geneva
In March 1997 the A-Class finally had its official premiere. Mercedes-Benz launched the five-door sedan at the Geneva Motor Show. The market launch followed eight weeks later in May 1997; in October the car would be at the dealerships. Only two months after the presentation of the CLK in Detroit, the launch marked another major step in the brand's development.
In Geneva Jürgen Hubbert, member of the Board of Management of Mercedes-Benz and responsible for the Passenger Car Division in 1997, emphasized that "The new A-Class is more than an important component of the successful Mercedes strategic product drive. It is a milestone in our company's history and sets the trend for all passenger car development."
The A-Class shown in Geneva combined the advantages of many conventional types of car. It was as agile as a car for urban transport, as large inside as a family car, as comfortably equipped as a sedan and as practical as a mini-van. The comprehensive appointments with many innovative elements included amongst other things seat belt tensioners, belt force limiters, automatic child seat recognition, an electronic driver authorization system and the ASSYST Active Service System. Acceleration skid control, Auto Pilot System, ESP® Electronic Stability Program and Parktronic were optionally available. Much of this was completely new or had not been offered in a vehicle of this size but had been carried over from the Mercedes-Benz S- and E-Class into the A-Class.
Dieter Zetsche, a member of the Mercedes-Benz Board of Management and responsible for Sales and Marketing in 1997, described the significance of the model for the brand: "With this Mercedes model a new, revolutionary vehicle concept is created which takes the development of compact cars in an innovative new direction." In Geneva Zetsche emphasized the logic of integrating the car into the world of Mercedes-Benz: " With a length of 3.57 meters the A-Class offers all the typical Mercedes quality features: safety, comfort, reliability and environmental compatibility in combination with an interior whose size and variability set new standards."
The special challenge of building a Mercedes-Benz with the dimensions of a small car called for innovative ideas and unconventional solutions. The elegance of the Mercedes-Benz engineers' solution to this problem was seen in the design of the A-Class "from the bottom up", as the press kit for the 1997 Geneva Motor Show explained: the flat floor had been the starting point for the concept. Below this, the engine, transmission and drive system components were accommodated, with the passengers seated above them.
The gasoline-engined A 140 and A 160 were the first A-Class models to hit the road in 1997. Two turbodiesel models followed in 1998, which were among the most economical cars in the world.
1997 - The A-Motion Tour
"The A-Class opens up the brand to new customer groups and lends the three-pointed star additional youthfulness and freshness," said Dieter Zetsche at the presentation of the A-Class in Geneva. This character of the car was brought to the cities of Europe from March to October 1997 on the A-Motion Tour.
There had never before been a road show like this for any Mercedes-Benz model launch. The spectacle surrounding the W 168 could be seen in 20 European cities; the multi-media art and communications project stopped off in Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Leipzig, Munich, Dortmund, Kiel, Bremen, Hanover, Mannheim, Dresden, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Copenhagen, Oberhausen, Zurich, Paris-Versailles, Milan, Naples, Prague and Madrid. The highlight was the big show at the Rastatt plant on October 15, 1997 , where the A-Motion Tour culminated in a production with light and show elements.
The Spanish theater group "La Fura dels Baus" produced the play "Simbiosis" with spectacular effects especially for the A-Motion Tour. An 18 cubic meter cube made of wood and metal with an internal structure made of nets and tarpaulins replaced the traditional stage. In total around 500,000 people saw the A-Motion Tour show in 185 days. This program made the public enthusiastic about the A-Class and created a sense of belonging amongst the target group.
Even ten years after the start of production of the A-Class, the A-Motion Tour is still seen as an outstanding example of an innovative customer approach. With the tour, Mercedes-Benz not only communicated a feeling for the brand's basic values but also defined the individual car through a combination of emotion and information. The fact that in the completely newly designed A-Class ecology, economy and aesthetics were combined in a unique symbiosis was conveyed convincingly by the Stuttgart-based brand on the A-Motion Tour.
In 1997 Dieter Zetsche said of the advertising for the A-Class: "With our interactive Big Bang in May last year and the subsequent regular supply of information about our A-Class, we have shown what the future of customer approaches in the automotive sector can be like: surprising, creative, informative, with the objective of creating a relationship with the customer built on trust. With unconventional advertisements, commercials and events we have for the last year been actively approaching people and involving them in our activities. Because we know only too well that the future lies not in the area of impersonal but of personal communication."
The success of the campaign could be seen at the market launch at the Tokyo Motor Show in October 1997 not only in the high levels or recognition after 18 months of advertising, but also in concrete figures: already there were around 100,000 purchase orders for the A-Class.