The A-Class made headlines in 1997 after rolling on its roof during a road test that included a violent lane change manoeuvre – known infamously as the ‘elk test’. Despite this, few small cars match it for image, but what about its reliability? There are one or two problems used buyers should know about
For lesser cars, that elk test would have spelt disaster, yet the A-Class was such a clever design, it was considered worth correcting. Remedial work followed immediately, and the problem was solved. The Merc’s sandwich-style twin floorpan houses the engine and transmission, so despite its small dimensions, it has the same amount of interior space as an E-Class. Although a capable road car, reliability is a concern – so follow our guide to make sure you get a good one.
What to look for If you’re buying privately, it’s worth paying for a professional inspection. Pre-facelift cars are far less desirable due to their cheap, plasticky interiors.Your first check on any A-Class should be for noise when the wheels are on full lock, because the power-assisted steering pump can fail. The ignition system also plays up, leading to erratic running – there could be electronic faults if the revs fluctuate at tickover.
Alternatives? the A-Class has few direct rivals. The Audi A2 is perhaps the closest in terms of image, but is smaller than the Mercedes. Then there are more traditional models, such as the VW Golf, which is good to drive, well built and comes with a wide choice of engines.The closest in terms of concept are the latest generation of super-sized super-minis. We’d certainly give the Honda Jazz a close look on account of its practical cabin and reliability.
How much? Trim levels run from the entry-level Classic to mid-range Elegance and flagship Avantgarde. Early 100,000-mile A140s and A160s can be picked up privately for as little as £2,000, or £2,500 from dealers. The more desirable facelifted cars start at around £4,500. That’s enough for a 60,000-mile A140 Classic from a garage – you’ll pay £3,700 in a private sale.
Diesel models are more expensive, and you’ll part with at least £5,000 for a new-version A170 CDI, while a last-of-line automatic Avantgarde will cost up to £10,000. Long-wheelbase cars are worth £400 more than ordinary models.
Running costs First-generation A-Classes are equipped with a service assist system, which calculates when maintenance is due. Depending on how it’s driven, this is usually between 10,000 and 16,000 miles, or a maximum of two years. There are two levels of service, and the car decides which is needed.
An A service will cost around £175, while a B is likely to set you back in the range of £300-£350. On top of these prices, spark plugs need renewing every four years, usually for an outlay of £100. The brake fluid also has to be renewed every two years, while fresh air and fuel filters are required at four-year intervals or 50,000 miles, at around £165.
Reader review Amy Manderson, from Gloucester, bought her 2001 A160 Classic four years ago. “I like the raised seating position, but I’m less keen on the firm ride, and the interior is also a mixed bag,” she says.
“It might be plasticky, but the flexible seating layout is great. The A-Class is OK to drive, but running costs are high. The Mercedes dealer is so expensive that I don’t use it any more. Now my car’s worth only £4,500, I use an independent specialist instead.”
The A-Class offers the interior flexibility of an MPV in a supermini-sized bodyshell, which makes it an attractive proposition. The Mercedes also projects the kind of image that few mainstream rivals can muster, so it’s a shame that some examples don’t ultimately live up to the reputation.
As a result, it’s always going to pay to check history and ownership as carefully as you can. Buy a decent example, and the A-Class represents a distinctive and classy choice. Snap up one of the punchy diesels, and you’ve got yourself a car with fine performance and economy, too.
Recalls: Apr 01: The brake master cylinder may malfunction on cars made between Sept 2000 and Jan 2001.Dec 05: Wiper arms could fracture on cars produced between April 2002 and April 2003.