Top Gear's guide to buying a used Mercedes-Benz A-Class
It’s the small hatch with a big badge on the front. So what’s the big idea – and the small print?
What is it?
At its core, it’s a small hatchback with a big badge. But as we’ve now made that assessment in the standfirst and the first paragraph, we’ll expand on the concept a little.
Back when the idea for the W201 saloon (also known as the 190E) was first kicked around at Mercedes, there was actually serious concern that it’d cheapen or somehow dilute the stature of the three-pointed star. Clearly, the runaway success of the W201 – and the generations of C-Class that followed – showed Mercedes that, if done right, a small Benz can do big things.
When it comes to the first generation of the A-Class, one could argue on the whole ‘done right’ part of the equation, but we’ll get to that in good time. The basic idea of a small car brimming with the features and refinements you’d expect from Mercedes luxury is a good one. And it’s far from the only good idea that made it to the A-Class – as we shall now explain.Advertisement - Page continues below
What’s so good about the Mercedes-Benz A-Class?
That depends, to a great extent, on the generation of A-Class you’re talking about. The original A-Class was a pretty bold and brave move on Mercedes’ part – giving people what they actually need, rather than what they’d want.
So, what do we mean by that?
Rather than create a luxe version of a regular hatchback, Mercedes attempted to make a car that had the space and practicality of a big family car in the footprint of a small one. And you thought we were doing that ‘small/big’ line just for the sake of it.
In practice, this meant a high roofline, short wheelbase, some... ‘unique’ styling cues and others that made it look like a shrunken Vito van. But it also meant genuinely comfy space for four – and their luggage – in a car that was smaller than a fourth-gen Fiesta. Headroom abounds, the packaging is clever enough to host QI and we’ve seen a caping stove get through fuel faster.
Mercedes actually persisted with the ‘family car inside, city car outside’ idea into a second-generation A – which, even so, was a much bigger car in all respects than the first – only capitulating to the standard-hatchback shape with the third-gen A-Class... which is selling its socks off. Well, so much for thinking outside the box.
As an entirely different car, the third- and fourth-generation A-Classes excel in... well, you guessed it. While the clever packaging might be gone, it’s replaced with a bevy of toys, blissful quiet and big-car-rivalling abilities to just sit and soak up distance without drama or discomfort. And that’s not nothing.
What’s so bad about the Mercedes-Benz A-Class?
The most famous failure, of course, comes courtesy of a moose test performed by Scandinavian car mag Teknikens Värld (World of Technology). The moose test, in case this is something you’re hearing about for the first time, is the colloquial name for the Evasive Manoeuvre Test, which simulates a rapid swerve to avoid a moose (or car, hire-scooter rider or any other obstacle that might rapidly appear). There’s a rapid swerve over to what would be the oncoming lane on your average two-lane highway, then an immediate swerve back to the original heading.
Or, in the case of the early A-Class, a full-bodied slap on the road surface, delivered by parts of the car that have no business coming into contact with surfaces of that (or indeed any) nature. The combination of a short wheelbase, tall body, light rear end – and lack of stability control – made the A-Class a... less-than-ideal pick for autocross, shall we say.
Taking into account the estimated 300 million Deutschmarks (yes, it’s old enough that early cars arrived before euros did) it cost to suspend A-Class production, engineer a fix, recall customer cars, get Niki Lauda to ride along for the post-fix do-over of the test – Mercedes actually lost about €1,400 per car by the time the first-gen A-Class went off sale in 2004.
More modern complaints are perhaps a soupcon more prosaic: that the third-gen A-Class prioritises interior amenities and cabin ambience over responsive handling and feedback. OK, great – go buy a Hyundai i20N if that’s what you’re after.Advertisement - Page continues below
What are the common problems?
Early cars had a lot of issues, ranging from broken electrics (sunroof, windscreen wipers, immobiliser) to perforating rust and serious mechanical maladies – gearboxes and steering universal joints in particular.
The second-gen car was a night-and-day improvement, but you’re still going to want to find one with a manual gearbox – the CVT ‘automatic’ is just one of those things where it’s better to not get involved in the first place. Other than the air conditioning being susceptible to damage from stones kicked up while driving and blocked drain holes leading to the obvious problems, a petrol-powered, second-gen car is a pretty safe bet. Obviously, we aren’t exactly swimming in them, but they are available.
Third-gen cars are most likely what you’re looking at. The standard hatch shape (and attendant benefits to the way it looks and drives) is probably the better option for most people, most of the time. If you can manage to find a manual petrol here as well, you’re steering clear of some pretty common issues with the dual-clutch gearbox and O-rings in the diesels. Buying an A-Class made from 2015 onwards also sidesteps problems with driveshafts, camshafts and passenger airbags.
As for the fourth generation? Well, we’d say to steer clear of the earlier-built cars, but that’s most likely what you’re going to be looking at as a second-hand proposition. That means accepting the possibility of gearboxes with too much oil, 1.3-litre engines that leak oil from the turbo feed line, and electrical issues causing the IMAX-sized screen to go blank.
What engines and trims are available?
It’d be too broad to say ‘a range of diesels and petrols, with various power outputs for each displacement’, wouldn’t it? OK then, here goes.
Early A-Classes had a choice of naturally aspirated petrol engines, as well as diesels that you should stay away from like they’re a meth-addled mountain lion. No, really – they’re notorious for failing in the most rudimentary ways, like failed glow plugs that then snap off when a mechanic tries to replace them. Which can then require drilling into the cylinder head, tapping a thread and using various specialist tools to remove it so a new one can be installed. Which should be nice and cheap.
In fact, none of the diesels across all four generations are particularly easy to recommend – each for a different reason. In the first-gen cars, they had the longevity of your average bumblebee. In the second-gen, you could be outrun by a bumblebee (zero to 62 in 15 seconds is getting on for hilariously bad). And by the time the third and fourth-gen cars came out, we knew that diesel soot was killing all the bumblebees.
Not saying the petrol-powered A-Classes are Captain Planet or anything, but – thanks in no small part to the small size, light weight and focus on aerodynamics – they’re almost all efficient enough to not worry about diesel at all: more than 40mpg for a fourth-gen A250 and more than 50mpg for the A200 and under. The third-gen A250 also does more than 40mpg, while the older 1.6-litre in the lesser versions is still knocking on the door of 50mpg.
Is it safe?
In a word? Yes.
If safety is a priority, the usual (and indeed correct) advice is to buy as new as you can afford. The specific advice for the A-Class is to avoid the first-gen cars, their four-star Euro NCAP rating, and the tippy handling characteristics that were only dialled out with stability control and terminal understeer.
From the second generation onwards, A-Classes have returned five-star NCAP ratings for adult occupant safety. The ratings and tests have changed over the years, so consider each successive generation safer for adults, children and pedestrians.
How economical is the Mercedes-Benz A-Class?
We mentioned earlier that we’ve seen some camping stoves burn through fuel faster, to give you a broad strokes idea.
Anything made before 2012 will have to be driven on its door handles to dip below 30mpg. But, being an early A-Class, there’s every chance you’ll literally be on your door handles by that point.
In the main, third- and fourth-gen cars don’t actually fare much worse in terms of fuel use. You’ll get 35mpg from an all-wheel-drive A250 without much trouble and up to 40mpg if you baby it. Smaller, front-drive A-Classes are better still, with something like the 1.3-litre A200 nearing 50mpg with a delicate touch. Diesels are even better in this regard (if possibly no other), with the A200d getting an easy 50 miles from an imperial gallon, and possibly even 60. Even the 415bhp A45 AMG can do more than 30mpg. How many you’ll get, on the other hand...Advertisement - Page continues below
How does the Mercedes-Benz A-Class drive?
Well, aside from certain moose-based adventures, generally pretty blandly. But that’s entirely the point; across four generations of A-Class, Mercedes has repeatedly engineered a car that majors on comfort first and cornering last. First-gen car aside, the A-Class is a paragon of stability, predictability and hostility to any notions of getting thrown around like an old Citroen Saxo.
The AMG A45, on the other hand, is rather far from bland. Not even close to the most tactile driving experience of all time, of course, but definitely involving. Driving an A45 at pace is a genuine experience – the whine of limited-slip differentials, the bellow of turbocharging and the thunk of physics closing the door behind itself as it leaves.
How fast is the Mercedes-Benz A-Class?
In the main, not particularly. The first and second-generation cars weren’t supposed to be performance cars in any way, shape or form, and adding power to that platform would be little more than a method of rolling over even sooner than normal. Perhaps needless to say, the A38 AMG version – a 250bhp, twin-engined beast, that apparently had the ability to turn off the rear-mounted four-cylinder to run on the front one – never made it past a handful of hand-built cars. And neither did the A32K AMG, which used the supercharged 3.2-litre V6 from the SLK32 and C32 AMG. Reports vary on how many of each exist, but it's safe to assume you’re unlikely to see one out the front of Tesco.
The quickest production versions of the ‘tall’ A-Classes was the second-gen A200 turbo, which could do nought to 62 in the... still fairly leisurely mid-sevens, actually. The fastest first-gen A was the A210, with a heady 138bhp and a top speed of 126mph. Which is likely for the best, given what happens when you should show an early A any kind of corner...
For the bulk of the third- and fourth-generation A-Class, performance falls somewhere between sedate and adequate. Not that it dawdles or anything – the third-gen A200’s 150-odd horsepower is enough for any small hatchback, and the third- and fourth-gen A250s rival Golf GTIs for power and 0–62 times, with 220-odd horsepower and low sixes respectively. In any case, your average A-Class will have enough onboard to flay a metaphorical rice pudding, without being flagrantly quick.
The AMG A45, on the other hand, is. Without putting too sensational a spin on it, when the A45 first arrived, it immediately and irrevocably altered our perceptions of how rapid a small hot hatch could be. With well in excess of 300bhp (generally closer to 400bhp, and often more), all-wheel drive and 0–62 times that’d keep pace with most supercars, the A45 – and its sparring partner, the Audi RS3 – changed the hot hatch game entirely.
No, really – think about the yardstick for a hot hatch now. Something in the order of 300bhp and the ability to compress time and space like a black hole, right? Now, where did they get that idea?Advertisement - Page continues below
What’s the interior of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class like?
In the third- and fourth-gen cars? Pretty stellar, actually. Because Mercedes, cannily enough, has figured out what its customers want from a small Merc hatch: cabin ambience, comfort, and lashings of expensive-looking trim and tech.
We said earlier that Mercedes wasn’t rewarded for thinking outside the box with the original A-Class, but has been rewarded for simply creating an utterly predictable Mercedes hatchback. And, with that said, the third-gen A-Class is also the one we’d recommend; Nineties ideas of what you should expect from a small luxury car vary pretty strongly from today’s, with cheap-looking plastics and styling that could only be more of its era if it came with frosted tips. The second-gen cars were a lot more resolved and upmarket, but still pale against modern fare.
And should you want something that’s more in the vein of the original A-Class, a second-gen B-Class has the high-roof, big space MPV-ish thing covered, if not the full city-car revolution that Mercedes rather failed to foment.
How reliable is the Mercedes-Benz A-Class?
Back everyone bought new albums on vinyl, Mercedes was a byword for reliability and longevity. Then, by the time everyone bought albums on CD, Merc had earned a reputation for being the opposite. Now, when hardly anyone buys albums, but the few who do live in Hackney... er, buy them on vinyl again, Mercedes is... OK.
There are conflicting reports on the A-Class; some say it’ll work as reliably as a cast-iron stove and require only fractionally more in the way of maintenance; others say it has all the trustworthiness of your average toddler and will melt down just as frequently.
The truth, as it so often does, lies in the middle of the extremes – across a few reliability surveys, various generations of A-Class sit plumb in the middle of the rankings. Worryingly, however, Mercedes often ranks towards the bottom of manufacturer reliability ratings. In one survey that included 30 different marques, Mercedes wasn’t even in the top 20 in terms of fault-free ownership.
How much does the Mercedes-Benz A-Class cost to insure and tax?
Well, let’s try to guess a number out of 50 (1 being the cheapest, 50 the priciest) before we spell it out. It’s a Mercedes-Benz, which is rarely what you’d call cheap. It’s imported, packed full of expensive technology and Germanic complexity.
But it’s also a small hatchback that sells by the thousands, partly because of its pretty reasonable price. And, savage AMG versions aside, it’s generally front-wheel drive and moderately powered. It’s not often bought by boy racers, either, and it’s common and unassuming enough to not be pinched as often as a toddler’s cheeks.
So, survey says...
Yes, it’s going to start in the teens for the misery-spec version, hover in the low twenties for anything worth having, and then walk up to the high twenties for anything with extra spec or tech. Which feels reasonable enough. The A250 – likely all the A-Class you could ever need – comes in at group 30, which is probably the last stop on the Reasonable line before you have to finish your journey by another method.
What we’re getting at here is that the A45 AMG’s insurance sits around the 40 mark. That means you’ll need to be more than 30 years old before your yearly insurance premium has a hope of dipping below four figures. Well, rockets have always been expensive, we guess.