George ('Dubya') Bush once quipped: “There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.”
I pondered such (mangled) wisdom when I bought my second A-Class, although this time a W169 (or is that a ‘Dubya 169’) A170 instead of a W168 A160.
In 2008 I bought a 1999 A160 – the W168 which was the same model that failed the ‘moose test’ by rolling onto its side – and it was so horribly bad it made me swear never to buy another A-Class.
Which I didn’t until, that is, I did.
You see, for all the W168’s awfulness, it had one redeeming quality. My wife liked it. She liked its compact size in parking, the fact it was a Benz, and that it wasn’t too ostentatious. She liked it so much this meant, when the automatic 'box was about to pass away to mechanical heaven, we coerced the car to a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Sydney around 2010 and traded it in for the next model; the W169 A170 that I still own and which is my daily workhorse.
The W169 A-Class is a compact hatch and while it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing shape**; it’s one with tremendous ability to park in small spaces and still seat four adults – five at a pinch if the back passengers don’t mind being friendly.
(** actually, it’s shape is not that displeasing either. It seems to be one that never catches the eyes and renders that car more invisible than, say, a Corolla).
The driver and passengers sit high as the car utilises a sandwich floor plan concept where, in a frontal collision, the engine is designed to slide below the passenger cell. It has eight airbags, two of which need replacing due to the Takata recall, and is far safer than the old W168.
With ABS, traction control, electronic stability control, EBD and a funky parabolic rear suspension (leaf suspension by any other name…), this is a car that’d not only miss the moose, but kiss it on the way past. Of course, after having offended said moose, the A-Class’s lack of acceleration would mean the oversized deer would catch the car quickly.
However, despite its pasty 85kW and 0-100km/h time of 10.9 seconds, I’ve won many of my (so-called) ‘traffic light drags’ – primarily due to the fact no one else realised they were in a ‘race’. I wouldn’t condone such activity in any other car except an A170 since, if you trying to accelerate it like crazy, this usually means a modest pace off the lights and keeping up with traffic.
The current model has, of course, the delightful A45 AMG in its line up, but I doubt even the wizards at Aufrecht Melcher Großaspach would be able to coax excitement out of my W169.
What else could be coupled to such a powerhouse engine? Why, a CVT of course. There’s enough drone that someone good with the bagpipes could probably mimic it, but it also allows – via the gear shift knob – for seven pseudo gears.
The ultimate irony beyond all of this is a button labelled ‘C/S’, which is for comfort or ‘sport’. Sport, in this instance, means it may hold onto the higher RPMs a bit longer in order for you to, say, overtake… if you were so inclined to take your life in your hands.
One thing in the W169’s favour is its rear parabolic spring suspension which, truthfully, is far better than it should be and which can be quite a lot of fun. This may also be due to 'progressive rate dampers', but I’ve not noticed them (which, one may argue, is the value of being ‘progressive’!)
The W169’s interior is a major step up from the previous model. It’s difficult to describe the W168’s awful interior except imagine the hardest plastic known… and then layer it everywhere in a car’s interior.
The W169, by comparison, is delightful. Sure, there are some hard plastics, but it takes most of its design cues off the W204 C-Class at the time. The infotainment system is dated by today’s standards, yet still manages to connect to the telephone by Bluetooth (if you’ve purchased an additional MB dongle, however), and has sat-nav using map information on a DVD that Mercedes decided to stop updating post 2010.
There is a six CD changer and an auxiliary connector for iPods, but no USB port. The centre console has a useful LED display, for example in navigation despite the old map data, and there’s a single climate control.
The seats are manually adjustable with primitive lumbar support, and the steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach. Steering is accurate, although unexciting, and there are controls on the steering wheel for the centre console, telephone and volume. Handy, to be honest. Finally, there are automatic wipers, although they are sometimes fooled when driving beneath the shadows of trees.
However, this improved interior is let down by the ‘all-in-one’ stalk off the steering wheel that controls indicators (up for right, down for left), the automatic wipers (twist one part), the rear wiper (twist another), and high beam. Thankfully, the cruise control is on a separate stalk, which feels remarkable thin and fragile; but this is on the same side as the main stalk and I occasionally mixed them up in the beginning.
The main light controls are a dial, with an automatic option, and the interior mirror automatically dims. But before you think Mercedes has completely cast off the cheapskate image of its disastrous merger with Chrysler, there is one curious cost saving measure that should not have made it to the cabin’s ergonomics. The dial to control the light is lit, but the light options surrounding it are not. I searched on several MB forums and found this cost cutting happened even as far as the E-Class of the period. Come on MB! The passenger experience is one a companies should target. I can image, for the cost of a few LEDs, that this may a decision point in purchasing, say, an X3 instead of a GLC; as one may ask if a company cost saves in the visible area, then where else? In contrast, all the BMWs, VWs and Audis I’ve driven from the period with dial controls also have the actual selection lit.
The hatchback nature of the car makes it useful and the fact you can fold down (or even remove, if I read the manual correctly) the rear seats does allow it surprising utility.
It is also quite frugal on the fuel, with my latest lead-footing only consuming (on average) 8L/100km. Servicing is reasonable, although the next one will see the entire front drive shafts replaced because of weeping CV joints (apparently they are a unit, despite my deep, deep suspicions otherwise), and the intervals are about 15,000km.
Tyres are inexpensive, costing last year about $130 per tyre for Pirellis, and wear well. The brakes are discs and seem to be holding up well too. For a car this age, I now take it to a good independent mechanic instead of MB… there’s a story there, which I shan’t go into suffice to say my wallet eventually recovered.
The final chapter for this car, on which both children learnt to drive by touch, is that it’s going to the middle child for university once the airbag is replaced. Despite being a decade old, it’s still a safe model compared with other cars of its age and allows easy parking, especially in Sydney.
It's frugal and, providing one realises the ageing nature of its sat-nav data, an excellent runabout. Will I miss it? Probably. Will I buy the current A-Cass to replace it? Remains to be seen. At this stage I believe it’s my last A-Class Benz, but, you know, I’ve had that feeling before.
What’s that adage? Fool me once…?