Used car buying guide: Mercedes-Benz A-Class (W168)

If you weren’t around in 1998, you will find it hard to imagine just how excited the car world was at the arrival of the original A-Class, Mercedes-Benz’s first Volkswagen Golf-sized hatchback.

The year before, there had been the infamous elk test, when early cars had tipped over while swerving, and the expensive rectification work that followed. However, with all that behind us, we looked forward to experiencing the new model and discovering how Mercedes had managed to give its compact car the cabin space of a C-Class saloon.

Not only that, but we also wanted to see how it had shoehorned the engine under the floor to improve occupant safety in a crash and how it felt to sit so high. We also wanted to try our hand at sliding and even removing the car’s individual rear seats as well as its front passenger seat. That’s right: the A-Class could go from miniature luxury car to single-seat van in moments.

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The elk test was a blot on the car’s copybook but at least it meant that for the fix, the A-Class got a truckload of valuable safety kit as standard.

This included electronic stability programme (ESP), traction control, braking assistance and six airbags. Initially, there were three engines: 80bhp 1.4-litre and 100bhp 1.6-litre petrols and an 89bhp 1.7-litre direct-injection diesel. The 1.4 was available with a five-speed gearbox or a clutchless manual, which was replaced in 1999 by an automatic.

Today, petrols outnumber diesels. That suits us, given the scare stories concerning the latter, in particular their glow plugs’ tendency to seize. Automatic models get bad press, too.

A 123bhp 1.9-litre petrol arrived in 1999. It was available with the poshest trim, Elegance, while the remaining engines were offered with Classic and sportier Avantgarde trims. The latter also added a full-length sliding sunroof that hasn’t proven to be the most watertight.

A facelift in 2001 brought restyled bumpers and a 94bhp 1.7-litre diesel engine. Also at this time, a long-wheelbase version arrived. A year later, the A210 Evolution landed with a 138bhp 2.1-litre petrol engine. (This is rare today, although we did find a 95,000-miler that sold recently for £1500.) At the same time, Classic SE trim joined the range, adding air-con – a feature that Avantgarde trim now also enjoyed at the expense of that sliding roof.

From the off, every trim got electric windows, while Elegance added alloy wheels and Avantgarde leather seats. Of course, all this detail is useless if the A-Class you’re looking at is a bag of nails – which, to be frank, it most likely is. London-based A-Class specialist Nersess Der Nersessian says that it was never the car’s fault, rather technicians without the training or the tools to maintain an A-Class properly. “The first thing you should do when considering buying an A-Class is to find a good mechanic who understands them,” he says. We’ll second that.

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Body: Corrosion is especially common around the leading side of the rear wheel arches.

Interior: Check the seats slide, fold and can be removed. Make sure the air-con blows cold, although expect the system not to have been serviced for years. Glowing brake and ESP warning lights are easy to fix and not necessarily an indication of actual system failure.

Also worth knowing: For a car that has all but vanished, there’s plenty of technical support, most notably at aclassinfo.co.uk. There you will also find a buying guide with some useful information. You will also find some helpful technical videos at forrera.co.uk and advice from current owners at mbclub.co.uk.

How much to spend

£400-£999: Most ages and engines at a range of mileages but in fair condition only, including a 2004 A140 Classic with 92,000 miles for £599.

£1000-£1499: Generally tidier cars with up to 100,000 miles. Includes a 2002-reg A140 Elegance with 68,000 miles for £1000 and a 2003 A170 TD Elegance auto with 63,000 miles for £1485.

£1500-£2000: The nicest examples around, including a 2004 A160 Elegance auto with 41,000 miles for £1999.

One we found

2000 Mercedes A160 Elegance, 70,000 MILES, £1000: This is a one-owner car with full service history (not that that necessarily means anything). It has a full cream leather interior and, says the dealer, “drives superb”. It’s a manual so likely less problematic than an auto. Sadly, its alloy wheels are battle-scarred.