This pairing of a 2002 Mercedes-Benz A-Class and 2003 Renault Scenic is interesting, because while they may look similar on the surface, they are anything but. The A-Class story is fairly well-documented, designed to provide large car space in a small car footprint but undone by an obscure Swedish car magazine’s test. Meanwhile, the Scenic was an evolution of Renault’s family Megane hatch, so let’s compare and contrast…
The Renault Megane Scenic was launched in 1996, based on the first 1995 Megane hatchback that had its roots in the 19 of the 1980s. The facelifted version of 1999 is the one that was brought to Australia, and was a worthwhile one as there were changes such as an opening window on the rear hatch and improved interior storage. The Scenic set the template for the tall hatch or mini-MPV as they were referred to in Europe, and there are clear benefits from the higher seating position including improved legroom and interior space generally.
The original W168 A-Class was nearly 10” shorter than the Scenic, with the front overhang representing a good deal of that. This is because the platform structure is fundamentally different to the conventional car-based Scenic, with a sandwich structure that was intended to have the engine slide under the floor in a crash, and also provide space for batteries. So the A-Class didn’t have quite the same interior space benefit – perhaps why they brought out the 170 mm / 6.2” longer version in 2002; you can see the rear door is very generously-sized.
The two cars were also in quite different market segments, with the Renault starting just under AUD$26k in Australia or roughly a $5k increase over an equivalent ‘standard’ hatchback, while the Mercedes started around AUD$35k and was presented as a slightly magical compact version of a normal Mercedes. It must have been a delicate balancing act, with the cost of an expensive bespoke platform for a small car where every thousand dollars on the price tag would reduce sales.
The A-Class turned out to be a blind alley, with the replacement W169 generation of 2004 keeping the sandwich platform, but the replacement W176 for 2008 saw it dropped in favour of a conventional platform (Golf-clone anyone?) that would allow it to also host a sedan (CLA) and conventional hatchback in addition to the B-Class that continued on the tall format. The previous cars had committed the marketing sin of appealing to the older crowd when one of the intentions of the small car was to recruit young buyers to the brand.
As with the Audi A2 I looked at last week, the A-Class could also be regarded as a folly; or from another point of view as ahead of its time. It would definitely be more at home in today’s market where the electric car is a reality rather than merely imminent.