LISBON, Portugal - Mercedes-Benz engineers began designing a longer version of the A-class a year after the car's launch in 1997.
The extended A-class will go on sale in June, along with a face-lifted version of the standard model. 'We started in late 1998 on the long version,' said Ulrich Bruhnke, then project leader for the A-class and now CEO of AMG, the Mercedes-Benz tuning subsidiary.
'The standard A-class quickly became a success because of its clever concept, combining an ultra-compact package with extraordinary safety,' Bruhnke said. 'But we also received signals that there are customer groups that want this concept, but with an extra bit of space.'
Families and taxi drivers especially had been calling for an extended A-class model, he said.
Engineers stretched the car by 170mm behind the B-pillar, giving a wheelbase of 2,593mm and beating the E-class sedan for interior space. The rear seats can be placed in two positions, so extra space can be added to rear-seat legroom or the luggage compartment.
Cargo space in the long version is 1,530 liters, or 1,930 liters if the rear seats are removed.
Mercedes-Benz made major changes in the floorpan, body side panels, rear doors and roof assembly to extend the overall length to 3,770mm. But all other components, including engines, axles and gearboxes, are unchanged because weight increased by only 30kg.
The longer wheelbase offers improved ride comfort without compromising handling, Bruhnke said. However, the bigger turning circle of 11 meters is a drawback, especially in city traffic and narrow parking lots.
'We expect 30 percent [of buyers] to choose the long version,' said Jurgen Hubbert, DaimlerChrysler board member for Mercedes-Benz passenger cars and Smart. 'But in the factory in Rastatt [Germany], we are entirely flexible and can produce as many as the market demands.'
The second A-class plant in Juiz de Fora, Brazil, will produce only standard versions.
Mercedes-Benz has sold more than 570,000 A-classes so far and expects volume of 200,000 units per year until a successor is launched in 2004. The long version plays a vital role in this plan. It is designed to keep sales figures stable during the second half of the model life cycle by attracting new customers.
The updated standard version of the A-class will also go on sale in June. It features new clear-glass headlamps, a new grille and redesigned front and rear bumpers. The interior is more conservative, highlighted by wood or aluminum in the luxury trim level 'Elegance' or the sporty 'Avantgarde.'
'We simply listened to customers,' said Hubbert, explaining Mercedes' radical turn away from the fresh, dynamic and colorful interiors of the original A-class.
'Our customers expect a premium atmosphere, and even in such a trendy car such as the A-class they do not associate this with a colorful interior,' he said. 'Many told us they missed wood.'
Mercedes-Benz changed almost 1,000 details in the A-class. The two common-rail direct-injection diesels deliver more power and torque. All models offer an electronic stability program. Power brakes are standard on all models. Besides the standard front and side airbags, a new window airbag, extending from the A-pillar to the C-pillar, is offered as an option.