Car manufacturers are positively tripping over themselves to board the SUV bandwagon—even Aston Martin and Rolls Royce are joining the market, having singularly failed to beat it. Inevitably, the popularity of terrain-conquering behemoths has led to the spawning of miniaturised, urbanised sub-species, which inherit the looks of their parents, if not all their ability.
These are now absolutely everywhere, with the Ford Fiesta Active as the latest example of a family hatchback to don a pair of Wellington boots and some robust outerwear to create the impression of enthusiasm for the great outdoors. What is strange, though, is that Mercedes—a brand that loves to squeeze into a niche when it gets a chance—should have passed over the chance to launch its own high-altitude hatchback spun from the 2005 A-class.
I give you the Mercedes A-Cross, a car that could have been a front-runner in the fashionable, brand-conscious, tiny adventure-car market.
The W169 A-class wasn’t as innovative as its stability-strapped W168 predecessor, but was a pretty unusual design in its own right. Ostensibly an upmarket— and far more expensive—alternative to the Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Polo and Peugeot 207, its design was part supermini and part MPV, and boasted some of the features that today’s high-riding crossover customers particularly value.
With its unusual sandwich-floor construction and forward-slanted engine that nestled in front and under the firewall, the A-class had a rather higher driving position than most cars of its size. In the same way as Ford’s Fiesta-based Fusion (a car that really ought to have been packaged as a crossover from the get go) the A-class appealed to buyers ‘of a certain age’ who appreciated easy access and a good view out. That kind of customer base was a mixed blessing—A-class clientèle was relatively deep-pocketed, but Mercedes was drifting ever further from any ambition off attracting younger buyers. Only its Smart offshoot was achieving that, and even then only in small numbers.
Enter the Mercedes A-Cross concept. It took the W169 advantages of a high driving position and a versatile interior, and added gentle touches of SUV character in the form of roof bars, scratch-shrugging gunmetal bumpers, wheelarches and running boards, together with a slightly lifted ride height. With front-wheel drive only, none of this made it any more able on the rough stuff, but sure had its uses in the city: the extra height providing a yet-loftier view over traffic and rounding off the harsh edges of Europe’s deeply cratered roads.
And then there was the badge. Back in 2005, Mercedes only had the ML to offer SUV buyers. The mechanically similar GL came in 2007, and the much smaller GLK (never offered in right-hand-drive markets) a year after that. The A-Cross would been rather tempting to those who had premium badge aspirations, a liking for SUVs but far too little cash to stretch to an ML. Had it hit showrooms in 2005, it would have had very little direct competition—perhaps only the Volkswagen Polo Dune. Launched early in the W169’s career, and in conjunction with a better-publicised AMG variant, the A-Cross might have opened younger eyes to the three-pointed star.
All this from what was little more than a plastic dress-up kit, just like Ford will sell you today with its Fiesta Active. These days, the Mercedes A-class is just another small hatchback, and the Mercedes GLA is its crossover spin-off, and mechanically identical if bodily disparate. It’s definitely a more convincing SUV-themed package than the A-Cross could have ever been, but is the product of a far greater programme investment than the A-Cross could have involved, and probably appeals to a pretty similar audience.
Of course, the main reason the A-Cross never happened is that I made it up. I can’t help but wonder ‘what if’, though.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Redusernab 2018. Derived from Mercedes W169 press images)