Curbside Classic: Mercedes W202 C-Class – What Are You Good For?

(first posted 5/16/2014)      In my piece on the W201 190-series, I attempted to give an honest account of that car’s shortcomings to balance the praise I heaped upon it. In doing so, I later realized that a strong argument could’ve been made to qualify it for DS-status. But now that I have a second chance, I won’t miss the opportunity to label its lackluster successor with this uncharitable designation. Daimler-Benz may not have suffered the same grave consequences from its hubris as GM did, but the original C-class may have been the first car with the three-pointed star which could honestly have been referred to as “crap” and therefore is a nonlethal sin (an NS).

Mercedes-Benz C-Class (5)

The first C-class can be recognized for being a commercial success and, in C43 AMG form like our featured car, a solid performer, but it was far from being a class leader and remained overpriced.  Perhaps most important, though, were some glaring lapses in its quality.  In recycling a number its predecessor’s engineering concepts while liberally cutting costs, Mercedes brought a marginally improved car to a very competitive market.  Its biggest selling point was that it was the cheapest way to get behind the wheel of a genuine Benz, but beyond that, there was little to distinguish it from other, similar cars.

W140 front susp

Other than a new double wishbone front suspension, a concept borrowed from the W140 S-class, from a customer’s standpoint, the only notable changes were the addition of a multi-valve cylinder head (along with a few hundred extra pounds), and a passenger’s side airbag.  After so many years of potential development, the fundamental improvements made to the car were lacking.

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That meant, of course, that the driving experience hadn’t changed very much: same gravely, torquey four-cylinder, same indifferent noise isolation, same inert at the limit handling, and same recalcitrant automatic.  Six-cylinder buyers were treated to a nice boost in power, and the later supercharged 2.3 liter was an effective and characterful, if unrefined, bandaid, but overall, these cars were no match for the E36 3-series.  That BMW, with its new multi-link rear suspension and aerodynamic design, co-opted the compact Mercedes’ stability and efficiency, while retaining its characteristic sportiness, and did so for less money.

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Perhaps the most troubling aspect, however, was that the cheaper BMW was of higher quality than the Mercedes.  The mid 90s to mid 00s represented some of the worst quality for Benz automobiles, and the C-class was one of the first models to usher in this era of cheapness.  Other than the biodegradable wiring harness, which is forgivable as a singular point of failure, it seemed that the bodies were also eager to decompose and return to the soil.  These cars seemed to have the ability to rust anywhere, though not quite as much with as the more expensive E-class.  The bottoms of doors, the decklid, the front spring perches and front lower control arm (rather important pieces) and even the center of body panels are susceptible to rust and it’s not uncommon to see the W202 C-class in rough shape today.

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Our featured C43 AMG, however, is in uncommonly good shape.  Yet another white curbside classic found by yours truly, it’s parked in front of the residence attached to a local independent Mercedes specialist, so it’s safe to assume it’s gotten good care.  And aside from the rather unkind treatment I’m giving the W202, all C-Classes retained the W201’s solidity and unflappability, making the fitment of a massaged 4.3 liter V8 a non-issue.  These eight-cylinder AMGs are not muscle cars as much as full realizations of their platform’s potential, with overzealous traction control and a foot operated parking brake being reminders of the their sober personality.  They are immensely satisfying sedans, with their combination of large displacement, tidy dimensions and precision.  Just don’t expect much in terms of feedback.

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While there’s no denying that few cars could do what the C-class could do dynamically, most of the competition did so much of the other stuff better.  A Camry V6 of the era offered superior reliability and noise isolation for much less money, and even co-opted Mercedes’s reputation for durability.  And as floppy as it was, the 1994 Saab NG900 wooed over a bunch of buyers (at least over the first few years of production) with expressive design and punchy performance.  The Volvo 850 offered an alternative which embodied the C-class’s best attributes with superior quality, comfort and safety (the W202 didn’t do well in crash tests either), often for less money.  The arrival of the Audi A4 also changed the market, offering a German competitor with equivalent snob appeal, a much more youthful image and compelling value.

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These were the peak years of front-wheel drive acceptability, and the advantages of the W202’s chassis layout weren’t as big of a selling point as they would be today.  For those who cared about such matters, the 3-series fulfilled the rear-drive sports sedan mould more convincingly, leaving the C-class without much to recommend it, other than its brand image.  That wasn’t necessarily the case in Europe, where big Mercedes are sold with small engines, and where there are enough buyers looking for the same stable, inert feel in a smaller package.  But in suburban USA, where torque and isolation are much more important, the C-class only delivered the cheapest means to Mercedes ownership, without being a particularly good value.  And while that could have also been said for its predecessor, the new W202 brought nothing new to a market which was rapidly moving on.

A 0018

The takeaway isn’t that the C-class was a bad car.  The W201 was a tough act to follow, in that its solidity, stability and style were so enduring.  The problem, as discussed here in the past, was that it was slow and expensive.  The C-class remained the most expensive car in its class while only partially rectified the performance issue.  Meanwhile, improvements in silence and isolation were hard to find, and there were unforgivable lapses in quality and even safety.  Each of the car’s recent successors have thankfully made strides in solving the value equation with the W203 offering greater safety, luxury and refinement, and the W204 offering increased quality with a hint of added aggression, but the Mercedes smallest RWD sedan has never fully recovered from its lackluster reputation.

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Related reading:

Mercedes 190E (W201): Das Beste oder… Baby!Mercedes W124 (1985-1996 E-Class): Best Car Of The Past Thirty Years