The Millennial Mercedes C-Class is not a car that lives in the memory. It’s far too inconsequential for that.
Like all inversions, the decline of Mercedes-Benz didn’t occur overnight. Its slide was glacial at first, before gradually and inexorably picking up speed as gravity took hold. Gravity isn’t an adjective which immediately lends itself to the model line we are retrospectively appraising today – a car which can perhaps most charitably be described as inconsequential.
Because over the four generations the C-Class has established itself in the upmarket compact saloon category, the W203 series can safely be characterised as the least convincing of them.
Despite its undoubted sales success, the C-Class has tended to lose out in the matter of hearts and minds – Mercedes, unlike its Bavarian antagonist, habitually engendering respect, rather than outright affection. In fairness, this was also the case for the origin of the species – the 190E (or W201 for those to whom these things matter). A landmark car, not to mention a landmark Mercedes, it illustrated that size was not a necessary marker when it came to maintaining marque values.
Which is all very well when those values are adhered to. Because while the W201 was a successful model line, it was not as impactful as hoped amidst the North American market, suffering from a perceived lack of sparkle by comparison to its (slightly) less expensive, technically less advanced, but more overtly driver-focused rival from München-Milbertshofen.
The 1993 C-Class (the first to bear that nomenclature) was intended to remedy this, being a refinement of the W201 recipe, with a new bodyshell, a wider range of engines and a more gimlet-eyed focus on the market. Unfortunately, it also coincided with a very noticeable drop-off in build and material quality, early W202s quickly gaining a very poor reputation for electrical and mechanical frailty, not to mention, serious rust. Stories abounded of C-Class owners asking for their trade-in 190s back.
The following year, work began on its replacement, dubbed W203. While the W201 had enjoyed a decade-long sojourn in the marketplace, its replacement lasted seven, which might have been construed as being a reflection upon the car’s somewhat lacklustre reception. After all, if a Mercedes failed to impress on values of solidity, build integrity and craftsmanship, there really wasn’t much to recommend it – apart from snob value of course.
It was into this augmented reality that the W203 arrived in 2000, and it certainly looked the part. Although long standing design director, Bruno Sacco was still in place when the W203 was signed off, he was far from being in power. His loss of influence by then was not only long-standing, but self-evident, with deputy, Peter Pffeifer holding stronger favour with Jürgens, Schrempp, Hubbert and the Daimler-Chrysler board.
Although generally credited to Hartmut Sinkwitz (more latterly heading Mercedes interior design), W203 is more likely to have been the work of lesser-known hands. Stylistically, it imbibed heavily (some might say too heavily) from themes set out in 1998’s equally ephemeral W220 S-Class, but while it appeared contemporary and rather more lithe than its predecessor, it was not a design for the ages, then or now.
Because while the earlier W202 bore the appearance of an over-inflated 190, the W203 by contrast appeared to have been subjected to liposuction. This led to a slightly pinched appearance, lending the car (particularly in saloon form) a somewhat insubstantial mien. Further stylistic indignity stemmed from the rather casual looking and faddish headlamp treatment, a Daimler-Benz styling motif of the time, one they really couldn’t have abandoned quickly enough.
Busy and ephemeral are also adjectives which describe the W203’s cabin design. Characterised by a ‘floating’ upper dash section which sat above an often contrasting shade lower moulding, it was all logically laid out in expected Mercedes fashion, but was wrought of materials well below previously time-honoured Sindelfingen standards.
Technically, W203 offered few surprises over its predecessor, being offered with a bewildering range of power units – most of which were carry-over. Entry level was a 1.8 litre four, in normally aspirated or supercharged form, supplemented by a series of V6 power units, up to 3.2 litres. Diesels were either four or five cylinder units, and a high performance AMG version came with a 5.5 litre V8, ensuring that there was a C-Class for most tastes and pockets.
Also available was a (more attractive) estate bodystyle, and later the same year, the hatchback Coupé. While most Mercedes coupés were positioned as halo models, the SportCoupé, as it was officially known was aimed at the rival 3-Series Compact, attracting (in theory) a younger, less salubrious customer.
The W203, like most Mercedes’ of the era quickly developed a poor reputation. Problems are said to have included such matters as malfunctioning signal acquisition modules, leading to all manner of electronic maladies, engine problems affecting 180 Kompressor and 3.2 litre V6 models, a seemingly voracious appetite for suspension bushes and once again, rust.
The Range received its only significant revision (which included powertrain changes) in 2004. Typically, little was changed externally, with only bumpers, head and tail-lamps being refreshed. Inside however, the cabin was revised considerably, and it is believed that not only was material quality improved noticeably, but build and durability as well.
Discontinued two year’s later, pending the introduction of the new W204 series, over 2-million W203s were built in Bremen and Sindelfingen, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam. A sales success the W203 undoubtedly was, but success often comes at a cost.
Not a memorable car and like most of its contemporary Sindelfingen stablemates, the 2000-2006 Mercedes C-Class has aged with remarkably poor grace – as forgotten now as it was forgettable at birth. File under Miscellaneous.
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