A Matter of Consequence

The Millennial Mercedes C-Class is not a car that lives in the memory. It’s far too inconsequential for that.

(c) carpixel

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.

(c) oilreset

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.

More on Mercedes-Benz here.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

48 thoughts on “A Matter of Consequence”

  1. Good morning, Eóin, and well done on finding some interesting things to say about a supremely dull car. The only vaguely interesting thing I remember about the W203 was that the SportCoupé variant was facelifted and lived on as the CLC alongside the W204 X-Class. The facelift was notable for its Hillman Avenger style cappings over the corners of the rear wings:

    Before:

    After:

    I doubt Bruno Sacco would have approved.

    1. Mercedes Benz sometimes shows the same signs of careless complacency as GM does.
      There was a time when a new M-B was a big event and for at least 20 years this his not been the case. In some ways M-B is the GM of Europe though admittedly operating at a higher level. It´s really hard to care about a new Benz when they seem to launch about 6 cars a year.
      The W203 is at least tidier than its predecessor; and that´s about it. It´s not either strikingly conservative nor does it have a high-concept conceit. It´s a Wuerrtemburgian Camry but not as good as a Camry.

    2. As per below, these cars have failed to interest me for 20 years so I admit I am a bit late getting to this, but – surely the DLO surround on the coupe makes more sense as black the whole way around, rather than splitting the difference between a black runner rail and body-colour top rail?

    3. Hi Stradale,

      I think that feature wasn’t that bad, it emphasized the roof arcness perhaps. I was a lot more concerned with its subsequent replacement’s DLO which was very un-Mercedes-like in my opinion. That slim C-pillar and rising, pointy, window-line !

    4. I had never noticed the “double” shutline around the bumpers at the back of the pre-facelift C-class coupé. This seems unusual, I never noticed it on any other car before I think.

    5. This thing in Sportcoupe form fluttered around these parts as Mercedes’ version of the AMC Gremlin that was featured a few weeks ago. Looked like a Manx cat that had backed into a wood chipper for even greater effect. It looked dreadful. Advertised as the MB for less than $30K, by giving you one single solitary buck back. And a rough kompressor engine, no extra charge. I never paid them the slightest bit of attention insofar as actually examining one up close. The bright yellow one I encountered on the way to work each day was a short, perhaps three year phenomenon.

      The original W201 looked good; an architect acquaintance kept his well past its use-by date, when the rust meant it failed our version of the MOT. The problem was the rear seat — no legroom whatsover, a joke. He replaced it with a similarly black Hyundai Accent!

      Mercedes were gobsmacked by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology book in 1990 (The Machine That changed The World) that labelled them as the single least efficient car maker in the entire world, with the biggest rework area at the end of the assembly lines. The old quality control model versus Toyota’s Deming quality assurance system, one I was implementing at work at the time for the verification of electricity meter accuracy under statistical methods.

      When I read the book, I knew exactly the problem MB faced. They were a company out of time. The crash program to change that was hastily and poorly implemented – that was the reason for the low quality Mercedes vehicles for most of the 1990s and beyond. Wiring made with outer coverings that crumbled for special electrical faults, cheap interiors, and enough cash left over to buy and then ruin Chrysler, with Schremp being the bad actor in charge of that complete schemozzle. No doubt about it, the middle 1990s Camry made the C Class look like an utter chump. Of course, Toyota then started cheapening things themselves, just a bit with the ’96s, and gradually getting worse. But they never skimped on the electricals or mechanicals.

      When I test drove the CLA in 2014, as I’ve related here before, it was obvious a Mazda 3 slayed it in all but power. So I regard MB with great suspicion I’m afraid, rightly or wrongly.

      Have you seen that new S-Class interior, photos buzzing around the web today? Good god.

  2. The picture of the interior is from a car after the ‘MOPF’. The original dashboard, in particular the instrument cluster, was a horribly cheap and nasty mess and far too similar to that of the A-class. The semi circular instruments didn’t even feature a temperature gauge

    The MOPFed version looked infinitely better

    1. MOPF is Mercedes speak for ‘Modellpflege’ which rougly translates to product update

  3. Somehow, the car looks low cost and insubstantial, not sure why the styling (inside and out) gives that impression. The car that replaced it (discussed here before also) was much better (at least pre-facelift), if nothing to hang the bunting out about.

    1. There´s no way this car is worth the premium over a corresponding Mondeo or Vectra, both of which are much better bits of industrial design. You couldn´t say that about the 190 and the corresponding cars from Ford and Opel, nice as they were. Ford and Opel made serious efforts on the quality front at the time and Mercedes was heading in the opposite direction. I expect the 7-production run was intentional and not merely forced on Benz. It´s another sign they have/had become a maker of rather ordinary cars for the most part.

  4. I’m sure the proliferation of models is to blame. When the [1980s] 190 was launched, it was indeed a Big Deal, and the amount of care taken by M-B over it and its effect on the brand reflected this.

    Now, it’s just vehicles by the yard, GM style, in order to try to compete in a crowded market, facilitated by platform strategies and improvements in production technology. This applies to most western, especially German, manufacturers.

    I wonder if the forthcoming (?) recession will mean pared-back model ranges. There will certainly be less cash around, for a while, as all those customers default on their leases.

    1. It could be a good moment for the return of durability as a selling point, don’t you think? Back in the days of the 190 and the Mark 2 Golf part of the appeal of either VW or M-B was that the product was durable. I just wonder, with the forthcoming recession, probably pared back ranges and also the not-so-far-off demise of the ICE, whether the time has come again for a car that will genuinely last.

      At least one of the major dealer groups in the UK is already marketing that it will look after you from the day you buy the car until you buy your next, ‘however long that may be’.

    2. The logic of capitalism tends to favour low initial cost over a lower lifetime cost. However, if car makers become more like landlords and sell not a car but a service with a car at its centre then that might change their thinking.
      I´d like to delve into this but the ramifications are too many to do the topic justice off the cuff.

  5. Hello Adrian,

    Yes – more durable, almost by default. As many manufacturers shift to EVs, they will realise that beyond tyres and brakes, EV’s require pretty much zero maintenance. Even body shops will be less busy as technology takes over, one assumes. Plans must already exist for ‘changes in dealer network structure’, as it were.

    1. There will be a gradual reduction in demand for new mechanics who can work with ICE engines. I expect the die-off of ICE mechanics and the die-off of the ICE engined cars will be quite closely linked. If you want to see the future of workshops, just go an look inside a Tesla dealer.

  6. In many ways the refusal of the commentariat here to engage with the car in question says a lot about the car. It also says maybe something about the DTW community. We aren´t really the target market for this type of car. I think those who do like this car don´t concern themselves with cars so much as brands, would I be right? It is likely that the indifference of the C-class owner is matched only by the indifference of the Renault Laguna owner. I would bet that a person opting for a Mondeo or Vectra would be more committed to Ford and Opel respectively than the C-class owner would be. That´s not to say there aren´t a lot of Benz fans but they are outnumbered by brand watchers who choose a Benz, Audi or BMW more less randomly.

    1. Firstly, my apologies for going off topic into EV’s, etc.

      I think you’re right about the car – it must have its fans, but it is the modern archetypal company car. Its design brief is fulfilled as soon as the following are uttered: “What are you driving at the moment?”. “A Mercedes-Benz”. “Ooh, lovely”.

    2. I agree with you Richard, I for one think far too hard about what car I might actually buy and only then end up wondering about practicalities like where can I get it serviced, and then worry about the brand. A C-class gets no where near my list of criteria, ditto a 3 Series, which is probably why I have never bought a BMW, MB, Audi, VW, etc. The closest I got was when I got carried away about the clever packaging in the original A-class, but then bought a Scenic because it was cheaper, rode better, and bigger and more practical inside.

      It’s the same now … if I look in the classic ads, it’s always a Renault 21 or a Subaru Forester which catches my eye, not an Audi A4.

    3. The first line of the article nails the essence of this car – I have no abiding memory of these things at all, beyond a basic cognitive awareness of their existence over the last couple of decades, and in fact this is very likely the first time I have ever given over sufficient dedicated thought enough to actually cohere a paragraph or two about them. And I say this as someone who has a fair bit of time for the 190 and can even muster sufficient interest in a C-Class to talk about the sociological implications of Merc charging nearly $AUD60 grand for a basic C180 in the mid-1990s.

      I had forgotten this, but on reflection probably my most abiding memory of the W203 is that a friend of mine who is notoriously demanding and somewhat idiosyncratic in his judgements on automotive aesthetics held a flame for the coupe. Never quite got to the bottom of that one – I always thought it was a bit slab-sided and underwheeled myself – but I remember it because it always felt like an unusually positive appraisal from him. So, I guess it has that going for it. And to be fair, that mist green they offered was quite fetching.

      Mind you, that pre-facelift dashboard pic above undoes any and all positive work the verde paint might have achieved. The GM comparison is telling because GM loved its half-moon dials in the 1990s. Everything about that pre-facelift panel, from the horrid needles to the terrible finish and clashing colours and materials, says lowest-common-denominator who-cares cost-cutting nastiness. About the best you can say is that at least Mercedes moved on fairly quickly, while GM hasn’t (I won’t deface the site by imposing a link for the weak of stomach, but anyone who is missing live-action horror shows in this time of lockdown can dial up an image of the Cadillac ATS’ gauge cluster).

  7. My first Mercedes was a W203 1.8 Kompressor and I actually liked it. It did exactly what I purchased it for. Unfortunately it suffered from corrosion around both rear wheel arches however they were both repaired twice by Mercedes, at no cost to me, even though the car was not purchased from one of their dealerships. Not sure that would happen now. I have also owned a W201 and S124 both of which suffered from corrosion in a number of locations along with wiring loom problems, excessive oil consumption etc etc. I understand the attraction of the earlier models to Mercedes enthusiasts, along with the criticism of the more recent marketing strategy. Sadly, as has been said many times before, they are just another car manufacturer struggling for market share. Don’t even start on the topic of spares availability for older models…..

    1. Regarding standard of service from Mercedes-Benz, my 1997 SLK was the only car I have ever purchased on a PCP deal. While the car was within the three-year tenor of the PCP, its (numerous) faults were fixed without fuss, but as soon as I paid off the balance and the penny dropped that I wasn’t going to use its GFV to purchase another car from the company, the service standard fell off a cliff. Claims for premature failures, for example a main lighting switch, crankshaft sensor and steering ball joints, all needing replacement on a four year old car with 25k miles, were rejected out of hand.

      The highly competent independent M-B specialist I subsequently used to service the SLK told me that he kept a stock of steering and suspension parts on the shelf as he was always having to replace them on late 90’s models.

      At least I got rid of it before it started to show signs of rust, a notorious problem on pre-millennial SLKs.

  8. I know this model rather better than I care for it, as I used it as a rental car on numerous occasions – not to mention my partner’s mother having owned one until a few years ago.

    To start on a positive note, I always liked the way these drove, including the base Kompressor variants. I never liked its styling and was appalled by the cabin, which reminded one of the fact that this was a car engineered down to a price, regardless of where one looked or what one’s hands touched. It was substantially cheap-feeling, not just, but particularly compared with a BMW E46 or the Audi A4 models built at the same time. Rust was also on issue on my mother-in-law’s car, but my personal pièce de resistance was the seats, which were simply awful. MB may have been traditionally parsimonious when it came to W203’s specification – but back pain came included as a free extra with every model variant (at least as far as the early cars are concerned).

  9. Although it can’t hold a candle to the Sacco classics, I think I’m in the minority here in that I’ve always quite liked the look of this C-Class. The saloon and the estate, not the coupé. It’s more attractive than the between-two-stools W202 and I find its stance to be pleasingly wedgy. Unlike the W210 the round headlights treatment doesn’t make me want to throw up. Then again I’m also in the minority of liking the look of its big brother W220 S-Class.

    1. That´s quite alright – it´s not a terrible car and like the bland Carina E, it will have some people who feel positive regard for it. I like a few cars which are surely not that good but not that bad too.

    1. It seems to be a magazine interpretation – the photo is a spy pic but the disguised front end will have been photoshopped by the publication based on inside info (or not, depending on the credibility of the magazine).

    2. Hi Stradale. That’s certainly possible, but here’s the estate version of the same prototype:

      Note the un-Mercedes like profile of the rear end. Does it have high-level tail lights? Also, there’s a Peugeot 406-like crease immediately below the DLO and running into the front wings on both prototypes that doesn’t appear on the production car, or any other contemporary Mercedes. Intriguing, don’t you think?

    3. Hi Daniel,

      I think Stradale is right. It strongly seems to be a magazine’s interpretation in both cases using crude ‘photoshop’ techiques, Including that rear end. It’s quite clear these are superimposed, they have a totally different texture than the rest of the (real) test-car and are fuzzy.

  10. Hi Richard
    It’s not my beef per se but those of fellow members of the Mercedes Benz Club UK. At some point in the recent past MB decided that they would discontinue making certain spare parts for older models and also would not permit others to make them under licence. This created large amounts of frustration for enthusiasts along with expense they had not envisaged, based upon previous availability.
    An online register of items classed as NLA – no longer available – has been created and MB Club have made formal representation to Head Office in Germany in an attempt to improve the situation.

    1. Hi Mike,

      That’s interesting. I thought the legend for years was that Mercedes were able to supply any part for any car they have ever built, regardless how rare or obscure? The only catch was the potential to need a second (or possibly third) mortgage – but generally that aspect wasn’t a concern for your average cost-no-object Mercedes-restoring demographic. Perhaps this narrative has been embellished somewhat over the years but as someone into Italian metal who has struggled with Fiat’s idea of historic parts ‘support’ over the years, I can only say I have traditionally looked with envy at Mercedes’ and Porsche’s support of their historical catalogue.

  11. The thinking behind this vehicle and others since has been to appeal to the ‘commercially promiscuous’ (hate that phrase) user-chooser, by producing a wide range of superficially attractive products which trade off past glories.

    Those who want ‘The best or nothing’ can take their business elsewhere, although quite where, I’m not sure.

    This isn’t a bad car at all, as had been said, and business is all about making money (‘delivering shareholder value‘ – I hate that phrase, as well).

    What makes me sad is that genuine choice is ultimately reduced, rather than expanded, through M-B going for a more mass-market approach. It’s disappointing that one can’t buy something of really superior design and quality. It’s even more disappointing that there isn’t, or hasn’t been, a market for a vehicle like that.

    1. Richard we currently have a Volvo XC60 with us for four years. It’s a definite extravagance but we decided to indulge ourselves! We took delivery of it in December 2018 and immediately drove it home from the Scottish Borders to Devon (it’s a long story). I would absolutely recommend it’s build quality and design as being spot on. I don’t have any direct experience with the German opposition but won’t be off looking in that direction anytime soon. I know someone with a V90 who is equally impressed too.

  12. Yes, these days Volvo are very good. Still not as ‘special’ as M-B used to be, somehow. I need to cheer up and stop moaning.

    1. Agreed – there isn´t a brand that´s a distinct cut-above without being OTT. Maserati is just too much and, to be honest, still not exuding the distinct qualitative difference M-B could in relation to (still decent) cars back in the day.
      To some extent that´s because every has caught up and M-B don´t pursue the kind of quality they once did. I see M-B as Europe´s Buick. The S90 and the Renault Avantime are, in my view, two distinctly different cars and appeal to me much more than anything from Benz and BMW. If I did have to choose a BMW it´d be one of their GT cars.

    2. I can understand your despondency, Charles. There’s a big difference between true quality and what now passes for ‘premium’. My 1988 W201 190E was resolutely lacking in luxury, but it felt like it would last forever. Nine years later, my R170 SLK, although much more lavishly kitted out, felt flimsy and insubstantial by comparison, and proved to be so in service. I didn’t realise it at the time, but these two models were pretty representative both ends of the quality spectrum for the marque and its precipitous decline. Current models are much improved in quality terms but are too chintzy for my taste.

  13. I’m almost afraid to out myself as a fairly content W204 driver now! It is a better resolved product than the misfortunate W203, many examples of which seem to have aged badly, but I don’t fool myself it’s vastly superior to any other competitive car. Some of the value engineering is annoying – for example the OE speakers are poor, and riveted in place, which made replacing them with something better literally painful. And the brochure describing the vinyl seats as “manmade leather” just made me giggle.
    None of this stops me liking the car, and I plan to keep it a good many years yet. After all, I had the Mondeo which preceded it for eleven years, and it wasn’t new when I bought it.
    Plus there are residual echoes of Mercedes-ness. Does anything else have struts which support the bonnet in a nearly vertical position?

    1. Good morning Michael. Glad to hear youve been satisfied with your W204. Actually, by 2007 when the W204 was launched, Mercedes-Benz had largely recovered from it’s millennial quality slump. I like the W204’s design*, which is rather more like my idea of a ‘proper’ Mercedes-Benz than its curvaceous predecessor and successor.

      * Apart from the clamshell bonnet to front wing shut-line, of course!

    2. Hi Michael

      Do not despair I am in the same category as you. I had W204 220 cdi Estate which was excellent apart from the noise of the engine which sounded like tractor to me. Took it to my local Main Dealer who sympathised but said they all sounded like that. My first and last diesel.
      Currently – once it can be retrieved from my Mercedes Independent garage – driving a W204 C250 CGI saloon which does pretty much what I want it to. I agree with your point about the bonnet struts which shows that they can still engineer things although the reason the car was in the garage, apart from an A service, was to replace the timing chain, tensioner, install modified camshaft adjuster sprockets and associated bits and pieces. Total cost £1700 on a car that has done less than 60k miles to date.

  14. Hi Daniel,

    The central air vents look dreadful in this upcoming S-class but maybe that’s just the picture. I see they’re moving away from the round air vents. But mostly they remind me of the vents in the Citroën C3 Aircross, hardly a build-quality reference itself.

  15. Oh dear, NRJ, now that you’ve pointed that out I can’t unsee it!

    Mike Walker, I feel your pain. Ouch!

    1. Thanks Michael. All contributions to my bank account gratefully received…

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