Making An Arse Of It

Does my bum look big in this? 

Mercedes C-Class SportCoupé. Image: (c) Cars Data

As a companion piece to this week’s profile of Mercedes’ W203 C-Class, we’ve chosen to re-run this article, which originally appeared as part of DTW’s Facelift theme on 2 July 2014.

As I’m sure I don’t need to point out to you, dear readers, when it comes to the subject of facelifts, not everyone cleaves to the Partonesque ideal. Because while the tuneful Tennessee songstress has clearly invested wisely upon her augmented visage, others have fallen rather messily at the wayside. They know who they are.

When it comes to the automotive variety, the spectrum too is as broad as it’s nuanced. Some facelifts attempt to breathe life into an ageing design, others signpost a fresh styling direction. Some merely act as a dating point to give the salespeople something new to sell. The pivot point however remains as straightforward as it is immutable – is it any good?

Frankly, today’s example isn’t. The 2001 Mercedes-Benz C-Class SportCoupé was the first compact close-coupled two-door hatchback in the marque’s history. Based on the existing W203 C-Class saloon platform, its styling cues borrowed heavily from its more conventional three volume sibling – itself no visual paragon. It proved a sales success however, appealing to the affluent retirees and trophy wives/ husbands who represent the traditional ownership heartland of the Mercedes coupé.

Its styling was inoffensive (if somewhat unmemorable), handsome enough given the marque-specific styling tropes of the time – successfully hiding the bulk of the rear end with some clever use of glazing. No landmark of course, but by the turn of the millennium, nothing emerging from Prof. Peter Pfeiffer’s design studios at Sindelfingen truly was.

Mercedes CLC. Image: (c) Motorstown

There matters stood until 2008. Following the introduction of the next generation (W204) C-Class, the SportCoupé clearly could not carry on unaltered. Perhaps lacking the funds (or indeed the inclination) to do much else, Mercedes designers successfully grafted a similar nose treatment to the newer model onto the earlier design. So far, so logical.

However, the rear end proved a sterner challenge – one which could reasonably be said to have either been beyond their budget or their capabilities. Possibly both. Since the existing W204 saloon’s rear lamp clusters were said to be visible from the International Space Station, the CLC (as the SportCoupé was now dubbed) was given a similar set of its own.

But in lending the vehicle a soupçon more gravitas, the results were anything but harmonious. The rear now resembled cliff face and was about as precipitous, but worse still, it wore its stylistic expedience unashamedly, complete with a matching pair of tacked-on end-cappings, clumsily masking the gap left vacant by the earlier model’s more vertical tail-lamp units.

Amateurish is one way to describe the end result. Ungainly is another. Either way, nobody was dignified by this transformation – neither carmaker, owner nor viewer. Unfortunately, the CLC remained on sale until 2012, by which time everybody was truly sorry to see the back of it, if not quite for the reasons its creator might imagine.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

24 thoughts on “Making An Arse Of It”

  1. Good morning Eóin. Facelifts are often interesting because the designer is constrained by the vehicle’s existing hard points, yet is trying to achieve the maximum impact for minimum cost. Things often go wrong when they try to impose a new marque style on a design in the superseded style, as was the case with the CLC.

    Another recent example is the Skoda Yeti. The original design was both coherent and distinctive, but grafting on an angular and generic front end really spoilt it for me:

    At the other extreme, one really wonders if there’s any point to the marginal tinkering with the front valance air intakes that often passes for a facelift these days?

    1. A considerably fraction of Skoda designers fought tooth & nail to maintain the Yeti’s separate circular light, but ultimately those advocating the necessity for a strong ‘family look’ prevailed.

    2. Unfortunately, I have previously been told, when making the same point about the Yeti, that the facelifted car went on to sell better than the original and more distinctive and cohesively designed car. So, what do we know?

  2. One wonders if the powers that be gave the design department “something else to do” to keep them occupied whilst the next big thing is being discussed? Or, as stated above, cash restrictions and/or interest levels were at such a low level that “It’ll do,” was just that. Shameful.

    There’s a couple of CLC’s near us; one in white which makes me feel nauseous and causes me to look away and a pastel blue shade. Which, for a cliff face is unusual, but at least nicer. But that’s nicer as in preferring a grazed knee over an Indian burn. Can you tell I’m no fan of this Merc?

  3. The original was a visually attractive car- especially with the full glass roof, which I think the first photo has- albeit with a slight “Toy Town” feel that would have been acceptable on a “Fun” Ford or Renault in a posh frock but was disconcerting in a Mercedes. If I’d been price quizzed I think I’d have guessed it to be cheaper than it probably was.

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned it’s stand out feature; the partially glazed rear spoiler. For me that was redolent of the Maserati Khamsin or TVR Tasmin’s glazed hindquarters but with a degree of extra sophistication. Why junk it at the facelift? Was there some new safety law that outlawed it, did it get easily damaged if your luggage shunted back under heavy breaking, did it display your baggage to theives? Or was it just a question of money and a car having a new name needing to look “New”. One of many cars I’ve never driven but have confirmed opinions about. Maybe I’d have one in my fantasy garage but I wouldn’t have been able to take myself seriously when driving it.

    1. The ‘Sportcoupé’ always reminded me of an Opel Tigra, which is odd for a Mercedes.

      Incidentally, the only owner I ever talked to was my father’s neighbour, a lady in her ’80s, who’d always refer to the car as ‘das Coupé’, clearly oblivious to the fact that she was driving a compact car.

  4. This is another nomination from me for a terrible facelift award:

    I know it’s not that highly regarded in the first place, but I really rather liked the X350 generation XJ, at least until Jaguar decided to ‘modernise’ it with a truly awful ‘aftermarket’ looking front bumper and those gills in the front wings. Horrible!

    1. One million percent agreed Daniel. From slightly dull elegance to gimmicky tackiness. Almost as bad as what Callum did to the Mk2.

  5. My impression is designers plan for a midlife facelift already from the start, I guess to breed some new life and sales into it. And in many cases it’s pretty obvious the facelift wasn’t done to better the design, but just to keep the audience’s interest fresh. Though it boggles my mind in those cases a car is launched as a coherent cohesive whole, just to have that hollistic touch ruined a couple of years later with them tweaking minor details. A facelift should only be done to better the design, it shouldn’t be done just because the designers need something to do. On the case of the W203, the rear end treatment was the piece de resistance, it made the whole car. Without it, it’s just another hatch. The facelift was therefore totally redundant and actually made for a less interesting car.

  6. I would assume cost, but maybe not. I thought the rear lamps on the SportCoupe had turn signals at the top, but (too much) looking at these Benzes suggests the top section is nothing other than trim to make it look like the little vertical glass piece. Assuming the boolid lamps work on the CLC, rather than being a trim piece themselves, MB saved the cost of the extra glazed piece on the old tailgate, but added some lamps they probably didn’t need, and added the extra little panels, painted body colour, in place of the one-piece original rear lamps. Possibly the rear would be improved by removing the tailgate lamps – it might remove the strangely narrow appearance that the CLC has.

    In the mean time, enjoy the CLC press release:

    1. Hi Tom. Thanks for the press release, which I certainly enjoyed, but not, I suspect, in the way the Mercedes-Benz PR guys intended. What a load of old tosh! The new ‘Direct Steer’ system sounded intriguing. What did the old model do? Go left when you turned the steering wheel clockwise?

    2. Tom,
      you are right about the tailgate lamps being redundant visually. Yet, if you remove them, the CLC rear end begins to starkly resemble a Xsara 3dr/VTS.
      The rear side windows are rather Xsaraic as well, so probably they needed the tailgate lamps to try and mask this resemblance.

      The dreadful plastic coverings above the taillights just scream ‘cheap’,
      and how did such a solution find its way onto a MB-branded vehicle,
      remains a colossal mystery.

  7. Here’s one if my very favourite examples of a truly terrible facelift. Before:


    The poor old AMC Pacer was already the subject of enough ridicule and really didn’t need further humiliation heaped upon it. Note the snazzy colour-keyed hubcaps. I don’t know if they were OEM though.

    1. Well, yes, that was the butt of many jokes, on top of all the previous jokes. Take a giant squashed awkward beetle, and give it a big upper lip. Only two model years for the facelift before the final axe, and they weren’t exactly sales champions to begin with. I’m probably the only one here with seat time in a Pacer and many miles being driven by my agent. As I’ve mentioned here before, compared to the hiccupping, stalling, bucking, emission-tuned engines, including the first FWD Escort Ford foisted off on North America, the Pacer was smooth, fairly slow and very quiet inside indeed. So not all bad.

      I prefer to look at it AMC’s styling this way, Daniel. Where the Pacer scored with other professional stylists was its rear window and C-pillar treatment:

      1. The Porsche 928 copied it and was one of the reasons I thought it pretty awful to look at.

      2. The first Subaru Impreza aped the Pacer as well, over 15 years later. A genuine Noddy car that caused people to nudge each other when one hove into sight. The visual equivalent of the name Mazda Bongo. The Impreza saloon that appeared later was far superior to gaze at and I had one, the “happiest” car I’ve ever owned. It made me chortle to drive it. Don’t know why, it just brightened my day. And all they did was remove the rear nonsense and put a genuine trunk on it. 1000% improved.

      The MB C-Class Sport Coupe was MB’s AMC Gremlin, with a worse rear that just never looked right. Shortness overcompensated by a tiny tapered-appearing torpedo tail. So AMC can truly say they inspired others to be as weird as they were long after they were gorn.

      However, as is common with DTW articles, I learned of a car I’d never even heard of before, that MB CLC. MB sure didn’t bother importing that beast to North America after the, ahem, smashing sales success of the Coupe. So they didn’t repeat VW’s trick of sales success here of more than a decade earlier by importing a Brazilian car. I don’t think Europe was favoured with the VW Fox in the ’90s, but we got ’em! It was a sort of squared off narrow something, and inexpensive. In general they got more respect than the Golf, because who wanted a hatch, I sure didn’t, and the Jetta cost a lot more while being only a bit bigger. Here’s a high end version of a Fox:

    2. Good morning Bill. I should have said that, whatever the limitations or otherwise of its powertrain, I really like the styling of the original pacer. AMC dared to do something different, and good on them for doing so. The first one above is in a brilliant colour and it would really make me smile every time I took it out. In that regard it is similar to our bright orange Mini. That makes the cack-handed facelift all the worse.

    3. Bill’s take that the Porsche 928 was influenced by the Pacer is quite popular. Amusing though it unquestionably is, it’s simply not true. The AMC was unveiled in ’75, whereas the Porsche came out in ’77 – back in those days, lead times were rather significantly longer than they are today, which makes it impossible for the Pacer to have left an impression on Porsche’s design staff. Moreover, here’s a photo of a 928 full-size clay model from 1973, when nobody outside of Southfield would’ve caught a glimpse of the Pacer:

      If one is looking for the true inspiration behind the 928, a look at the designers involved is rather telling: Anatole Lapine came from GM and brought with him a team that was mostly Opel-trained – and Opel ran by far the most advanced styling studio in Europe at the time, which goes some way of explaining why the 928 was as advanced.

      In terms of immediate inspiration, I’d suggest Giugiaro’s Bertone Testudo played a significant role:

  8. In the first picture, the rear wheel looks smaller than the front one, which is a remarkable, if unfortunate, visual trick.

    Here’s Quentin Wilson putting a positive spin on the Coupé, and other vehicles in the range. I imagine / hope the cheque involved was large.

    I’ve always wondered how the facelift process works – whether it’s planned from launch, whether a separate team handles them, etc. I guess it depends on a vehicle’s reception, what the competition is doing and so forth.

    My candidate for the most successful facelift is the Triumph 2000 – I always think that the Stag-based mk2 version is what it should have looked like in the first place.

    1. Regarding Charles’s comment about the Triumph 2000/2500 facelift, I was getting my lockdown culture fix yesterday watching “The Professionals” and there was a car chase scene with a full complement of Rover and Triumph “2000” Police cars. It got me pondering how the same manufacturer could nearly simultaneously get one facelift so right and the other so wrong. Perhaps because Michelotti never got near the P6?

      The Rover nose job made a car that had been slim enough for optional wire wheels in 1963 look bloated under-wheeled, sinister and cheap. MB found a way to make black plastic look premium on the W201 in the 1980’s but BL certainly couldn’t do it with the P6. It seems entirely appropriate that such a creepy looking car should be the one that Princess Grace crashed in and The Yorkshire Ripper was caught red-handed in. A contender for the “Fiat charter” facelift championship?

    2. Richard: The Innsbruck facelift of the 2000 was (ahem) a bit of a Triumph and yes, while one would never choose the revised P6 over the original car from an aesthetic (and some might suggest), a build perspective, I don’t entirely detest it – probably because it remains a car I admire tremendously.

      However, owing to the strong opinions this subject elicits, I do wonder if the Facelift theme ought to make something of a late comeback? Suggestions/submissions welcome.

  9. Regardless of how it looks, that cheapened tailgate is inexcusable on practical grounds. I hope that parking radar was a standard fitment.

    The CLC was an appallingly cynical exercise in taking a product going out of production in its domestic market, giving it a resemblance of the replacement car, and building it in a low-wage country, in this case Brazil. Fiat, Renault, Ford or VW have just about got away with that sort of thing from time to time, but surely not Mercedes.

    My possibly flawed recollection was that it was sold in the UK at a psychologically important sub-£20K price, as a competitor for BMW’s 1 Series which was doing better than expected.

    There was surprisingly little commonality with the SportCoupe, with 1100 components changed. There was an all-round impression of a cheapened product, not sold particularly cheaply; the higher performance versions were touching on £25,000 before options.

  10. One masterpiece of particularly bad facelifts are Audi’s B cars.
    Everytime their C vehicles take a new design direction the B gets facelifted with this new look. The result were/are vehicles like the 80 B1/82

    or one of the worst facelifts of all times the B7

    Those strangely shaped lights simply don’t fit the straight disciplined lines of the B6.

    1. They made an even bigger arse of the, er, arse. From this nice, simple resolution :

      To this mess:

  11. I saw a C-class sportcoupé a couple of days ago. Strange thing is I don’t remember ever having seen a CLC, even though it was sold here. Meanwhile I hear Dolly singing…

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