Mercedes-Benz C-Class is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, with the very first model (W202) debuting in 1993. The Kleine Benz has become a living legend and brought Mercedes ownership within reach of millions, much like the 190 series did before.
Styled after the iconic W140 S-Class, the W202 C-Class was a refined and luxurious riposte to the sporting E36 BMW 3 Series of the time. Several powertrain options were made available. In the United States, customers were given a choice between the four-cylinder 220 and the six-cylinder 280 derivatives. The C220 produced 150 horsepower at launch, while the straight-six 280 delivered 190 hp.
A facelift would come in the late nineties, and a more powerful 230 derivative would replace the C220. The 280 would ditch its inline-six for a twin-spark V6 with a few more horses. The W202 was also the first Mercedes to spawn an official AMG model, the first official collaboration project between the manufacturer and the former independent tuner.
Following in the footsteps of the 190E was always going to be difficult, but Mercedes responded by making it more spacious and practical in every way. Professor Hermann Gaus who, at the time, was head of Mercedes vehicle development, said, “We responded to the fact that the central European population was growing year by year.”
From the outside, the W202 doesn’t look much larger than its predecessor. However, interior space was greatly improved by rearranging the engine, transmission, and axles more practically. The fuel tank was also repositioned beneath the rear bench (as opposed to behind it), which allowed engineers to move the bench further back, increasing legroom in the rear quarters. Speaking of the fuel tank, plastic was used for the first time in a Mercedes, to reduce weight.
Other benefits included significantly more trunk space. Overall, the vehicle length increased by just 1.57 inches.
A Variety Of AMGs
While BMW targeted young and ambitious executives, Mercedes focused on making the C-Class as comfortable as possible. The front double-wishbone suspension and rear multi-link setup contributed to a supple ride, and, to this day, a well-maintained W202 will still impress with its ability to make smooth, unfettered progress. The rear suspension was improved with an elastic rear-axle transmission mounting and a new spring and damper setup.
In other regions, the C-Class was available as a C180, which mustered up just 120 horsepower. The C200 boasted a more respectable 134 hp. Of course, there were an array of diesel models and high-performance AMG models. The C36 AMG hit the scene in late 1993 with a 276-horsepower 3.6-liter V6. While quick, it couldn’t match the E36 M3 for outright performance, especially as it sent power to the rear wheels via a four-speed auto ‘box.
Other modifications include lowered suspension, gorgeous AMG Monoblock wheels, and an aero kit that gave the stately Benz some sporting flair.
Mercedes would later introduce the V8-powered C43, which employed a mighty 4.3-liter V8 with 302 hp. That may not sound like much now, but it was imposing in the late ’90s. For those who wanted even more performance (and exclusivity), the little-known C55 was made available to select customers. With 342 hp, it’s one of the most unique W202 models ever made. A mere 59 examples were produced between 1999 and 2000.
The W202 also followed the 190E to the racetrack and enjoyed great success as a DTM racecar. With Klaus Ludwig behind the wheel, the AMG Mercedes C-Class DTM raced to victory in 1994. Revised to produce 434 hp (up from 394), the racer claimed even more wins in 1995 in the DTM and International Touring Car Championship.
A wagon derivative was also offered on a compact Mercedes model for the first time. The more practical body style arrived three years after the sedan, and Mercedes sold 243,871 examples between ’96 and ’01.
The C-Class also ushered in a new model grade system for Mercedes-Benz. In most markets, the W202 was available in four distinctive trims: Classic, Esprit, Elegance, and Sport. Classic models were woefully basic and came equipped with plastic hubcaps, cloth upholstery, manually-operated windows – and, sometimes, no radio.
Esprit models were aimed at youthful buyers and were offered in fresh and vibrant exterior colors. These vehicles also received lowered suspension. Those who wanted the traditional Mercedes experience would have to go for the Elegance, which combined chrome exterior trimmings with wood veneer and leather interiors.
The Sport also received lower and stiffer suspension and light-alloy wheels with wider tires. Classic and Elegance models made up one-third of all sales, but Mercedes introduced the racier trims to appeal to more customers. “With Esprit and Sport, we were able to convince buyers who found the design of the W202 too staid,” said Mercedes’ Professor Peter Pfeiffer.
Interestingly, the C-Class also ushered in a new model designation system for the Mercedes-Benz lineup. Before 1993, the number (which used to designate the engine size) preceded the body style. As an example, an S600L used to be known as a 600SEL, with the “E” denoting fuel injection (Einspritzung). By 1993, all Mercedes vehicles made use of fuel injection, so the “E” was no longer necessary – except for the E-Class, which adopted the “E” to represent the midsized sedan.
Aside from that, Mercedes couldn’t call the W202 the 220C or 280C. Before, the “C” designation was used for convertibles and coupes, so everything was changed to accommodate the new baby Benz. Overall, 1,626,383 examples were produced between 1993 and 2000.
At the turn of the 21st century, Mercedes introduced the W203. While bigger and more technologically advanced, the second generation couldn’t quite match its predecessor in terms of build quality. Like the W201 190, certain iterations of the W202 have become modern classics.