It is undeniable that the past couple of decades have seen a massive increase in the sales by premium car manufacturers. Whether it be because of the increased availability of credit, cheaper entry level models or merely the fact that we are more affluent than in times gone by, the fact remains that cars with the three pointed star, blue-and-white propeller or 4 rings are more alot more commonplace and arguably less special than in the past.
Back when I was growing up it was a relatively rare treat to see a big posh motor, and although the sales of premium brands were beginning to gain some traction in the UK they still lagged behind the likes of Ford and Vauxhall by a long way (although admittedly they still do to be fair). In my primary school class there was only one child whose parent(s) picked them up in such a car; his name was Stevee and his perma-tanned mother drove an early Mercedes C Class, one of those first ‘entry level’ models from a manufacturer whose previous line up had mostly included leather-lined limos and glamourous sports cars. This early exposure gave me a small soft spot for the mini Merc and so when I had the chance for a brief drive earlier this week I jumped at the opportunity.
Now the C Class was not Mercedes’ first foray into the compact executive field, the earlier 190 had been a relatively successful launch for the brand and laid some groundwork for the first proper ‘Baby Benz’. Massively over-engineered, the 190 was renowned for it’s build quality and managed to survive 11 years on sale before being replaced, and at the time many argued that it was one of the last ‘true’ Mercedes. With Lexus’ debut in 1989 with the LS400, Mercedes was under increased pressure especially after the dubious reaction to the tank-like 1990 S Class; that car heralded the first use of the ‘Class’ system used by Mercedes even today and therefore it was anxious to create some cohesive models to match it’s new flagship and naming strategy.
Setting a trend which continues in this current generation of cars, the new C Class was designed to look like a smaller version of the brand’s flagship saloon. The straight lines of the 190 had been softened slightly to create a car that whilst conservative was still attractive and well proportioned (especially compared to the ungainly S Class), and compared to the brand’s other 90’s designs the C Class is arguably one of the most handsome. In today’s light this is still somewhat true; although clearly not a modern car the honest, boxy lines of the C mean that it sits quite happily in the background, traditional looking but not obviously a product of a by gone era. The example I drove was one of the last of it’s kind and so came with a few bits of glitz and glam not afforded to earlier models; attractive 6 spoke 17″ alloys hint at the sports aspirations behind the C200K badging, the K standing for ‘Kompressor’ or supercharged in English. It seems most Mercs of this era were silver and this example didn’t disappoint, but overall this unmolested example gave a very good impression for a car whose exterior design had been finalised in the days of pre-unified Germany!
Inside however things were less glam…stepping into a very low seat just confirmed my idea that a sports saloon is not the one for me, although decked out in leather (or possibly MB-Tex substitute) it still seemed that the car was just a tad too low compared to modern vehicles. In front of you lays a relatively big steering wheel and Mercedes’ three dial layout, although with only ‘odd’ numbers on the speedometer which proved slightly frustrating. The dashboard layout whilst functional still betrayed the age of the car; the chunky ventilation dials were positioned high up on the dash next to strange temperature change wheel-things which didn’t seem to be that exact. Below that lies the radio; this particular car had an aftermarket Sony system but from pictures the standard one looks similarly user-unfriendly, there was also a cumbersome phone holder which seemed to date from the stoneage. Other things I took away from my time in the Merc was the carbon fibre-effect plastic on the console and dashboard (yuk), virtually non-existent glovebox and cupholder/cubby which seemed a bit out of place. I also did not care for the fact that the mirror and window controls were located next to the gear shift between the front seats, as opposed to the doors as in more modern cars. Practicality wise, the boot was alright but the rear seats looked small, not the most detailed analysis I know but these were not really designed with rear passengers in mind.
I was not actually expecting to be able to drive the car but am glad I did; although I have driven automatics very briefly before, never had I driven one for more than a minute or two – OK this was only for around 10 minutes but at least it gave me the chance to do more than drive in a straight line! My thoughts? Well the C was never the most renowned for it’s handling and this shone through on my little jaunt. Heavy steering which was not awfully direct plus an engine which felt a little slow compared to my naturally aspirated 1.8 gives credance to the belief that a similarly aged BMW 3 Series is alot more fun on the open road. That’s not to say though that I didn’t enjoy driving the C Class; shifts from the 5 speed auto were pretty seamless and I was pleasantly surprised with how well I adapted to Mercedes’ quirky stalk layout; I had thought only contemporary Mercs had the unusual location of cruise control/indicator stalks but I was proved wrong and dealt with it as though nothing had changed. Probably my most violent critcism is in regards to the rubbish foot-operated parking brake, which did not seem to want to engage. Hopefully the one on a newer car would work a lot better.
This hasn’t been the most informative car review I know, but hopefully it gives a decent impression of what my experience in the first generation C Class…they are actually pretty cheap on the used market and even a tidy fire-breathing C43 AMG can be had for under £5k; running costs are also pretty reasonable and compared to BMW’s of a similar age the tend to be a bit better kept and less scruffy. Those looking for a classy looking runabout for not much money might be wise to give the Baby Benz a gander, or if not just do what everyone else does and get a Beemer.