C-Class model history in brief
Mercedes-Benz introduced the 190 model in 1982. The sedan (W 201 series) was the first car in a new model series referred to within the company as the “compact class” – below the E-Class, S-Class and SL-Class.
The new model, designed by Bruno Sacco, took Mercedes-Benz values into the mid-range of the market. This included the company’s focus on technical innovations: the W 201 featured a chassis with multi-link independent rear suspension, a lightweight structure made of high-strength steel, bodywork with exemplary aerodynamic qualities and a high level of passive safety.
The 190 engines also set new standards: the use of an encapsulated engine in the diesel version led to the 190 D becoming known as the “whisper diesel”, while four-valve technology turned the gasoline-engined version of the compact class into a high-performance sports car.
The 202 series was the first to bear the “Mercedes-Benz C-Class” name. The sedan (W 202) made its debut in 1993. The C-Class continued the tradition of the 190, but with a larger and more comfortable interior while retaining the same exterior dimensions. Standard equipment was also significantly enhanced, at prices comparable to those of its predecessor. The station wagon (S 202) introduced in 1996 offered even more space.
In fact, the 202 series played a crucial role in the ongoing development of passenger-car diesel engines at Mercedes-Benz. The C-Class comprised the world’s first passenger cars to have four-valve diesel engines. Then came the first turbodiesel passenger car with four-valve technology and charge-air cooling, and in 1997 the C-Class also introduced the diesel engine with common-rail direct injection (CDI).
But the new model series also introduced new features for gasoline engines: it was in the C 230 Kompressor that Mercedes-Benz first went back to the idea of using a Roots supercharger to boost engine power, after more than 50 years.
The third generation of the compact class (W 203), launched in 2000, was a decidedly sporty design, and in the fall of 2000, a sports coupe (CL 203) was also added to the C-Class. The new station wagon (S 203) arrived in 2001, with a stronger focus on lifestyle and practical utility values.
The new model series contained a raft of technical innovations as standard equipment. Alongside a high level of safety, exemplary comfort and reliability, the most distinctive features of the C-Class were its agility and sporty performance.
The technical innovations making their first appearance in this generation of the C-Class included the SEQUENTRONIC automated six-speed transmission.
Debut of the Mercedes-Benz 190 in 1982
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is a truly multi-talented range of cars, available as compact sedan, thoroughbred sports coupe and successful racing car. The class also includes versatile station wagons for leisure, family and professional use, doubles as an innovative technology carrier and became a top-seller for the company. These are just a few of the facets of this highly successful model series, as displayed across the many individual cars in the range. The Mercedes-Benz “compact class” is an entire family of models, offering an enormous range of qualities and features.
The history of the C-Class began in 1982 with the introduction of the 190 model (W 201 series). This was the direct forerunner of the C-Class. The 190 marked the advent of a third model series, alongside the S-Class and E-Class. If the SL-Class and G-Class are counted as classes in their own right, the W 201 series was actually the fifth Mercedes-Benz passenger car series. In fact, the appearance of the new model in 1982 marked the beginning of an extensive diversification program, since the new-look technology carrier was actually the first shot in a sustained product campaign.
North American customers were soon calling the new sedan the “Baby Benz,” but the car also packed a real punch. Revolutionary new features set high standards in passive safety, propulsion, and other areas of automotive technology. The brochure for the 190 put out in 1982 promised the customer “leading-edge Mercedes technology in a compact format.” The model delivered on that promise, as the C-Class does to this day.
As well as drawing on innovations from the E-Class and S-Class, the W 201, W 202 and W 203 series themselves consistently introduced new features which were then incorporated in other Mercedes cars. The new C-Class (W 204 series) launched in 2007 is the fourth generation of the “compact class” since the appearance of the new star in the Mercedes-Benz firmament in 1982.
Technical highlights of the C-Class
201 series (1982 - 1993)
- Multi-link independent rear suspension: rear axle with five independent links for highly balanced handling characteristics
- Shock absorber strut independent front suspension: front axle located by individual wishbones, with anti-dive control
- Encapsulated diesel engine with exemplary noise insulation (“whisper diesel”)
- Forked-member structure of the front end for improved passive safety, particularly in frontal collisions
- Bosch KE Jetronic mechanical/electronic injection system for gasoline engines
202 series (1993 - 2000)
- C 220 CDI: the first diesel-engined passenger car of a German motor manufacturer with common-rail injection
- Gasoline engines with Roots supercharger
- Turbodiesel with four-valve technology and charge-air cooling
- V6 gasoline engine with three-valve technology and dual ignition
- Four-valve technology for diesel engines
203 series (2000 - 2006)
- Front module with crash boxes made of high-strength steel for further enhanced passive safety
- New three-link front axle with McPherson struts for more precise handling
- All-glass panoramic sunroof in the sports coupe
- Introduction of the SEQUENTRONIC automated six-speed transmission
What came before the Mercedes-Benz compact class
- Ideas pursued right from the start of automotive engineering: A car which is as compact as it is comfortable and safe
- Advanced development of the 190 dating back as far as 1971
The idea of a small car providing the same automotive technology, comfort and safety features as larger models has been around as along as the automobile itself. Both Benz & Cie. and Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft designed and produced not only luxurious cars but also more compact models. Also for Daimler-Benz AG, established in 1926 in a merger of these two companies, the concept of a compact model series was in the air right from the start, especially in economically difficult times. It was on this basis that the 170 (W 15 series, 1931) and the 170 V (W 136 series, 1936) were created, for instance.
However, concrete ideas of introducing a new Mercedes-Benz model below the mid-sized category did not emerge before the 1950s (W 122 series) and the early 1960s (W 118/119). But the plans for these two series remained projects in character and were not developed through to production standard.
The automotive world changed dramatically in the early 1970s. There was increasing talk of a diminishing supply of crude oil, and there was an increasing demand for low-pollutant vehicles, particularly for export to North America. This prompted preliminary technical planning in advanced development for a “small” Mercedes as early as 1971, although no model series designation was allocated at the time. The oil crisis in 1973 then confirmed that this approach was along the right lines, and at the end of that year it was decided to pursue these ideas with a strong commitment to materializing them. The model series designation “201” was then issued in 1974.
However, there was vehement debate within the Daimler-Benz Board of Management as to whether the model series should actually be built. The proponents of this strategy were completely convinced that the company could produce a compact car that would still provide the characteristic Mercedes safety standards, outstanding handling and high levels of ride comfort. The opponents of the idea took exactly the opposite view – i.e. that this was not feasible – and also feared that the exclusiveness associated with the brand would be watered down. In the end, the issue was settled by market forces, and the decision was made in 1977 to build the new W 201 series. This proved to be one of the most important strategic decisions ever taken by the Daimler-Benz Board of the day – although the move came as no surprise to the planners. As Professor Werner Breitschwerdt, then Chief Engineer and later chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz, recalled in 2000: “In the mid-1970s, this suddenly became a hot topic, particularly because of the American regulations on fleet consumption. So a smaller model proved to be a very good idea.” Another point in favor was the idea of launching the new model as an ideal second car alongside a larger Mercedes-Benz sedan – with the same safety standards.
Important for the product drive
But the brand with the three-pointed star was also looking to expand. It was hoped that the compact class would make Mercedes attractive to new customers, particularly the younger generation. In the words of Gerhard Prinz, chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz AG in 1982: “Our new Mercedes-Benz class is a major step towards complementing our current passenger car range by the addition of an entire new model series. This will enable us to tap new opportunities in the marketplace, and to offer attractive models to an even larger number of prospective customers. After a number of years devoted more to consolidating our passenger car business, we have now laid the foundations for a more aggressive approach, a full-scale product drive.”
A lot of the required advanced development work had already been completed by the time the decision was made, so the model series was ready for the market within a comparatively short time, and road tests began as early as 1978. An enormous number of test cars were required during development. The process began with 25 component carriers within the body of a 200 model. These were used to test the new major components, particularly the axles. They were followed by 53 pre-prototypes and prototypes, made completely by hand, for testing the vehicle as a whole, and finally, a pilot series of 25 to 40 vehicles (depending on whether the cars required for type approval are included in the total).
So the expense involved was huge. No less than eight basic designs were formulated for the rear axle alone, with over 70 variants, of which around one third were actually built and tested. The manufacturing costs of one component carrier were around 400,000 DM (approximately 205,000 euros), and pre-prototypes and prototypes cost as much as two million DM (approximately one million euros) each. But it was money well spent.
Joachim-Hubertus Sorsche, the then Director of Passenger Car Development, was particularly appreciative of the “untiring devotion to every detail that ultimately produces a good car. All this testing and ongoing development over five million test kilometers and in innumerable bench tests, closely integrated with the design work, the determination to keep on until every tiny component was operating perfectly, not just on its own, but as part of the project as a whole, the meticulous attention to detail until even the most demanding designer felt satisfied – that’s what defines this car and makes it a Mercedes.”
The compact class was finally launched in 1982. The engineers had achieved something quite special, worthy of a place in the history of automotive engineering: all the specifications seen as essential for a car’s status as a genuine Mercedes had been met. The new Mercedes-Benz featured excellent handling, better-than-average comfort levels in its class, outstanding active and passive safety, and excellent fuel economy and emission values. In the words of the 1983 brochure: “This new model series succeeds in concentrating leading-edge Mercedes technology and Mercedes quality in a compact car for the first time – no compromises, no cutbacks.”
A frequently asked question is why those responsible did not opt for front-wheel drive for this car. There were two main reasons for this. First, in a vehicle of this size, the required allocation of space is more easily achieved with rear-wheel drive. In particular, a transversely mounted engine would have significantly restricted the designers’ ability to fit many different engines and transmissions. And secondly, the development department had been anxious to separate the drive and steering functions to give themselves greater scope in tuning the front and rear axles for optimum handling qualities.