The history of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class: Entering a new dimension of automobility

Mar 13, 2014
The W 201 from Mercedes-Benz celebrated its premiere in 1982. Ever since the compact class Saloon, Estate and Coupé models of the Stuttgart-based brand have epitomised the successful transfer of classic Mercedes-Benz values to an attractive vehicle family below the upper medium-size category and the luxury category.
As the direct predecessor of today's C-Class the models 190 and 190 E (201 model series) presented in November 1982 unlocked a new market segment for Mercedes-Benz and at the same time marked the start of a major product initiative of the brand. Since then the C-Class has continued its success story marked by innovations in three more generations – the 202 model series (1993 to 2000), 203 (2000 to 2007) and 204 (since 2007). The next generation of the C-Class (205 model series) celebrates its debut in 2014 and leads this tradition into the future.
In 1982 the Mercedes-Benz 190/190 E of 201 model series established a third passenger car family below what would become the E-Class (upper medium-size category) and the S-Class (luxury category). It marked the beginning of a product initiative and consequently opened a new dimension of automobility for Mercedes-Benz. The fact that the Stuttgart-based brand referred to this model series in-house as the "compact category" has to be put into perspective, however. The Saloons, and starting with the 202 model series the Estate and Coupé models of the C-Class as well, were by no means part of the "compact car" market segment: from the point of view of Mercedes-Benz at the time they were compact within the own model range, but generally set highlights in the premium medium-size category. The slogan "Mercedes cutting-edge technology in compact form" coined in 1982 captured the essence of this relationship.
Innovative, sporty, compact: the 201 model series (1982 to 1993)
The team around chief designer Bruno Sacco styled the models 190 and 190 E as a straightforward modern Saloon. The equally clear and elegant lines were an outward expression of the uncompromising modern vehicle concept. In the 201 model series the engineers succeeded in transferring the high standards of Mercedes-Benz of values such as safety, comfort and handling into a more compact vehicle segment. In the US, where customers referred to the W 201 lovingly as the "Baby Benz", the vehicle played a major role in improving fleet fuel economy: since the 1970s North America has had strict corporate fuel economy limits for environmental reasons.
Among the technical highlights of the 201 model series were the lightweight, aerodynamically optimised body, the suspension with multi-link rear axle and a diesel engine with soundproofing introduced in the model 190 D ("whisper diesel") in 1983. The Saloon soon also proved its sporty qualities. After the market launch of the new model series with the models 190 and 190 E, the new top-of-the-line model 190 2.3-16 followed in 1983. Before its premiere the new model had already set several long-distance world records with average speeds of almost 250 km/h in Nardò (Southern Italy).
Entrance of the first C-Class: the 202 model series (1993 to 2000)
From May 1993 Mercedes-Benz further expanded on the strengths of the W 201 in the 202 model series – the first C-Class to actually bear this name: even though the new Saloon was hardly larger than the "Baby Benz", the designers and engineers managed to increase the interior space considerably and further enhanced passive and active safety as well. This was accompanied by innovations such as the first turbodiesel engine with common-rail direct injection from Mercedes-Benz (launch in 1997 in the C 220 CDI).
The 202 model series was also a clear statement of the Stuttgart-based brand for the role of the C-Class as a comprehensive vehicle family: in addition to the Saloon (W 202), an Estate model (S 202) became available for the first time starting in March 1996. It had an impressive load compartment volume of up to 1510 litres. There were also the design and equipment lines CLASSIC, ESPRIT, ELEGANCE and SPORT as well as a particularly dynamic AMG equipment package with sports suspension, AMG light-alloy wheels and AMG design elements. Innovative diversity also characterised the engine range, which included four and six-cylinder engines and even a V8 engine in the top-of-the-line AMG models. The pinnacle of this evolution was the C 55 AMG with a power output of 255 kW (347 hp) in 1998.
Sporty technology leader: the 203 model series (2000 to 2007)
The international success of the C-Class as a compact premium automobile was continued by the 203 model series starting in 2000. This third generation of the model series family not only underscored its role as a technology leader in its market segment, but with it Mercedes-Benz also further expanded the diversity of the C-Class. In the autumn of 2000 the youthful and fresh Sports Coupé celebrated its premiere as new body style. The two-door car presented a particularly dynamic interpretation of the four-headlamp look of the 203 model series, joined by powerful lines of the body with a distinctive rear end. On the inside the Coupé was dominated by a cockpit with sporty design and aluminium trim. The Estate model (S 203) joined the Saloon and the Sports Coupé in 2001 as the third body style. The lifestyle vehicle with high utility continued the success of its predecessor (S 202).
The 203 model series offered more than 20 technical innovations previously unavailable in this market segment. They included safety, comfort and dynamic handling systems. At the same time the engineers further lowered the fuel consumption of the C-Class with new engines and aerodynamic optimisations. The 203 model series moreover offered highly dynamic vehicle handling.
Brilliant with two fronts: the 204 model series (since 2007)
The C-Class of the 204 model series was the first to launch with two different vehicle fronts. While the ELEGANCE and CLASSIC design and equipment lines sported the classic Mercedes radiator grille, the AVANTGARDE line with the Mercedes star positioned in the radiator grille had a sportier appearance. This design was even more focused on the values of the individual lines and reflected a diverse overall concept.
The fourth generation of the C-Class was particularly successful in also meeting the expectations of very different target groups. The merits of the 204 model series included sportiness and elegance as well as high efficiency. Modern engines, lightweight construction and optimised aerodynamics ensured that the 204 model series consumed up to 17 percent less fuel than the predecessor model series. With the facelift in 2011 the C-Class Coupé (C 204) joined the Saloon and the Estate, taking the place of the Sports Coupé.
Long history of innovation of compact vehicles
Since the debut of the W 201 in 1982 the Mercedes-Benz C-Class again and again set benchmarks for innovative technology, pioneering design and compact sportiness in the premium medium-size category. Starting in 2014, the 205 model series will lead these strengths further into the future.
The roots of this success story go back much farther than 1982 however. As far back as the 1920s, 1930s and the 1950s there were visionary designs at Mercedes-Benz for more compact vehicles below the respective models and model series of the upper medium-size segment. In the 1970s the time had finally come to bring these visionary ideas to series maturity. The decision to develop what would become the W 201 was made in January 1974. That was the birth of today's C-Class.
The highlights of the W 201 and the C-Class
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class and its direct predecessor, the W 201, again and again set benchmarks with innovative technology. In 1982 Mercedes-Benz managed to incorporate the classic values of the brand such as safety, comfort and sustainability in a more compact vehicle. In this way the "Baby Benz" opened up the segment of premium mid-size category for the Stuttgart-based brand on a level of excellence. Since the birth of the compact category the C‑Class has evolved continuously and has become more and more diverse in the process.
201 model series (1982 to 1993)
  • Multi-link rear axle with five independent links for highly balanced and safe handling
  • Shock absorber strut independent front suspension with anti-dive geometry, located by individual wishbones
  • Optimised forked-member structure of the front end for a higher level of passive safety, in particular in a frontal collision
  • Efficiency and aerodynamics (Cd=0.33)
  • Anti-lock braking system (ABS) available from 1982, standard initially for the sportier 190 E 2.3-16 model (from late 1984)
  • Airbag available from 1982, standard from 1992
  • Catalytic converter for petrol engines from 1985
  • Oxidation catalyst for diesel engines available from 1990
  • Four-valve technology in large-scale production (launch model: 190 E 2.3-16)
  • Encapsulated diesel engine with exemplary soundproofing ("whisper diesel")
  • Records over 50,000 kilometres, 25,000 miles and 25,000 kilometres as well as nine class records in Nardò with the 190 E 2.3-16 in 1983
  • 190 E 2.5-16 EVO: homologation vehicle for German Touring Car Championship (DTM), 1989
202 model series (1993 to 2001)
  • A total of four design and equipment lines: Esprit, Elegance and Sport expand the classic equipment line as additional lines
  • C 220 CDI, 1998: first diesel-powered passenger car with common-rail direct injection
  • Supercharging of petrol engines with Roots compressor
  • Four-valve technology and standard-fit oxidation catalyst for diesel engines
  • C 36 AMG: first AMG model of the C-Class, 1993
  • Estate model (S 202) starts body style diversity in the C-Class in 1996
  • Electronic Stability Program (ESP®): 1997 as optional extra for V6 models, standard equipment from 1999
  • Keyless drive authorisation system ELCODE, standard from 1997
  • Optional car telephone integrated into armrest
  • 1997: standard specification with safety innovations such as front sidebags, front performance belt tensioners with belt-force limiters, electronic brake assist
  • First V8 engine in the C-Class in the C 43 AMG, 1997
  • Active Service System ASSYST (from 1997) enables need-based engine maintenance with average maintenance intervals of 22,500 instead of 15,000 kilometres
  • Automatic door locking from 15 km/h (starting in 1997)
  • Winning vehicle in the German Touring Car Championship (DTM) in 1994 (Klaus Ludwig) and 1995 (Bernd Schneider)
  • Official Safety Car of Formula 1 (C 36 AMG, 1996)
  • Official Medical Car of Formula 1 (C 36 AMG Estate in 1996 and 1997; C 55 AMG Estate from 1998 to 2000)
203 model series (2000 to 2007)
  • Front module with crash boxes of high-strength steel for yet further improved passive safety
  • New three-link front axle with McPherson struts ensures more precise handling
  • Optional 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic transmission (from 2005)
  • Premiere for COMAND Online in the C-Class
  • Sports Coupé as the third body style of the C-Class
  • Panoramic sliding sunroof in the Sports Coupé with continuous glass look
  • The technical standard of the model series set benchmarks as the technology leader for the market segment with more than 20 innovations such as windowbags, adaptive airbags for driver and front passenger, Headlamp Assist, multifunction steering wheel. central display and fibre optic cables
  • C 32 AMG (2001 to 2004) and C 55 AMG (2004 to 2007) as top-of-the-line models
  • 4MATIC in the C-Class (from 2002 available in the V6 models with petrol engine)
  • Sensor-controlled THERMOTRONIC luxury automatic climate control
  • LINGUATRONIC voice-operated control system optionally operates the telephone, navigation system, radio and CD player
  • Winning vehicle in the German Touring Car Masters (DTM) 2005 (Gary Paffett) and 2006 (Bernd Schneider)
  • Official Medical Car of Formula 1 (C 32 AMG Estate 2001 to 2003; C 55 AMG Estate 2004 to 2007)
  • C 55 AMG Estate as Safety Car of the DTM (2004 and 2005)
204 model series (since 2007)
  • Two different fronts for even more diversity, Mercedes star centred in the radiator grille for the sporty AVANTGARDE design and equipment line
  • DISTRONIC PLUS proximity control
  • Intelligent Light System with bi-xenon headlamps for five different lighting functions
  • PRE-SAFE® system with preventive occupant protection measures
  • AGILITY CONTROL package with situation-dependent damper control
  • New generation of diesel engines in the C 250 BlueEFFICIENCY
  • New Coupé (C 204) as the most exclusive form of the C-Class from 2011
  • Extensive package of assistance system from 2011, including Active Lane Keeping Assist, Active Blind Spot Assist, ATTENTION ASSIST, DISTRONIC PLUS, Parking guidance with PARKTRONIC, PRE-SAFE® Brake, Lane Keeping Assist and Blind Spot Assist
  • Aerodynamic drag of Cd=0.26 sets benchmarks for the market segment
  • Lightweight construction: aluminium bonnets, 2011
  • Most powerful C-Class: C 63 AMG Coupé Black Series with 380 kW (517 hp)
  • Winning vehicle in the German Touring Car Masters (DTM) 2010 (Paul di Resta)
  • C 63 AMG Safety Car of the DTM, from 2012 C 63 AMG Coupé Black Series
  • Official Medical Car of Formula 1 (C 63 AMG Estate, since 2008)
The new Mercedes-Benz C-Class, which launches in 2014, continues the successful tradition of the compact category from Mercedes-Benz. Among the benefits of the all-new 205 model series are the lightest body shell in its market segment as well as extensive innovations in the areas of safety, suspension and comfort.
Mercedes-Benz 190 E, compact-class sedan from the 201 series
Mercedes-Benz compact-class sedan from the 201 series
Mercedes-Benz C-Class Typ C 270 CDI from the 203 series
Mercedes-Benz C-Class-Sportcoupé from the 203 series
Mercedes-Benz C-Klasse C 230 KOMPRESSOR (W 202)
Mercedes-Benz C-Klasse Typ C 180 estade (S 202)
Mercedes-Benz C-Class coupé, estate and sedan (W204)