One of the more difficult things as a writer is assessing the dynamic characteristics of your father’s car. Or, to be precise: at a time when he’s sitting in the passenger seat. My formative years as a driver, brought up on car magazines with evocative tales of road trips were spent driving the family trucksters under somewhat constant monitoring, and whenever given free rein, discovering some of the attributes never quite to be reached with someone else in the car.
I’ve now passed my 30th birthday a good while ago, but whenever I’m piloting a vehicle with my father, double my age, there’s an eerie sense of being transported to an age a decade younger. That ends up ruling out the time-honed lairy gravel road Scandinavian flicks in the MX-5 and the immediate throttle response satisfaction given by the TU-series engine in the 205. The watchful eye with decades of road experience may be silent, but the direction is in the air – keep it steady, sudden movements to the minimum. Don’t launch the phone from the dashboard slot under the stereo head unit.
The car in question is one of the more puzzling of recent years, and by itself worthy of closer inspection. It’s a 203-body Mercedes-Benz C-class wagon built a decade ago. Is it a good used buy? Is it a decent Mercedes? What to really make of it, especially since it’s now been in the family for six months?
Mercedes-Benz experienced a turbulent 10 years’ time from the mid-1990s to somewhere around 2005. Slicing off development costs and marred by paint process issues, there was a solid decade of producing cars that aged too quickly in comparison to the decidedly overengineered output just a while earlier. The W202 C-class doesn’t compare favourably to the 190E, the W210 E-class rusted to oblivion in the time the W124:s just had their front wing leading edges bubble up, and the W140 S-class was big bills every time you looked at it. But how about the successors to those?
My parents owned a W204 C-class for some time, bought new in 2009. It was a base car, a Suomi-specification diesel wagon in basic black and Classic trim, and after my folks retired it was deemed extraneous, as there was a solid chunk of worth still embedded in it, depreciating day by day, and it just didn’t get enough use to justify being diesel-powered either. They sold the black Benz wagon and reverted to doing all their driving in the humble MKIV Golf that had been the second car for years, and lived happily ever after.
But yet, the Golf aged, the 1.6-litre 100hp engine coupled to the four-speed automatic that isn’t really considered the most bomb-proof transmission in the Western civilization, and the lack of A/C often made the car stiflingly stuffy even in Finnish day-to-day use. Last autumn, they came over for a visit, and ended up trading the Golf in for the 2004 Benz seen here. The car has now done a few thousand under their care, and as I’m spending a little time in their neck of the woods, I was eager to turn the wheel again.
With Mercedes-Benz’s current design direction taken a turn for the exuberant lately, the W203 appears restrained, but well-balanced. The wagon form lets the glasshouse finish a clean wing shape, the overhangs are quite natural, and the sides have a neatly tucked curve that echoes lines being decided upon in the 1990s. The W202 was almost Volvo-like when it came to being boxy, and the facelift only rounded off the edges a little. With the W203, especially as a sliver of silver, the car didn’t need to be explained amongst swoopy competitors such as the Alfa Romeo 156.
But still, these days it’s not difficult to see boldly rusted out W203-model C-classes around. The door edges brown, the arches rot, the tough times still make themselves known. The 2005 update most likely fixed a lot of problems, but the detailing had a feel of gilding the lily. A late first-face car such as this has a probable chance of being better built with the initial bodge-ups seen through, but with the core concept still true, arch speedometer and all.
In comparison to my parents’ older-but-newer Benz, this C-class isn’t completely basic. It’s the C180 Kompressor model with the Classic Sport package, which gives the car some sporty detailing, checkered cloth, lowered suspension and brakes so big you can’t fit smaller wheels than 17-inch ones. The seats have some dynamic forms to their side supports, but they’re never tight enough to rule out buyers with a wider physique than mine.
For a 143-horsepower, 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine the addition of enormous anchors is a touch overkill, but it’s easy to imagine Mercedes were so hand-in-hand with the West McLaren Häkkinen Coulthard mystique they wanted to drop some F1 merchandise level hardware on an otherwise unassuming car. But there’s still wood in the cabin in lieu of faux carbon fibre, and only the later addition of AMG style sharp-spoked wheels makes the car pad its shoulders more than usual.
Is it underpowered? Such a concept barely exists here in decent old Finland. With the automatic transmission and traditionally heavy-set controls, you need to give the car a firm shove to pick up speed initially, but from then on you’re golden. A faint whine I hope is the Roots supercharger is audible when the heavy throttle is pressed, and the transmission shifts smoothly enough to not be intrusive. You can keep yourself busy with the autostick-like manual shift option, but ain’t nobody got time for that.
After a while, I formed an opinion that the W203 as a package is less serious than its successor. With the W204, Mercedes-Benz had to really get out of the rut, reinvent the C-class, declare itself as nothing but the best. The W203 could still play around with round shapes, a lighter touch, a more organic-feeling cabin with ML-class plastics peeking here and there, and produce such spin-offs as the three-door Sportcoupe. With a week with the car to myself, on more demanding roads, with the brakes smelling of good times and the trunk freed of a week’s groceries, the W203 would surely give out more of itself, reveal its cards, act out the sportswagon credibility the Sport add-ons bestow upon it. Right now, it takes acting on clues to get more than skin deep.
How about the exact car here? It’s approaching 120 000 km, with a few owners in its history, with the book backing up all work done over the years. A recent service confirmed it’s in solid health, and a prod around the edges reveals only some minor stonechip rust, none of the inside-out New Malaise-Benz Era telltale of shoddy seam sealer contamination. Time will tell how it will do the parent-hauling duties, but the way it stands now, a good six months post-purchase, indicates it should not immediately fall apart. There’s no 4matic to act up, at least, and no period navigation system to feel ridiculously outdated.
Will the rusty years of Mercedes-Benz bring down the used values and eat Euros off the prices of even semi-good ones? It’s difficult to say, at least in Finland. The star still carries cachet here, enough to steer my old man away from Audis and Volvos and – thanks to early 1960s exposure – Skodas, no matter how favourably I view those. From the C-class competitors, I would be more likely to choose a Lexus IS, but the W203 is easily justified when you plan to haul something that overwhelms the Sportcross’s cargo capacity.
Father’s Day isn’t in June in Finland, but it’s easy to consider this to be written in similar vein to recent airings of father-son car experiences. I’ve already bought a few cars my dad would’ve never even gotten, and wasted money on fixing things he wouldn’t have had to spend a dime on, but yet he borrowed my MX-5 for a half hour’s drive around the woods, and returned grinning from ear to ear. Maybe that put him off from thinking he should have gotten an early SLK instead.
[Images: Copyright 2015 Hooniverse/Antti Kautonen]