What's the used Mercedes C-Class saloon like?
With the 190E and the original C-Class, Mercedes had succeeded in making successful small executive cars, but with this second-generation Mercedes C-Class, it really started to challenge the BMW 3 Series head-on.
Designed to be more rewarding to drive than its predecessor without losing that classic Mercedes comfort, the second C-Class succeeded on both counts. It still wasn’t as fun as the BMW, but it was blessed with responsive steering and decent body control, and it soaked up bumps well, too.
There were also some impressive engines at the upper end of the range, including those in the AMG-tuned performance models: originally the six-cylinder C32, followed by the V8-powered C55.
The interior was generally more spacious and comfortable than that of its rival the 3 Series, and the boot was also bigger and more usefully shaped. Unfortunately though, Mercedes managed to blot its copybook with build quality problems.
Advice for buyers
What should I look for in a used Mercedes C-Class saloon?
The interior trim of the Mercedes C-Class was notably fragile, and it’s not unusual to find a car full of rattles. Check to make sure that all of the panels are still in place and that the seats, gearshift and steering wheel are not overly worn.
The complex single-arm windscreen wiper can also be problematic, because it has to adjust its height and sweep to hit the right areas of the glass. It’s expensive to get original Mercedes replacement parts, but cheaper pattern parts can be sourced.
Older Mercedes are popular as taxis, so look into the history of the car very carefully and be wary of examples with worn interiors and very high mileages.
You also need to check that recall repairs for broken exhaust pipes, corroded airbag electrics, steering coupling breakages and faulty bonnet catches have been carried out.
What are the most common problems with a used Mercedes C-Class saloon?
In the early 2000s, Mercedes was going through a period of reliability woes and this C-Class and the contemporary E-Class were the cars that fared worst.
Many of the issues can be traced to the complex electrical system, although thankfully some of the regular problems are easily and affordably fixed. For instance, an ABS warning light is usually just a faulty sensor that costs less than £100 to replace.
The heater fan can also give trouble. Often the issue is just the brushes of the electric motor, but a motor replacement will be more expensive.
Diesel pumps are another weak point, so look for the 'EDC' light on the dashboard staying on or for a lack of power when you accelerate.
Is a used Mercedes C-Class saloon reliable?
In short, no. Quite apart from the common electrical niggles, there are some serious and regular mechanical defects.
Engine head gaskets can blow (and are given away by a trickle of oil down the side of the engine), exhaust manifolds crack, timing chains snap if not regularly serviced, the automatic gearbox can fail (check that its oil is clear and red, not dark and black), radiators fail and need rebuilding and faulty catalytic convertors can cause the engine to drop into ‘limp home’ mode.
In addition, diesel injectors can go, the front shock absorbers leak, the parking brake can snap its cable and the starter motors can be weak.
To its credit, however, Mercedes did put a lot of effort into rectifying problems and often dealt with customers out of warranty to deal with major issues, so a car with a full service history may well have gotten over many of these issues already.
What used Mercedes C-Class saloon will I get for my budget?
Early examples of this Mercedes C-Class are now old enough to have fallen to 'banger' status and can be snapped up for less than £1000. A risky choice from a reliability point of view, but with potential for low-cost luxury if you can find a good one.
About £5000 will get you a much more sensible 2004-2005 C220 CDI automatic with full history and the desirable automatic gearbox, while a good late-model C350 CDI V6 diesel will set you back about £8000.
How much does it cost to run a Mercedes C-Class saloon?
Regular running costs are not too bad, as long as you avoid those overly thirsty early petrol models and the AMG variants. The C220 CDI diesel, for example, can manage a fuel efficiency figure of about 40mpg in real world driving conditions.
Servicing can be very expensive at Mercedes' main dealers, though, so it’s best to seek out a well-respected independent specialist, of which there are many.
Front suspension ball joints need replacing at 80,000 miles (costing about £80 per side), while the rear wishbone bushes need replacement after a similar amount of time.
Which used Mercedes C-Class saloon should I buy?
It’s best to avoid the early C180 and C200 petrol models – they were a touch underpowered and very thirsty. Much better replacements came in the shape of the supercharged 1.8-litre C180K and C200K with 143bhp and 163bhp respectively. Although they sound a little rough on the ear compared with more modern engines, they’re powerful and frugal.
Initially, the only diesel option was the five-cylinder 2.7-litre C270 CDI, but in 2004 a 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel engine was introduced in C200 CDI and C220 CDI forms, with the latter the pick of the bunch. The range-topping 3.0-litre V6 diesel was launched in 2005.
Basic cars, called Classic, were not too badly equipped for their time, coming with air-conditioning, a CD player and electronic stability control as standard. However, if you want alloy wheels or other niceties, you’re best tracking down an Avantgarde model.
You’re also best looking for an automatic car. Not only does the market prefer automatics in a Mercedes, this gearbox is a far better match for the awkward foot-operated parking brake than the manual, which also has something of a slow, heavy shift action.
Our favourite used Mercedes C-Class: C220 CDI Avantgarde auto
What alternatives should I consider to a used Mercedes C-Class saloon?
Obviously the 3 Series is the primary rival, and you can choose from both fourth- and early fifth-generation models within the same lifespan as this C-Class. Both of those BMWs are sharp to drive, well made and generally more reliable (if a little less comfortable) than the C-Class.
The original Audi A4 was still in production when this C-Class was introduced, and it’s a very attractive and mechanically simple car, but one lacking in rear seat and boot space. In late 2001 the second A4 was introduced and this had improved interior space and quality on its side.
A slightly leftfield choice is the original Lexus IS. It was defined by crisp handling, a lovely 2.0-litre six-cylinder petrol engine and exceptional quality and reliability, but no diesel version was ever offered.
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