Oldies but Goodies; A Guide to Buying and Driving a Used W202 Mercedes

1990's era Mercedes-Benz sedans make for high style motoring on the cheap

Driving a W202 Mercedes-Benz is entirely possible for the enthusiast on a budget, assuming you are willing to perform regular maintenance and turn your own wrench from time to time. 

Mercedes-Benz ownership has long served as the emblem of privilege.  The brilliant star out front pointing the way to some adventure or another, turning heads and inspiring emotions ranging from awe to envy.  The legendary cars flaunt their well-earned reputation for engineering excellence, shepherding their owners from city apartment to country estate in safety and comfort.  What was once a joy only to be experienced by the monied few, is now available to a wider population at a price that wouldn’t even buy you a brand new Toyota.  I’m talking about the W202 C-class from Mercedes-Benz.

“W202” is car-geek lingo for Mercedes’ in-house chassis designation for a range of cars that included, in the US, the C220, C230, C280, C230 Kompressor and the related AMG models, the C36 & C43.  Mercedes produced the W202 range of C-class sedans from 1993 until 2000.  During it’s lifetime the car received a variety of engine choices and an appearance facelift near the end of it’s production run.  The cars were among the first of the new “entry level” cars offered by Mercedes-Benz in an effort to improve their share of the luxury car market, immediately following the hugely popular 190E “Baby Benz”.  Some people have claimed this emphasis on cost reduction created a drop in quality, while the reality is the car was designed and engineered well prior to the 1998 merger between Daimler and Chrysler.

Sporty or Elegant?
When searching for your W202 you might want to narrow the pool of contenders by first focusing on a specific model.  The debut C220 was a relatively slow and leisurely car outfitted with the time proven M111 4-cylinder motor that previously occupied the engine bay of the more costly E-class sedan.  This engine was soon enlarged to a 2.3 liter displacement and denoted as the C230 model.  A faster and more powerful supercharged version, successfully used in the SLK roadster, supplanted the base model as the C230 Kompressor.  “Kompressor” being the German native tongue for “supercharger”.  The Kompressor model is especially relevant today because it’s a gas sipping 4-cylinder when you want to be economical, yet it’s ready to unleash power on demand at the kick of a pedal.

Next came the smoother and more powerful 6-cylinder car badged the C280.  While the C230’s, especially those fitted with the Kompressor, tend to react to driver input like a bucking bronco and is ideal for enthusiasts who appreciate direct communication from the driveline, the C280 offers a more refined ride suited better to the family that is looking for an elegant tourer with manners you might expect from a well-heeled Mercedes.  While both cars are similar enough in power and specs, try them both out before you purchase to see which one suits your tastes, you might be surprised that you have a hidden rally car driver waiting to be unleashed.  Later US editions of both the C230 and C280 included “luxury” and “sport” models.  The luxury edition was the standard car, while the sport option gave you an upgraded suspension, larger wheels, carbon fiber style interior trim, chrome delete (North America), white gauges, and sport seats.

Time for a Facelift
In 1998 the C-class received it’s first major overhaul.  This included new AMG influenced front, side and rear body skirts that were color coded to match the body and a spoiler faired into the trunk lid to improve downforce, an integrated radio antennae, tinted taillights, new wheels, and an all new interior.  Model year 2000 models got a chrome star for the steering wheel.

Raw Power
AMG started out as an aftermarket supplier of performance parts for Mercedes-Benz but became an official member of the Mercedes family in 1999.  AMG created the C36 in 1995 by finessing the in-line 6-cylinder used in the C280 and made other subtle changes to the interior, body kit and wheels, but also offered a manual transmission for the very first time in the C-class.  For 1998 AMG upgraded the car with new bodywork and more importantly, a 4.3 liter V8 that created some 302 horsepower.  In Europe you could also buy an “estate”, or station wagon, version of the C43.

True Cost of Ownership
While the initial purchase price may be relatively low, enticing many buyers to consider a complicated and sophisticated car from Mercedes-Benz for the first time, it is important to remember the age-old saying among fans of the marque, “Nothing is more expensive than a cheap Mercedes”.  This is especially true because a car that has been abused, or one who’s owner failed to perform regular preventative maintenance, will cost many times over it’s initial purchase amount in repair bills and headaches.  Counter to logic, you really are better off buying the best condition, usually the most expensive, example you can find because the small layout of extra cash now will surely reward you in the future.  Maintenance is key to a satisfying ownership experience so don’t skimp on the costly Mobile1 oil changes or specially formulated fluids when they are due.  Many people are surprised at how affordable these cars can be if you have the capability to do some of the common repairs at home.  Brakes, filters and general wear items tend to be priced similarly, and sometimes less than, parts from other luxury automakers, and are easily replaced by the novice with a repair manual.  Online parts sources specializing in OEM parts are much cheaper than dealers.  Community forums such as BenzWorld.org are valuable resources for the owner that wants to save some money and get acquainted with his car by working on it himself.  Forum members are a wealth of knowledge and more often than not, have already suffered the mysterious mechanical gremlins you will eventually face and are happy to lend a hand.

Things to Look Out For
  • Early cars up to and including model year 1995 were built using an environmentally friendly "biodegradable" wiring harness that can cause major headaches once it starts to fall apart.  You will need to replace the entire harness to adequately remedy this problem, which you can guess is neither easy not cheap.  Look for brittle coatings on the engine wires, if bits come off in your hand you know you've got a problem car.  Check for receipts proving this repair was completed.
  • Motor and transmission mounts tend to go bad on these cars prior to 100,000 miles and may need replacing.  Some cars are reported to have fluid filled mounts that help dampen vibrations.  These mounts are relatively easy to replace by the dealer or in a well-equipped garage.
  • Flex discs connect the driveshaft and can become worn, cracked or frayed over time.  Evidence of this can be anything from a loud thumping to clicking or vibrations at various frequencies.
  • 6-cylinder models should be tested to ensure they have not suffered overheating which could cause a head gasket leak.  Check for oil dripping around the head gasket and also for a milky coloration to the underside of the coolant cap or the oil cap as this indicates cross-contamination between the oil and coolant.
  • Check transmission for full and proper function and verify that the so-called "lifetime fluid" has been changed if there are more than 60,000 miles on the car.  You will not be able to check the level or condition of the fluid since the cars are fitted with sealed units unless you buy an aftermarket dipstick and replace the lock cap with it.  Note that is is common and normal for a W202 to hold gear and not shift up when started from cold or after it has sat for some time in cooler weather.  Some people mistakenly believe this indicates a looming transmission problem but in fact it is a system engineered by Mercedes-Benz to warm the catalytic converter quickly so that it reduces pollutants from the exhaust.
  • Ball joints, rubber bushings and other suspension components wear before 100,000 miles and may need replaced.  Evidence of this would be poor tracking on the highway or uneven tire wear patterns not caused by improper tire inflation or misalignment.
  • Test all windows to be sure motors and regulators function.  Check sunroof and make sure it opens smoothly and without grinding or scratching noises.  Lubricate sunroof rails and tubes at least once a year for preventative maintenance.
  • If the car stumbles or otherwise performs poorly it could be the Mass Air Flow meter (MAF) which is another common failure for these cars.  Replace only with genuine the Bosch part to avoid problems with poorly built Chinese-made units.
  • The W202 suffers from the same taillight bulb failures as did the SLK Roadster, however the W202 issue is not covered by a recall warranty repair that was issued for the SLK.  W202 owners may find that their taillight bulbs may appear to be out or the dash light may indicate this, but moving the bulb or the housing will cause it to come back on again.  Bulb grease or re-seating the plastic circuit board  attachment points with heat has solved the issue in some cases.
  • Vacuum lines become brittle with age, get knocked off during repairs and oil filter changes, or come unhooked from their pumps so always check to see they are connected properly before investing time or money in a repair that could be caused by broken or loose vacuum lines.
  • Be sure the battery (located in the trunk) is fully charged.  A multitude of issues can be resolved simply by replacing an ailing battery with a new one.  Also, be sure the vent tube is in place and connected to the battery.  This is necessary to release built-up gases that could otherwise explode inside the trunk if not adequately vented.
  • Test the single blade mono-wiper for function.  The plastic worm gear within can get stripped if the wiper encounters unnatural resistance such as ice build up or if the wiper cam has not been lubricated.  The cam can easily be lubed by removing the two small plastic covers visible on the lower portion of the wiper arm.
  • As a general rule, avoid cars with a salvage title.  If you can see pictures or receipts for the work to be assured the damage was minor, then it may not be a dealbreaker, but the buyer pool for cars with salvage titles is extremely limited and you may have a difficult time selling the car in the future.  Not to mention that almost any accident damage, even repaired, will leave you with a car of less than factory MB quality and safety standards, the extent of which may not become clear until you have a crash and find out the airbags were never replaced.
The best thing you can do once you find the car of your dreams is to take it to a dealer or qualified independent repair shop that specializes in Mercedes-Benz to perform a pre-purchase inspection (PPI) that covers all major systems and components.  This is the single best way to ensure that you stack the odds in your favor when considering a previously-loved MB.

If you think a gently used Mercedes might be in your automotive future, do some research online, arm yourself with a repair manual and a good community forum, and start shopping.  There has never been a better time than the current economy to buy your own piece of motoring history.