The success of the 190E of the 1980s, including the partnership with Cosworth for the 2.3-16, 2.5-16, and Evolution variants, got Mercedes-Benz management thinking about new markets. As Mercedes says in its own history, "The compact class models have epitomized the successful transfer of classic Mercedes-Benz values to an attractive vehicle family below the upper medium-size category."
Product planners in the late 1980s were looking at how to transfer those traditional values to a compact sedan, and in 1993 the very first C-Class was released as a new entry-level vehicle for the Mercedes-Benz family. At the same time, Mercedes-Benz and AMG were working out a partnership to produce cars in cooperation.
1993-1997 C36 AMG
As it happened, BMW had just released the second-generation M3 with an inline six-cylinder engine rated at 282 horsepower in European trim (240 horsepower here in the states) and Mercedes felt that they needed a response. Thus the first collaborative Mercedes-AMG effort was born as the C36 AMG.
Mercedes and AMG found the smaller platform a perfect response to BMW's compact sedan, and the 2.8-liter inline six-cylinder M104 engine was readily available. In its original trim, the M104 made 190 horsepower, about the same as BMW's 328i. AMG's ministrations boosted the M104's output to 276 horsepower with old-school modifications including substantial bore and stroke increases, special pistons, revised intake cam timing, exhaust port enhancement, and a larger air intake. Engine control programming was also adjusted to give the AMG crisper throttle response. The net result was a C-Class sedan that would hit 60 MPH in 5.8 seconds and still return 22 MPG.
Of course, there's always more to an AMG than just an engine. AMG borrowed the massive front brakes from the V12-powered SL600 and the rear brakes from the E420. Then the interior received better seats and the exterior got unique and sporty bodywork. The standard transmission offered with the US export version was a four-speed automatic, but more than a few US owners have made the swap to put a five-speed manual transmission in their car. After 1996, a five-speed automatic was standard.
Out of 5,221 examples of the W202 C36 that were made, just a few hundred made it to the United States. A few more have drifted across the Atlantic since then, but not many. If you want to find one on Bring a Trailer or The MB Market, an example crosses the block about every 4-6 months, and they usually sell for $15,000-$20,000.
V-8 power in the 1998-2000 C43 AMG
By 1997, Mercedes-Benz was convinced of the potential of the AMG-powered C-Class, and they took another step forward for the 1998 model year. The 4.3-liter M113 V8 in the E430 sedan made 275 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, and after AMG had their way, those figures were raised to 306 hp and 302 lb-ft. Not quite the major lift that the C36 had represented, but certainly enough to impress C-Class buyers with its power off the line.
One note about the C43: It was available in a station wagon body, and about 20% of production was in wagons. A total of 4,200 examples of the C43 were made, and again, only a few were officially imported to the United States. Typical prices for good quality cars at auction range from $15,000 to $30,000.
The Ultimate W202 C-Class: the W202 C55 AMG
While they were upgrading the C-Class AMG to a V8, AMG added another V-8 option to the class for a very limited run that never made it to the United States. These bespoke cars got an additional 8mm of stroke courtesy of a forged crankshaft, raising total displacement to 5.5 liters. The new AMG V8 got the whole treatment, with special connecting rods and pistons, a larger-diameter intake manifold, and the usual breathing work on the cylinder heads. Engine timing was also adjusted with upgraded cams and valve train.
Net output on the AMG M113 as built for the C55 was 342 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque. Just 59 were made in 1999 and 2000. Don't confuse this one for the later W203 C55 made from 2004-2007.
Why you should consider an AMG C-Class
The first of the Mercedes-AMG C-Class cars are already becoming collectible, but prices are still at reasonable levels – even on auction sites. Purists may enjoy the C36, with its naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine that even today will pull with surprising power. Enthusiast drivers will also appreciate the ability to find a five-speed manual transmission in a relatively modern Mercedes-Benz. For those who seek a little more low-end torque, the C43 offers the attraction of a powerful V-8 engine in a compact chassis.
The W202 generation AMG C-Class is known for its solid ride and smooth power. Yet these cars have been overshadowed in the collector market and are only now being recognized as an important part of the Mercedes-AMG family. Savvy buyers will wait for the right car to come along, showing low miles, excellent condition, and a clean ownership record.