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Project Tuned Taxicab Part 1: How a 1995 Mercedes-Benz C280 made it into our project car stable

Greg N. Brown
Sep 30, 2003 SHARE
0311_01z+1995_mercedes_benz_c280_sedan+front_right Photo 1/1   |   Project Tuned Taxicab Part 1: How a 1995 Mercedes-Benz C280 made it into our project car stable

Some of you may remember my 190E 2.6 and european car's plans to revive (and maybe add to) its potency and freshen its comfort and looks. What I most remember about it is its sorrowful condition as it sat in a crowded wrecking yard. It had been "totaled" in a collision in which neither my car nor the other had a driver or passengers. The details of its demise are almost comically banal and need not be repeated here, except to say that my son and several of his friends are lucky they didn't also take out a house in the incident.

However, there's no going back and not even any standing still. Forward it is, then. Replacing Project 190E 2.6 is european car's new Mercedes-Benz test mule, a 1995 C280.

This model C280-with chassis designation W202-came from the newly named generation of compact, the C-Class, which replaced the 190-series. The new Cs came to the U.S. in 1994 in two versions: the C220 (2.2L four; 147 bhp) and the C280 (2.8L twin-cam six; 194 bhp). Four-speed automatics, dual airbags and ABS were standard; the C280 could be ordered with traction control.

For 1995, not much was changed in the C220 and C280, though a more sophisticated traction system, called ETS, was offered, and Acceleration Slip Control was optional in the C280. The baddest news was introduction of the first sporty C-Class, the C36. Its 3.6L six put out 268 bhp and was a harbinger of bigger things to come for the compact class car.

Nothing notable was changed for 1996, but in 1997 the C220 became the C230, offering a bit more torque from the increased displacement. A new, adaptive and electronically controlled five-speed automatic replaced the four-speed auto-box.

Changes really began to come quickly as the series was reaching maturity; in 1998, it received revised styling, and the inline six was replaced by a new V6. Although with the same power and torque as the outgoing engine, smoothness and economy were improved. Also from that year, let's not forget the wonderful C43 and its 302-bhp V8.

A new, supercharged version of the 2.3L engine powered the base 230 in 1999, which also could be ordered with a sport package. Representing the last generational year in the U.S., the 2000 C-Class got the Touch Shift transmission, and the standard equipment list added a telescoping steering column and anti-skid control.

So, how did I end up with a 1995 model? As it is with most used-car purchases, price and condition were the prime motivators. I didn't want to spend any more (well, much more) than the insurance settlement, around $16,000. I'd liked almost everything about the 190E, so upgrading to a newer generation of the same gene pool seemed a prudent course of action.

As there are kazillions of dealers offering used cars in the greater Los Angeles area, I couldn't fathom the miles and man hours it would take to track down "the" C-Class sedan amongst them all. Instead I let my fingers do the work and assaulted the Internet with searches for such cars in the $15,000 to 20,000 range. I especially looked for those covered by the Mercedes-Benz pre-owned program, StarMark. I'd purchased the 190E under that coverage and had saved many dollars in repair costs by insuring it against certain failures.

What I discovered was a dearth of such cars under StarMark, particularly in my budget range. They usually started in the low 20s, and I even saw a few, low-mileage examples approaching 25 grand. The search engine eventually led me to the posting of a C280-the one I ended up buying-on the web site of a Beverly Hills Lexus dealer. It was near the right price, had very low mileage and was described as a peach. And indeed it was-at least cosmetically. This part I'll save until the next installment of the project, but know that I'm glad I purchased an aftermarket warranty.

Before buying the car, however, I'd researched its history with CarFax and done some digging into the model's problem areas. A search of the NHTSA files showed several recalls for the line: For 1994, binding of the cruise-control linkage was possible due to lack of lubrication, inhibiting closing of the throttle when the pedal was released. The hood latch hook had problems acting as a secondary safety catch in 1994-95 models, and there were cracking problems with drive-belt pulleys in 1996 cars. Finally, there was a caution put out about 1998-99 cars, suggesting more frequent battery maintenance. Low levels of electrolyte were possibly tied to battery explosions.

Well, those are somewhat ominous notes with which to begin an assertion-which will be made valid, I hope, in our testing program-that the previous generation of C-Class, even though it makes a marvelous taxicab, is an affordable, attractive, well-engineered basis for an enthusiast's meddling. In so many ways the car feels bulletproof, which makes me believe the platform is well able to deliver higher levels of safety via better handling and more efficient braking, as well as performance-Dan Barnes' calculator is clicking away as I write this.

You'll note that I've already upgraded the wimpy stock running gear. From The Tire Rack's copious warehouse of wheel and tire choices, we opted for beautiful AMG spoked alloys, developed deep within the heart of Mercedes-Benz's tech center. They're mounted with Goodyear's Eagle F1 GS D3 ultra-performance radials, which recently scored highest on The Tire Rack's Max Performance survey of its customers' experience with their tire choices.

I think it's a great start to what I hope will be a surprisingly rewarding project.

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By Greg N. Brown
57 Articles

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