This represented Mercedes-Benz's first move into the 'affordable' prestige sector, where rivals BMW were already established with the 3-series. This set the scene for the C-class's debut in 1993 – a car that won over many more new customers.
It made the three-pointed star badge available to the masses while retaining high image and proven reliability. A facelift C-class was launched in 2000, initially challenging popular taste with the move to teardrop headlamps.
Sales continued unabated, with 19,825 saloons sold in 2002, rising to 21,184 in 2003. Adding in the estate version and Sports Coupe, a total of 33,018 were sold in 2002, rising by 11%, to 36,696 last year.
Sales figures are not yet available for 2004 but, with the new model due around May, total sales are expected to reduce slightly this year due to this change-over and the resulting reduction in production volume.
The proportion of diesel sales has grown enormously over the years. Proportions for 2002, 2003 and so far this year have been 41%, 42% and 43% for the diesel saloon, 64%, 59% and 57% for the diesel estate and 32%, 27% and 32% for the Sports Coupe.
Our research in the retail market reveals a strong customer focus on used diesels, with very little chance of successfully persuading the buyer into a petrol version, even when priced lower.
The new C-class addresses quibbles some had with the quality and finish of the interior on the current model. On the outside, you have to know the cars very well to distinguish between them.
The new range has been simplified to 69 derivatives, compared with 97 variants of the current model. This addresses two criticisms that have been levelled at C-class from the fleet industry and the used car market.
Fleet operators prefer a less baffling array of choice, while the trade can tend to push prices down whenever they feel confused over model identification – as Saab, for example, has discovered in the past.
One new feature on the new C-class is the introduction of scratch-resistant paint and climate control as standard on all cars, which will be especially welcomed by disposal managers.
Mercedes-Benz's move further into the fleet market – along with the likes of BMW, Audi and Jaguar – has often prompted warnings that these cars would lose their all-important image. But there has never been any real sign of that.
Looking at February 2003 Black Book, a three-year-old C180 Avantgarde manual was valued at £12,300, at 60,000 miles. In today's book, the value of the same car, at three-years/60,000 miles, is higher, at £12,700.'