So you’ve got money that's burning a hole in your pocket and you're keen on buying a sporty modern-classic. Indulging your youthful spirit is all good and well, but, ever so often, by the time you can afford the car of your dreams, you usually crave in-car comfort too. Of course, a super-sedan is the answer – something with ample power, usable space, and a wonderful surround sound system (through which you’ll be blasting Classic FM, no doubt).
There are many special cars to choose from that offer varying levels of those desirable characteristics. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more perfect vehicle for this application than a big-engined Mercedes-Benz – better yet, an AMG model, with its svelte interior and stonking performance.
Initially, the performance variant of the W203-generation was the C32 AMG sedan. It sported a silky smooth supercharged V6 and was rather quick, but it was by no means widow/er maker. It also suffered from a few mechanical foibles and was overshadowed by the inimitable BMW E46 M3.
Come 2005, the C32 was replaced by the C55, the latter replete with a 5.4-litre naturally aspirated V8 and extended nose (to accommodate the bigger V8 in the Benz's engine bay). Gone were the mechanical foibles, too, and the end result was one of the most manageable performance packages ever to have come out of Affalterbach.
It featured a plethora of desirable creature comforts too. In fact, the majority of C55s came equipped with a rather long list of features such as bi-xenon headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, satnav, electric rear blind, a Harman/Kardon sound system, 10-way adjustable front seats with electric rake- and reach adjustment for the steering column, climate control, cruise control and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. It even had a device that few modern cars have anymore – a 6-CD changer. What more could one need?
How does it compare with its modern counterpart?
The C55 AMG replaced the C32 AMG and incorporated a raft of updates.
It would seem as though this recipe worked rather well for Mercedes-Benz. The current Mercedes-AMG C63 S is still selling up a storm even though its platform has been around for a while. It offers a similar sort of "fizz" to the C55 AMG, if you will, in the sense that you know that there is significantly more power under the bonnet than what you would ever need – that simple notion, in itself, stirs something within.
What the new vehicle lacks in cubic capacity (4.0- as opposed to 5.4 litres) it makes up for with the addition of 2 turbochargers. Of course, it is much faster, but that’s progress! The older car affords more feel through the steering wheel with its hydraulic setup, whereas the new car's electronically assisted system can be optimised through the drive modes. Nearly 10 years and a whole model cycle separate the 2 Benzes and, of course, the technology that goes into the W205 model differs hugely to what went into the W203, but the basic principle of a powerful V8 in a practical, comfortable sedan remains.
That’s not to say that the C55 isn’t advanced, however. Its gearbox featured Touch Shift and AMG SpeedShift technology. Put simply, SpeedShift operates in a “direct-drive” mode in 2nd to 5th gears, providing the sensation of a manual-equipped car during high-performance driving scenarios. It’ll automatically shift down during hard braking and prevent upshifts on sharp corners – it’s a clever system, for its age! What this translates to on the road are smooth and unobtrusive shifts when pottering around, but snappy shifts when you’re pushing on – it’s another nod to the theme of "fast, yet comfortable, transport".
How does it ride... Surely in an old Merc (squidgy) manner?
The Merc's of this generation were not meant to be the pinnacle of handling prowess that BMW was at the time.
If you’ve driven a contemporary Mercedes-Benz, you’ll immediately notice that the C55 gets down the road in a similar fashion to its successors. The ride quality is neither firm nor soft; it has "Goldilocks damping", if you will. The venerable Benz has an independent, 3-link front- and independent 5-arm multilink rear suspension, which is connected to the road via AMG-specific 18-inch double-spoke wheels that are 190-mm wide up front and 215 mm at the rear. Not only do the rims look the part – they allow for a decent amount of rubber at each corner to help absorb bumps and suppress NVH levels, to a degree.
Is the C55 really that much better than the C32?
Well, yes. A lot better, in fact. The C32 was sufficiently fast and made lovely noises, but rust was known to appear in its rear wheel arches. Having said that, by virtue of galvanisation, "tin worm" was less of a problem from 2004. A lot can be said for the concept of a big engine in a small car, but the 1st series-produced C-Class AMG merely set the scene for what was to come... The C55's package was all the more appealing than that of its predecessor because of its reduced complexity and undeniably brutish nature – we all love a howling 6 with a bit of supercharger whine, but it hardly compares to a free-breathing V8.
Behr gearbox coolers were fitted to all C55s in place of the troublesome Valeo unit found in the C32 – the latter had a tendency to give up the ghost and start mixing transmission fluid with coolant. That unwanted consequence would invariably lead to a gearbox and torque converter repair bill that could bring tears to your eyes. Speaking of which, the gearbox oil should be changed at around 90 000 km.
Oh dear, will it bankrupt me?
A simple formula means that the C55 wasn't prone to breaking, unless unmaintained or mistreated.
Unlike most German vehicles that are getting on in years, it actually won’t – there really is very little that can go wrong. One might find the occasional leak from worn breather pipes and, the fact that the M113 V8 uses 16 spark plugs is a bit of a nuisance (as is trying to get to them), but the lack of complexity and niggly faults is likely to be the biggest drawcard to those who are looking to add a C55 to their collection.
Will collectors, um, collect them?
Of the 630 000 W203s sold during the generation’s life cycle, only 4 000 were C55 AMGs. That’s less than 1%... The Benz is such an endearing thing, the likes of which we don’t see too often these days – a fast car that doesn’t look too fast, as opposed to a slow car that looks fast. It’s the sort of vehicle that appeals to those who value genuine performance over attention.
A minter should cost an arm and a leg, then?
The C55 AMG isn't yet on the collector's radar, so there are still a few bargains to be had on the 2nd hand market.
You’d think so, but C55 prices are actually incredibly reasonable. You’ll pay notably less for a clean C55 than you will an equivalent E46 M3, despite the E46’s cooling system, which is hewn from chocolate and the bearings, which are, in turn, fabricated from said chocolate’s foil wrapper. A cursory browse on Cars.co.za brings up 4 listings, all for less than R160k, all with around 145 000 km on the clock. The cheapest E46 M3 presents with 40 000 km more mileage, at around R40k more.
The Mercedes-Benz C55 AMG really is a modern-classic bargain – it’s fast, comfortable, rare and unsettlingly reliable. It’s for these reasons that I’m certain of its future credentials as a collector’s piece, so click on this link to find yours ASAP.