On 8 January 2001 Mercedes-Benz presented the new C‑Class Estate at the North American Auto Show in Detroit, with the market launch following in March 2001. Designated internally as the S 203, this model series was the second Estate within the Stuttgart-based manufacturer's compact class. While capturing the essence of its successful predecessor, greater emphasis was placed on certain key features, especially aesthetic appeal, dynamism, functionality and driving enjoyment. Five years previously, Mercedes‑Benz had transferred the Estate concept developed for the E‑Class to the C-Class for the first time and the "T versions" of model series S 202 were revealed in spring 1996.
At 4541 millimetres long, the model series S 203 Estate was 25 millimetres longer overall than its predecessor. This was not the only dimension to change compared to the S 202: the rear bodywork overhang now measured 1071 millimetres - 52 millimetres more than on its predecessor. Like the Saloon of model series 203, the Estate had a wheelbase of 2715 millimetres and a body width of 1728 millimetres. On the other hand, the Estate was somewhat higher (1465 millimetres rather than 1426 millimetres) and longer (4541 millimetres rather than 4526 millimetres) than the Saloon. The drag coefficient for the new Estate was a Cd value of 0.31 and thus 3 percent less than for the previous model (0.32). Measures to optimise aerodynamics also helped to further reduce wind noise.
An extensive package of technical innovations formed a solid foundation for the outstanding attributes of model series S 203 and had already made the Saloon version of the new C‑Class (model series W 203) a trendsetter in its market segment back in March 2000: windowbags, Headlamp Assist, multifunction steering wheel, cockpit with central display, fibre-optic cables, crash boxes, adaptive front airbags and many other innovations from the E‑Class, S‑Class and top-of-the-range CL Coupé formed part of the standard equipment for the new C‑Class Estate.
Further groundbreaking systems available exclusively from Mercedes‑Benz were the voice-operated LINGUATRONIC control system for phone and car radio, sensor-controlled THERMOTRONIC automatic climate control, a sound system with compensation for driving noise, the COMAND display and control system and integral child seats.
The striking twin headlamp face formed the centrepiece of the sporty and elegant design. From the dynamic lines of the roof assembly to the wide rear which emphasised its power, this lifestyle vehicle definitely attracted the attention of onlookers. Typical of an Estate, these features underlined the independent character of this body variant while blending in seamlessly with the basic stylistic concept behind the new C‑Class.
Versatility was a strength of the new Estate: the driver was able to modify the configuration of the interior to suit specific transport tasks. For example, the seat cushions and backrests of the newly developed, asymmetrically split rear seats could be partially or fully folded forwards in just a few steps to enlarge the luggage compartment in the rear. Depending on the position of the rear seats, capacity according to the VDA measuring method could be varied between 470 and 1384 litres. In contrast to the predecessor, the rear seat cushions could also be folded fully forward in the new C‑Class Estate. This created an almost level load area in the back of up to 1.5 square metres in size - plenty of room for leisure and sports equipment, shopping bags and suitcases, or bulky items if needed.
With many drivers, male and female, wanting to personalise their vehicle, the designers and engineers in Stuttgart had put together an extensive array of equipment items in terms of both technology and style. Based on comprehensive standard equipment featuring the latest technical innovations, the Estate was also available in individual design and equipment lines and with a large range of engines and transmissions, as well as a selection of attractive colours and materials - Mercedes‑Benz individuality combined with the brand's renowned quality.
Like the Saloon, the new Estate was available in the three CLASSIC, ELEGANCE and AVANTGARDE lines. In line with their strengths, these separate design and equipment lines focused on functionality, elegance and sportiness. They differed primarily in terms of custom colour design, choice of materials and appointments. With an increased number of standard extras, all model variants offered added value compared to their predecessors: the extensive standard equipment represented an increase in value of some 3400 Deutschmarks (or 1750 euros if converted). In the CLASSIC guise, the Estate was perfectly understated: the designers stayed away from chrome and decoration, instead emphasising the vehicle body's original design attributes. The bumpers, side skirts and protective strips were painted in vehicle colour, while fine wood adorned the centre console in the interior. The standard equipment included adaptive front airbags, ABS, asymmetrically split and folding rear seats, automatic child seat recognition and front passenger detection, an automatic heating system with air recirculation, belt tensioners and belt force limiters in the front and for the outer rear seats, Brake Assist (BAS), a central display, central locking with crash sensor, the ELCODE electronic locking system, the Electronic Stability Program ESP®, front fog lamps, Headlamp Assist, heated and electrically adjustable exterior mirrors, multifunction steering wheel with height and fore-and-aft adjustment, pollen and dust filter, a removable shopping crate, side indicators in the exterior mirrors, sidebags in the front doors, a six-speed manual transmission, SPEEDTRONIC with cruise control, trip computer and windowbags.
The ELEGANCE line particularly emphasised those features which gave the new Estate an exceptionally distinguished look: the bumpers, side rub strips, door handles and radiator grille had been given chrome accents, the aluminium strips on the beltline and roof came with a haematite-coloured coating and the radiator grille slats had a high-gloss appearance. Other premium details within this line were standard light-alloy rims, leather steering wheel, leather gear knob as well as wood trim on the centre console and door panelling. Compared to the CLASSIC line, the specification included exit lamps in the front doors, roof trim strips and window guides in haematite-coloured, anodised aluminium, seat belts in the appointments colour, a radiator grille painted in high-gloss atlas grey with chrome trim, a leather steering wheel, 6 J x 15 alloy wheels with a seven-holed design, a shift lever with leather cover in the appointments colour, bumpers with chrome trim and door handles painted in vehicle colour with chrome trim.
In particular, the AVANTGARDE line revealed the sportily dynamic character of the new Estate. Contributing factors here included blue-tinted glass, interior trim parts in aluminium, 16-inch light-alloy rims and the distinctive form of the front bumper. There was a choice of colour shades for the interior: anthracite or orion grey. Compared to CLASSIC, the enhanced standard equipment for the AVANTGARDE line comprised features like exit lamps in the doors, 7 J x 16 light-alloy wheels in a five-holed design with 205/55 R 16 wide-base tyres, interior trim parts in Alu-quadra, seat belts in the appointments colour, a radiator grille painted in high-gloss black with chrome trim, a leather steering wheel and shift lever with leather cover in the appointments colour, special side skirts, side protective strips with chrome, a special front bumper with chrome trim, blue-tinted heat-insulated glass and door handles painted in vehicle colour.
For even greater exclusivity and individuality, the designo range became available for the C‑Class Estate from April 2001. This consisted of twelve sensational paint finishes such as designo purple through to designo mystic blue along with single-tone fabric/leather appointments and two-tone leather appointments for the interior. What is more, fine trim parts in "Cinnamorra" could be chosen in designo anthracite.
The Estate body was based on the two-piece sub-frame, the newly developed ellipsoidal firewall and the front end which had already helped the Saloon achieve outstanding results with regard to crash safety, rigidity, weight reduction and corrosion prevention. While this basic structure ensured Mercedes' signature quality throughout the model series family, it also opened up a high level of design freedom for three individual characters to emerge, with the Estate body scoring highly on sporty versatility.
Due to the modular bodyshell structure the Estate differed from the Saloon body technology on the side walls, roof, rear doors and rear area. The side walls were a single unit, both formally and technically. The outer panelling and inner shells provided a stable construction which played a major role in the Estate's exemplary side impact protection. The frame structure on the roof of the new Estate also had an impressively high load-bearing capacity, with gusset plates on the A, B, C and D-pillars. The standard roof rails were constructed from a single piece of aluminium. Following redesign, the rear doors were matched to the Estate's dynamic side line above the beltline. Special design measures were needed for the Estate's rear-end structure because, unlike the Saloon, there was no top cross member behind the rear seats. To compensate for this, the engineers developed additional structural elements on the rear wheel arches, connecting these to the inner shells of the wheel installations. This provided secure support for the folding backrests of the rear seats.
The tailgate's high rigidity came courtesy of structural steel work with a dual casing. Numerous joints ensured a firm connection between the inner and outer shells, with the bonded window made of single-layer safety glass creating additional stability. Thanks to the large opening dimensions (1990 millimetres from ground to upper edge), even very tall people were able to stand under the open tailgate. Opening the tailgate was easy thanks to the two pneumatic springs and convenient one-hand operation using a flipper handle above the licence plate recess. A new innovation from Mercedes‑Benz held the tailgate securely in place while travelling and reduced the effort needed to close it: spring-loaded wedge fittings inside the lock yielded when closing but prevented lateral movement while the vehicle was moving.
The consistent use of high-strength sheet steels and innovative materials such as dual-phase steel helped to keep the bodyweight low and increased stability. These materials provided maximum strength while keeping sheet thickness to a minimum. By using steel the ease of repair was retained compared to other alternative materials. This reduced the costs of any accident repairs, as did the bolted connections between the front and rear modules and the rest of the bodywork. As well as high-strength steel, however, the Estate also utilised aluminium and plastic as advanced lightweight materials wherever this made sense from a technical and economic perspective.
One focal point of development on the Estate was occupant safety. Due to the modular body architecture of this model series with a shared front end, support element, firewall and floor, there were only a few safety-related differences between the Saloon and the Estate. Even the structure of the rear floor assembly and the arrangement of the fuel tank and spare wheel well were identical on both variants. In the event of a serious accident, the support elements in the front end and the new ellipsoidal firewall were designed to absorb the majority of the crash energy by way of targeted deformation and by transferring impact forces across a large area. By contrast, the occupant cell underwent only minimal distortion, thereby keeping the survival space intact for occupants even at high impact speeds. If the crash speed exceeded 15 km/h in the case of a serious front impact, the load was distributed to four independent zones. Here, the ellipsoidal firewall played an important role as it was connected to the front longitudinal members and transferred impact forces over a large area.
The engineers did not just pay attention to what happened in a severe collision. Equally important were accidents occurring in the mid-speed range which accident researchers had realised required special protective measures. The body structures of all model variants for the new C‑Class were consistent with this insight, as demonstrated by the use of energy-absorbing plastic bumpers and bolting the front module to the two crash boxes. Onboard the Estate, front airbags also adapted to the accident situation: they were not only designed for accidents at high impact speeds, but for the first time this equipment also took into account low and mid-impact loads, thereby offering even more efficacious protection for occupants. Automatic passenger detection and child seat recognition were included as part of the adaptive airbag system in the C‑Class. This then determined which protective technology was deployed if the right-hand front passenger seat was not occupied, for example, or if a rear-facing child seat (with transponder) was installed from the Mercedes‑Benz accessories range.
In the event of a side impact to the C‑Class Estate, a multistage safety system would kick in: reinforced side sills in the floor area transferred impact forces to two rugged cross members under the front seats and to a full-length cross member for the rear seats. At mid-height, occupants were protected by rigid doors integrated into the side walls with reinforcing sections and sturdy door hinges, while in the roof area triple-skinned A, B, C and D-pillars in particular, along with a reinforced, triple-skinned roof frame, ensured that the occupant cell remained stable. Other important elements of the C‑Class's side protection system were windowbags as standard, which were deployed within 25 milliseconds in the event of a crash to form a curtain along the window from the A to C-pillar. Additional sidebags in the front doors were responsible for protecting the thorax area. In addition to a total of six airbags as standard in the dashboard, roof lining and front doors, the restraint system included height-adjustable, inertia-reel seat belts for four seats, head restraints adjustable for height and inclination for the driver and front passenger and outer rear seats, high-performance belt tensioners for the driver and front passenger, belt buckle tensioners for the outer rear seats, plus belt force limiters in the front and for the outer rear seats.
A sturdy occupant cell offered the best possible protection in the event of a front or side impact, but also proved its worth in an offset rear collision at high impact speed. The supporting structure and newly developed rear module performed similar roles to comparable components at the front. For the Estate, the engineers at Mercedes‑Benz paid particular attention to securing loads. The load compartment was equipped with four chrome-plated load-securing rings, allowing cargo to be secured using elasticated cords or a luggage net. A new safety net was also added to the standard equipment. Rolled up, it could be stowed behind the rear seats in the housing for the luggage compartment cover. From here, and with very little effort, the net could be pulled out and clipped into the special eyelets on the roof liner. If the rear seat cushions were individually or all folded forwards to the vertical position behind the driver and front passenger seats in order to enlarge the load compartment, the seat cushions formed a sturdy barrier and in an accident provided additional protection from cargo in the boot.
When launched in 2001, the Estate was offered with a total of seven engines: three direct-injection diesel engines and four petrol variants. The C 200 CDI (85 kW/116 hp) and C 220 CDI (105 kW/143 hp) were fitted with four-cylinder engines, while the C 270 CDI (125 kW/170 hp) had a five-cylinder powerhouse. Of the petrol-engined models, there were two four-cylinder versions, the C 180 (95 kW/129 hp) and C 200 KOMPRESSOR (120 kW/163 hp), as well as the C 240 (125 kW/170 hp) and C 320 (160 kW/218 hp) six-cylinder variants. Together these engines accommodated every customer requirement. In the year 2001 alone, Mercedes‑Benz sold 52,600 C‑Class Estates.
At the 35th Tokyo Motor Show in October 2001, Mercedes‑Benz presented the sporty C 32 AMG Estate as the new top-of-the-range vehicle for model series S 203. A newly developed V6 supercharged engine in this Estate together with an equally new SPEEDSHIFT automatic transmission made for a very special driving experience. An innovative helical supercharger delivered a high boost pressure in the 3.2-litre unit with an output of 260 kW (354 hp) even at low engine speeds. Sprinting from 0 to 100 km/h in 5.4 seconds, the C 32 AMG Estate reached an electronically limited top speed of 250 km/h. The stylishly sporty Estate lived up to this performance both inside and out, with Mercedes‑Benz providing features such as nappa leather appointments as standard.
In 2002 Mercedes‑Benz further enhanced the C‑Class in its technology leadership role across its market segment: for the first time, the Stuttgart-based company provided the permanent all-wheel drive system 4MATIC in the C-Class, having already proven its value over several years within the E‑Class. Perfectly teamed with the standard Electronic Stability Program ESP® and the electronic traction system 4ETS, this system helped drivers to cope with critical situations in a safe and controlled manner. In adverse weather conditions such as ice, snow or the wet, as well as when moving off, accelerating or on poor road surfaces, the C‑Class's new 4MATIC models attained even more traction and dynamism. The V6 versions of the Estate (the C 240 and C 320) featured the innovative 4MATIC powertrain system with five-speed automatic transmission as standard.
In 2002 the C‑Class was also awarded five stars by the Euro NCAP Organisation - the highest rating in this test procedure looking at the crash safety of cars. This award provided confirmation of the C‑Class's innovative safety concept, which corresponded to the latest findings from Mercedes-Benz accident research and offered protection for occupants at the highest level, thereby reflecting everyday traffic realities. From autumn 2002 the innovative DISTRONIC autonomous intelligent cruise control likewise became available for the C‑C lass. Another high-tech system previously found only in top Mercedes‑Benz models was bright bi-xenon headlamps for low and main beam. The optional bi-xenon equipment package also included dynamic headlamp range control and a high-pressure cleaning system, along with headlamps with a clear glass look and special lens optics for the indicators.
That same year, the C‑Class was given newly developed four-cylinder petrol engines from the M 271 generation. The outstanding feature here was the unique TWINPULSE system which brought together various technologies such as supercharging, intercooling, variable camshaft adjustment, a four-valve-per-cylinder design, Lanchester balancer and adaptive drive dynamics for the first time. As a result, the C 180 KOMPRESSOR (105 kW/143 hp) and C 200 KOMPRESSOR (120 kW/163 hp) Estates offered low fuel consumption combined with a high level of driving enjoyment, six-cylinder-like running smoothness and even more of the Mercedes‑Benz signature comfort on long journeys. In late 2002 a 125 kW (170 hp) engine featuring direct petrol injection and the TWINPULSE system followed based on the 1.8-litre aluminium engine block. This also powered the C 200 CGI Estate. After the facelift in 2004 the 141 kW (192 hp) C 230 KOMPRESSOR, initially offered by Mercedes‑Benz exclusively in the C‑Class Sports Coupé, became available for the Estate and Saloon too. As well as improved performance, the C‑Class Estates equipped with this new generation of engines also did better in terms of economy.
At the Paris Motor Show in late September 2002, Mercedes-AMG presented its first diesel high-performance, sporty vehicle: the C 30 CDI AMG, the new top-of-the-line C‑Class diesel model, became available as an Estate, Saloon and Sports Coupé from February 2003. With signature AMG flair, this new model was equipped with a 170 kW (231 hp) five-cylinder, in-line engine with a 3-litre displacement. The C 30 AMG Estate accelerated from 0 to 100 km/h in 7 seconds and had a top speed of 245 km/h.
In spring 2004 (four years after its launch), Mercedes‑Benz gave the successful C‑Class a facelift to enhance it further in terms of engineering, equipment and design. Since its launch in March 2001 (September 2001 in the USA), more than 189,000 C‑Class Estates had been sold so far. One in every five new owners of a C‑Class opted for the modern, compact Estate version. 40 percent of those customers were new to the Stuttgart-based brand, attesting to how attractive the C‑Class Estate proved to be.