1997 Mercedes-Benz C36 AMG (W202): Modern classic review


The star of a recent Drive TV episode may not have the pace of its modern-day counterparts, but the W202 AMG C36 still turns heads 25-years on.

  • Understated styling well-matched with a muscular stance
  • Still feels brilliantly well built
  • Easy to live with. You could daily this!
  • Performance has changed a lot in 25 years
  • Gear shift points are uneven
  • It swallowed my tape!

Modern Classic Review – the Drive team take time away from Australia’s new car landscape to look at machines we consider true modern classics.

What’s more, we’ll try to turn our focus to cars that haven’t quite fallen out of reach in terms of scarcity and affordability. Is there something on your radar? Let us know what modern classics you would like to see the team review.

Today, the AMG brand is so intrinsically connected to Mercedes-Benz, that you’re less likely to encounter a car without any AMG branding than one with.

But it wasn’t always this way.

The company, Aufrecht Melcher Großaspach Ingenieurbüro, Konstruktion und Versuch zur Entwicklung von Rennmotoren, was formed in 1967 as an engineering firm to test and develop engines for motorsport.

The founding partners, Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher, had found success in tuning the 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine from the Mercedes-Benz 300SE, and in 1971 entered the 24 Hours of Spa in a Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3, with its 184kW M100 V8 modified to 6.8-litres and a hefty 315kW output.

Suspension, bodywork, intake and exhaust systems were all customised, and despite weighing over 1600kg, the car finished second overall, behind a 900kg Ford Capri RS2600.

As if to set the tone for the future, the AMG ‘Red Pig’ would have taken overall victory if it didn’t have to stop so often to refuel!

Years of more connected collaboration followed, with AMG and Mercedes-Benz working together on components and tuning upgrades for customer road cars. In 1986 AMG produced their own version of the Mercedes-Benz W124 E-Class, by jamming a 6.0-litre V8 under the bonnet and colour-coding all the trim and subtly massaged bodywork.

The ‘Hammer’ may have been the fastest passenger sedan on the planet, but it was still a bespoke machine, endowed with plenty of AMG badging, but not a single Mercedes-Benz one.

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However, in 1993, Mercedes-Benz and AMG became contractually linked and sought to develop cars that would sit within the Mercedes-Benz catalogue, to be sold and serviced through the three-pointed star’s global dealership network.

  1997 Mercedes-Benz C36 AMG (W202)
Engine configuration Six-cylinder petrol
Displacement 3.6L (3606cc)
Power 206kW @ 5750rpm
Torque 385Nm @ 4000rpm
Power to weight ratio 133.8 kW/t
Drive Rear-wheel drive
Transmission 4-speed automatic
0-100km/h 5.8 seconds
Tare Mass 1560kg
Price when new (MSRP) $155,100
Colour Imperial Red / Black Leather

The first car, was the W202 Mercedes-Benz C36 AMG.

Based on the second-generation compact Mercedes, but the first official ‘C-Class’, the C36 was everything the AMG and Mercedes-Benz collaboration set out to be.

The tried-and-tested formula of a big engine in a small car was finally here for the Mercedes-Benz masses. The 2.8-litre M104 six from the ‘regular’ C280 was given a bigger bore, new cylinders and modified crankshaft to now displace 3.6-litres.

Power jumped from 142kW to 206kW, with torque up from 270Nm to 385Nm. It may not sound like much today, but for 1993 these were enough to give the C36 more oomph than a Porsche 964 RS 3.6 (191kW).

Drive goes to the rear wheels through a tweaked but rather pedestrian four-speed automatic transmission, and is mitigated by an early but effective traction control system.

It rides 25mm lower than a regular C-Class, and despite having a narrower track (1497mm at the front and 1478mm at the rear compared to 1505mm and 1476mm in a C280) sits a little more flush thanks to the 7.5-inch front and 8.5-inch rear, 17-inch AMG Monoblock alloy wheels.

There’s a unique but subtle AMG body kit, that has aged remarkably well for the 25-years it has graced our roads.

Somewhat ironically too, the AMG kit on the C36 makes the car’s front view very similar to the period-equivalent W140 S-Class, a trait which has really only been levelled at the C-Class in its current W206 and previous W205 guise.

It seems everything old is indeed new again.

As a showroom first, the little AMG offered heightened luxury and subtle muscularity, amid the quality and technology that buyers had come to expect from Mercedes-Benz.

Arriving in Australia for the 1995 model year, our test car is the final of a three-year model run (the C36 was replaced in 1998 for the 4.3-litre V8 C43 AMG), a 1997 Mercedes-Benz C36 AMG in magnificent Imperial Red.

When new, the C36 would have set you back $155,100, a not-insignificant $45,300 above the top-tier ‘non AMG’, C280 Sport and near enough to $100k more than the entry-level C180 Esprit ($56,300).

It was also $23,350 more than the 236kW, 3.2-litre E36 BMW M3.

For context, the same spend would see you in an entry-level S280 S-Class Mercedes or a 730iL BMW, although you were still about $27k shy of the new 993 911 Carrera ($181,900).

It was, after all, a special car for a specific buyer, and came at a time when the AMG brand was still unique and exclusive.

The W202 was a big step forward for the compact Mercedes-Benz class, and it shows in how well the C36 has aged.

Material quality is vastly improved over my own W201 190E (which happens to wear the period-correct AMG body kit, despite not being an AMG model), with plastics and switch gear all still fresh and responsive to use.

Even the pleated leather on the door cards feels supple and fresh.

You sit higher and more upright than in a modern car, with a lower beltline and taller glasshouse perhaps the only indication of the car’s actual age.

Ergonomics are good, with cruise control handled by the more traditional ‘second stalk’ behind the steering wheel and the lack of a central screen making all the heating and audio controls easy to reach.

The W202 has the iconic ‘mono wiper’ to clean the windscreen, a masterclass in engineering if there ever was one, as well as a key reminder of its age, a power radio antenna, complete with a kink in the final telescopic section.

There was one small problem during our time with the car though. Despite the car having a ten-stack CD player in the boot, I felt it would be more fun to cruise along with a cassette playing in the original Audiovox head unit.

I fed it one of my suitably 1990s tapes, and… it’s still there. The motorised cassette tray jammed and my tape became entombed within. Sadly, not everything lasts perfectly for a quarter of a century.

Without music though, I was able to listen to that sweet six-cylinder purr.

When you turn the key, there’s no antisocial bark or growl like you find in a modern AMG, just a rhythmic and muscular burble of the silky-smooth six, exiting the twin square-tipped pipes.

The throttle feels a lot less twitchy than in a new car, with considered movement from your foot required to get things happening.

While peak torque (385Nm) isn’t available until 4000rpm, the car feels reasonably urgent off the mark and builds pace
smoothly, and linearly, as you wind things up.

To be honest, if you’re after a blisteringly fast car, this isn’t it.

The C36 can dispatch the textbook 0-100km/h sprint in a smidge under six seconds, which is still faster than the new W206 C300, but there’s no face-melting, neck-snapping, warp-speed ride to get there, just an effortless surge and the old AMG recipe of the big engine, small car, working away.

Once up to pace though, the C36 holds it well, and the balance and grip are still impressive by modern standards.

Shifts aren’t as predictable and precise as we have become used to, but the auto manages the ratio changes well enough, especially when you’re in a cruising cycle.

The car tours brilliantly, and will easily wind its way along a C-road at highway speeds, the three-pointed star on the bonnet guiding you through with a grin on your face.

Brake feel isn’t as potent as a modern car, but speed and stability are both well managed, and the car handles a bit of spirited steering with eagerness and surety while keeping things well and truly in check every step of the way.

It isn’t light (1560kg) but it pulls off the very Mercedes-Benz trait of feeling both accurate and solid at the same time.

Where the ride can feel a little firm and sharp around town, on the open road the little AMG still presents a level of comfort and compliance that would make more modern cars (looking at you CLA35) wish they could manage the same.

You can eat up plenty of miles, at pace, all day long and still feel good at the end of it.

The only real area where I wanted a more modern approach was the headlights at night. The halogen beams mere candles in a storm compared to today’s active LED systems.

Where a newer C63 AMG, with its threatening exhaust note and hotrod V8, may appeal to one audience, the C36’s touring athleticism should appeal to another.

It’s a true blend of classic and modern, in that it could easily manage being your daily driver, and would still turn heads at a coffee shop or car meet, for being just that little bit special and tough among a more modern crowd.

Is this modern classic for you?

Prices for a C36 AMG today are somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 for a nice example, although they aren’t all that easy to find for sale.

If you want one, and can find one, do ensure it has been looked after, and arrange a pre-purchase inspection through a Mercedes-Benz dealer or specialist to make sure there are no surprises.

This is a car for the Mercedes-Benz or AMG fan to have and keep.

A bookend to celebrate the first of many showroom AMG models, and a great little sports touring sedan to boot.

Modern Classic Rating: 8.6

Thank you to the curators of Mercedes-Benz Australia’s classic vehicle collection for the loan of their lovely C36 AMG.
Let me know how you get on with my tape!

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James Ward

James has been part of the digital publishing landscape in Australia since 2002 and has worked within the automotive industry since 2007. He joined CarAdvice in 2013, left in 2017 to work with BMW and then returned at the end of 2019 to spearhead the content direction of Drive.

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By Bethann