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Mercedes C43 (1999)

By Ted Laturnus

One of the nice little extras that comes with running a large multinational car company is having the financial wherewithal to support your own performance/motorsport shop. BMW has their M (Motorsports) division, Ford has SVT (Special Vehicle Team), and Mercedes has AMG, which stands for Aufrecht Melcher Grossapach, a kind of anagram representing two ex Mercedes employees’ names and the town where the company is located.

When AMG get their hands on a Mercedes, they don’t fool around. The German aftermarket tuner and customizer has been preparing Mercedes cars for European motorsport competition for years. Among other things, they prepared the C36 high-performance sedan for Mercedes a couple of years ago. They specialize in suspension tuning, engine upgrades, and tasteful styling touches.

Basically, what the AMG motorheads do is take a perfectly good sedan, yank out the stock mill and stuff in a high performance engine, overhauling the suspension and brakes and redoing the interior and exterior while they’re at it. In the case of the C43, they’ve taken the C230 Kompressor sedan and given it the full Wally, with a 4.3 litre V8 from the upscale E-series replacing the factory-issue supercharged 2.3 litre four cylinder. Sort of. AMG actually tweak this engine even more, and it develops 302 horsepower at 5850 rpm….27 hp more than the stock unit. Transmission is a five-speed automatic only in North America, although the Europeans do get a six-speed manual, which really adds to the car’s performance and driveability.

But that doesn’t mean the C43 is a boring car. Far from it. The Mercedes autobox is one of the best of its kind and you can choose between automatic mode and doing the shifting yourself. An adequate arrangement, I suppose, but I still prefer a clutch. Still, the engine in the C43 is such a powerhouse, with so much usable torque (302 foot-pounds at 3250 rpm), it’s almost impossible not to have a smile on your face when you get behind the wheel. The C43 delivers instant gratification, both from a touchy-feely and performance standpoint.

You have to look pretty hard to recognize this car. It’s definitely a sleeper, and from a distance, looks like just another entry-level Mercedes sedan. However, little giveaways like 17-inch tires and monoblock alloy wheels, blacked out centre roof pillars, very subtle body side moulding, and discreet badging distinguish it from the garden-variety C230. So does the performance, of course; if you want it to, the C43 will take you from a dead stop to 60 miles an hour in just over six seconds. Not too shabby for a 3500-pound four-door.

But there’s more to the C43 than exterior trim and a powerful engine. AMG have done a masterful job of retuning the suspension. Among other things, they have stiffened up the bushings, lowered the body, added stiffer shock absorbers, and installed an anti-skid system and electronic stability control. Also found on some BMWs, this latter system automatically applies the brakes - one wheel at a time - if you get in over your head during hard cornering. The result is a four-door sedan that behaves like a sports car. This is one car you can fearlessly toss into the tightest corners, knowing it’ll forgive you if you make a mistake. In a word, the C43 is exhilarating, with an intoxicating blend of pavement-removing acceleration, ground-hugging handling, and an exquisite sense of balance. And it makes excellent noises into the bargain.

Of course, the trade-off for this type of performance is a ride considerably harsher than most other Mercedes, but not at all intolerable. I liked it. Body lean, never really a problem with Mercedes products to begin with, is virtually nil on the C43.

As befits a Mercedes, the C43 is loaded. Standard equipment includes a complete interior makeover, with leather upholstery, power windows, heated power seats with memory, dual zone climate control with a pollen filter, cruise control, and power sunroof. Safety equipment includes anti-locking four-wheel disc brakes, dual front and side impact airbags, childproof rear door locks, remote keyless entry, and Mercedes’ patented BabySmart seat recognition system which de-activates the passenger side airbag when small people sit down. Although, I somehow can’t see too many people strapping Junior into this car for a trip to the mall. About the only serious options are a CD player and an anti-theft system.

Now for the bad news. Mercedes will only be selling a limited number of C43s in North America, partly because of production limitations at AMG and partly because they want to preserve its exclusivity. We’ll be lucky to see more than 1200 in total, and the price tag of those C43s that do make it here is a bit of a shocker.

Seating: Five
Drivetrain: 4.3 litre V8 engine/five-speed automatic transmission.
Power: 302 hp at 5850 rpm
Fuel Economy: 22 mpg city, 29 mpg hwy.