IT ESTABLISHED AMG’S ROAD-CAR BONA FIDES. TWO AND A HALF DECADES ON, THE C36 AMG IS REAPING SOME LONG-OVERDUE RESPECT
HOW CAN I make the case for a small sedan with a 206kW power output that cost $154,900 back in 1995? Adjusted for inflation, that tots up to $275,000 today or, to put it in more concrete terms, a 450kW Mercedes-AMG E63 S and a $26,000 fighting fund for fuel and insurance. The Mercedes-Benz C36 AMG was a hugely expensive thing, considerably pricier at the time than its quicker and more powerful rival, the BMW E36 M3, and between 1995 and 1997 just over 5000 were built, so it has rarity on its side as well.
By contrast, BMW shifted around 30,000 M3 Evos in the first three years of production, so what we have here is a successful formula and an unsuccessful one. The lovely thing about the passage of time, though, is that cars that didn’t set the world on fire in the day often smoulder in the background of our consciousness. They become the less obvious choice, the gleaming rarity whose appeal only burnishes with every passing year. The C36 AMG is a case in point.
AMG, or Aufrecht Melcher Grossaspach Ingenieurbüro, Konstruktion und Versuch zur Entwicklung von Rennmotoren (which would make for one heck of a boot badge), was founded in 1967. Racing success followed with the famous 300 SEL 6.8 ‘Red Sow’, and the company’s production vehicle credentials were underscored with the development of an innovative four-valve cylinder head in 1984. The 300 CE ‘Hammer’ followed, and ever closer links to Mercedes were forged through joint development of the 190E touring car from 1988, entered into the DTM by AMG and scoring 50 wins over the next five years.
The almost inevitable contract of co-operation with Daimler-Benz AG followed in 1990, opening the door for AMG products to be sold and maintained through Mercedes-Benz’s worldwide network of service outlets and dealerships. Although many would point to the C36 AMG as the first AMG car to be sold in Mercedes showrooms, it was actually the vanishingly rare 1991 model year 190E 3.2 AMG, the C36 taking another four years to arrive. Its genesis was modest, starting life as a C280 sedan, the block bored to 91mm and a new crankshaft extending stroke to 92.4mm for a swept capacity of 3603 cubic centimetres. The compression ratio was tweaked up to 10.5:1 and the engine management software rewritten to cater for the customised AMG head (with bigger exhaust ports) and AMG intake camshaft with lift and duration optimised to tease out area beneath the torque curve.
All-in, the C36 AMG makes a solid 64kW over the 2.8-litre Mercedes six, a 45 percent increase in peak power. That’s a wholly presentable gain for a naturally aspirated engine. Power is transmitted to the road via an unexceptional four-speed automatic gearbox lifted from a contemporary S-Class, although the shift points have been nudged higher to cope with the rev-happy nature of the engine, peak power arriving at a zingy 5750rpm. Being a low-volume build, there is some variance in quite how hale these modified M104 units are, with AMG quoting power outputs in a range between 206 and 214kW.
The results were undeniably effective, the company claiming a 0-100km/h time of 5.8 seconds, a crucial tenth quicker than that of the BMW E36 M3 3.0-litre, but the best Wheels could manage on test was 6.8sec, reaching the 400m mark in 15.0sec at 144.3km/h. Quick, then, but not a concussively heavy hitter.
The C36’s problem was that it benchmarked – and missed – the figures of the 3.0-litre M3, with the 3.2-litre Evo model arriving in late 1995, which lifted power-to-weight from 148kW/tonne to 160kW/tonne. By contrast, the C36 was outgunned at 133kW/tonne, not helped by the fact that at introduction it also cost over $25,000 more than Munich’s two-door tearaway.
There are other attractions to the C36 though. For a start, it’s not an E36 M3. It’s a more refined thing with longer gearing that makes it a more relaxed cruiser. In late 1996 the C36 received a five-speed auto, which delivered superior highway refinement at the cost of reliability. The electronics were also more sophisticated on later cars as AMG moved from Bosch HFM electronics to a Siemens ME architecture.
Bob Hall, who tested the car for Wheels back in 1995, was clearly enamoured with the thing.
“The really weird and wonderful thing about the engine/transmission combo is how it works without any compromise to driveability,”Hall wrote. “No lumpy idle, no loading up around town. It never misses a beat, and is just as happy picking the sprogs up from school as it is having a fang around some tight and twisties in the hills. You don’t often find performance cars quite as versatile as this one.” He had a point. Scan Wheels’ performance data from the period and the C36’s numbers were lineball with serious tackle like the Porsche 968 Club Sport.
“The C36’s ride is far better than we were expecting, especially considering the ultra-low profile rear tyres,” Hall continued. “The rubber transfers more sharpness into the car over high-frequency interruptions than you feel in any other Benz, but, in absolute terms, it isn’t bad at all.
“The C36 comes close to matching the BMW M3’s fluency of control in corners. You can pretty much set the car as you want it – within reason – before you enter a curve and just hold it there. There’s grip aplenty, and steering is as precise as it is quick. This is a chassis in complete harmony with its driveline, and it’s not too surprising that for the enthusiast the C36 is the most involving Mercedes you can buy in Australia. By a long shot.”
Hall signed off by awarding the “astonishingly discreet” C36 AMG the title of “easiest to live with performance sedan”, which might seem to be damning with faint praise but speaks of the maturity of its execution.
AMG’s subsequent move was to replace the straight-six C36 with the V8-powered C43, a vehicle that was more powerful and popular, but was less focused and which feels less exotic. So is the C36 the early AMG to go for? The answer, as with many things, is ‘it depends’.
It can be a fairly immersive experience to keep a C36 AMG in decent fettle. Rust affected the W202 C-Class sporadically, with front wings being a good place to look. Windscreens are also worth inspecting, with some hot-climate cars suffering delaminations due to adhesives denaturing.
Look for milky sections of glass. Wiring loom degradation is an issue, and a replacement is a big job, with the hardware alone costing over $3000.
The C36’s engine should be inspected for obvious signs of head gasket failure. Check for cross-contamination of oil and coolant by looking for milky sludge on the underside of the oil filler cap, white smoke from the exhaust, rough running, an inconsistent engine temperature and external oil leaks.
Worn bushes and ball-joints will give the C36 a lazy, baggy feel, while a vagueness in the steering is usually cheaply rectified with a new steering damper. Parts availability from Mercedes and aftermarket sources is good.
Likewise, the tyres on what Bob Hall rather quaintly referred to as “17in monsters” aren’t expensive. Budget $150 each for the 225/45 ZR17s up front and $200 for the 245/40 ZR17s at the business end and you ought to find something respectable. AMG Monobloc wheels were offered as an option on the rest of the C-Class range, albeit only in 15-inch diameter. Behind them lurk stoppers sourced from some of Merc’s more regal parts bins: V12 S600 units up front and E500 picks at the rear.
With superficial hindsight, it would appear that the move to a V8 engine was vindicated, AMG building its reputation on a succession of massively powerful bent-eights in the subsequent quarter of a century. However, look a little more closely and you can see history swinging back to the lovely C36 AMG. The company has invested heavily in the M256 straightsix of late, this mild-hybrid tech-fest just the opening salvo in the inevitable downsizing and upskilling of AMG powerplants.
What’s particularly charming about the C36 AMG is the durability of its formula. A nimble, understated and brisk sedan that rides well and which lacked typical ’90s exterior styling excesses is a package that works well today. Some of the cabin materials date from a slight Mercedes malaise era, but there’s a minimalism here that reflects a very modern design sensibility.
Above all else, the Mercedes-Benz C36 AMG is one for the connoisseur, the owner who understands where it sits in the canon of Affalterbach’s most esteemed road cars. It’s born of a moment, either by design or happenstance, when the company discovered a balance. Shortly thereafter, AMG entered a decade where power was often wielded with neither control nor subtlety, the introduction of the W204 C63 AMG in 2008 marking its subsequent return to form.
The C36 AMG wasn’t a notable sales success. Its key shortcoming was that it played second fiddle to BMW’s massively popular E36 M3. In hindsight, we should have understood that it was a different thing, sold as a more nuanced four-door auto where the M3 was always at its finest as a two-door manual coupe. The rehabilitation of the C36 AMG’s reputation is probably long overdue. How can I make the case for a car like this? It turns out that the benefit of hindsight makes it very easy.
Model Mercedes-Benz C36 AMG
Engine 3606cc in-line six, dohc, 24v
Max power 206kW @ 5750rpm
Max torque 385Nm @ 4000rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
0-100km/h 6.8sec (tested)
Economy 12.6L/100km (tested)
Price $154,900 (1995)
72 C36 EXAMPLES OFFICIALLY IMPORTED TO AUSTRALIA
82% POWER GAIN FROM 1995 C36 AMG TO 2020 C-CLASS FLAGSHIP, THE C63 S
572 RUBY PEARL MET ALLIC PAINT CODE
5221 TOTAL PRODUCTION 1995-1997
272 TOP SPEED IN KM/H WHEN THE C36’S ELECTRONIC GOVERNOR IS DELETED
Exotic feel to the engine; e; low-key styling; exclusivity; economy; practicality; appreciating values; sturdy four-speed auto; switchable traction control system
Later five-speed auto fragile; cabin materials unspectacular; a little too subtle for some; rarity; requires diligent maintenance; dead spot at top of throttle pedal travel
AMG has a long history of providing safety cars to Formula 1, and it started with the C36 AMG in 1996 at Spa. Prior to that, motley local arrangements prevailed, which saw a Lamborghini Countach, a Porsche 914, an Opel Vectra, a Fiat Tempra and even a Tatra 613 pressed into duty. Since that ’96 Belgian GP, it’s been non-stop AMG.
“I love this era of AMGs. They’re easier to repair than earlier models. The C36 has refined handling, decent ride, and it’s reliable if looked after. It stands out more than the C43 in this colour, with the chrome and black contrast finishes and specific bumper bar. My 1996 car (not pictured) has the key issues – head gasket and wiring loom – all addressed. The paint has minor blemishes but it’s an above-average car. I’ve got too many cars. It’s time to move it on.”
“What surprised me most about the C36 AMG was its fuel economy, even when you’re driving it pretty hard. Impressive”