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Approaching 100,000 Miles in My 2002 Mercedes C32 AMG Has Me Feeling Enlightened

Age is just a number.
Kristen Lee

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For some, car enthusiasm and ownership mean buying shitboxes and seeing how far they can fix them up. For others, it means a fleet of charismatic beaters. For me, it means a pristinely kept (to the best of my ability, anyway) 2002 Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG that I intend to hold onto forever. And now that the car is finally on the home stretch to 100,000 miles on the clock, I’m feeling enlightened.

For as long as I’ve worked as a car writer, my C32 hasn’t seen much use. I think I put about 3,000 miles on it a year. Part of that was because this ridiculous job frequently affords me different cars to test, and the other part was because the 100,000-mile mark has always stuck out as a mental and emotional hurdle for me since I’ve owned the car. I got it when it was at a mere 64,000 miles. Now, at 99,000 miles and perched on the edge of the six-figure-mile mark, I’m left with the same thought that I had when I turned 30 earlier this year: I never thought we’d get this far.

Eeeeek! Kristen Lee

On its face, it’s a silly thing to be worried about. Age is a silly thing to worry about. But it’s still a poignant milestone; when considering a used car, we generally talk about cars with five-figure mileages more favorably than ones with six-figure mileages. Doubly so if the car in question is an aged German one. Yet, if I don’t ever plan on selling it, then what am I so worried about? What am I saving the car for? Nothing. Am I not the one who screams at keepers of garage queens to drive their damn cars? Hypocrisy is bad, and also it makes you ugly.

So, I took it on a big road trip last month. Went all around Vermont, clocked about 1,100 miles. In the beginning, I’d glance at the odometer, ticking upwards, and have a small, quiet freak-out to myself. But as the days and the miles wore on, I stopped worrying as much. It was nice to get to know my car again. 

Within Mercedes-Benz hierarchy—then DaimlerChrysler—the C32 is a member of the W203 second-generation C-Class, which succeeded the W202 and preceded W204 body styles. Built from 2000 to 2007, the W203 wore more rounded styling than the ’90s boxiness of the W202 generation and generally looked friendlier than the W204, which was the beginning of Mercedes’ more aggro design presently. Officially, two AMGified versions of the W203 came to the United States: first the six-cylinder C32, then the V8-powered C55.

From its supercharged, 3.2-liter V6, Mercedes claimed 349 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque when this car was new. I don’t know if that’s what it still makes, but I can tell you it’s quick as hell and dips into appearing and disappearing gaps in traffic with a spriteliness that I don’t feel with many modern luxury sedans. The supercharger makes a cool whine while under load, the power is linear. And at just around 3,500 pounds, it’s a great reminder that performance C-Classes used to be tossable and light on their feet.

Unfavorable against the competition when it came out—the BMW M3 offered coupe styling, the Audi S4 offered a naturally aspirated V8, and both came in a stick—the C32’s relative unpopularity then translates to a refreshing rarity today, two decades later. And the ones I do see are almost always black or silver, never Capri Blue Metallic like mine is. 

The C32 is not the fastest car, best track star, or greatest handler out there. But it’s a beautiful cruiser, designed to sit on a highway at a composed 90 mph and not bat an eye. There’s a reason why the 90-mph mark is smack in the middle of its speedometer, affectionately described as a “bathroom scale” once by a friend. 

A lot can happen in the automotive space in 20 years, and from my perch here, I do think the C32 hails from a more honest time in Mercedes-Benz and AMG history. Contemporary AMGs are cool, but also loudly so; they have quad exhaust pipes, fat fenders, gaping faces, hoods with their hackles raised, whatever this feature is

Conversely, the C32 is nearly indistinguishable from other W203 C-Classes, save for a badge here and there, polished tailpipes, and different wheels. What matters is underneath, and it’s a kind of quiet swagger no modern performance car wears anymore. How much performative design do you need today to compensate for a price tag, anyway? A lot, apparently.

At age 20 and 100,000 miles in, the C32 still mobs, still returns 24 mpg on the highway, and its air conditioning still blows cold (because I replaced the whole thing a few years ago). I’ve shipped it out to California for college and back. I’ve cried over boys in it. I’ve done my first solo and long-distance road trip in it. I know everything about how it’s supposed to run like the back of my hand: the sound it’s supposed to make, how it’s supposed to ride, and that the transmission jerks at 1,500 rpm in first gear. The seat leather has held up great, the trunk is large, and, mechanically, it runs perfectly. A few years ago, I swapped the carpeted floor mats out for rubber ones and haven’t looked back since. 

Right now, the car’s in the shop for its well-deserved Big Service checkup. I have an estimate in my hand for how much it’ll cost, and I’ll honestly pay whatever the mechanic wants. The C32 has treated me so well for so long. Who am I not to return the favor? 

And before the year is out, we’ll hit that 100,000-mile mark and we’ll keep going. Age is just a number, after all, and there’s no need to be precious about a car that still brings you joy. 

Got a tip? Holla at me: kristen@thedrive.com