By on August 16, 2018

German cars in North America are not immediately associated with base, no-option models or economical motoring. But that didn’t stop Adam Tonge from suggesting today’s trio. Which vehicle gets the Buy when you’re shopping at the bottom of the German luxury barrel in 2002?

Ladies and gentlemen, select your strippers.

Each member of today’s trio was the cheapest vehicles on offer in North America from their respective manufacturers in 2002. The only option we’ve allowed for today is the Quattro one in the Audi, just to level the playing field a bit between competitors. Audi vehicles are supposed to have Quattro.

Audi A4 

Audi had a ’90s hit on its hands when it brought the A4 to market as a replacement for aged 80 and 90 models. Following up with a difficult sophomore album for the 2001 model year, the A4 grew just about an inch in all dimensions, while maintaining a familiar shape. Front-drive or Quattro all-wheel drive was available, as expected from the Four Rings. The basic version of the A4 had a 1.8-liter turbocharged inline-four engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission. Most of the 170 available horsepower travel to the front wheels until some slip is detected, then power shifts around as needed. The Quattro cost about $1,700 more than the front-drive version, bringing the A4’s ask to $26,650.

Mercedes-Benz C230

Mercedes introduced the brand new, serious C-Class lineup for the 1994 model year, replacing the even more staid and conservative 190E from the 1980s. The second W203 generation debuted in 2001, just like the A4 above. Mercedes introduced a coupe version to North Americans for 2002. Today’s C230 was the first time customers could purchase a C-Class with two doors, as Mercedes experimented with a new hatchback body style. Though Europe had more engine options on the C-hatch, North America received only the C230 version, in Kompressor guise. Under hood, a 2.3-liter supercharged four delivered 192 horsepower to the rear wheels. Shifting was done via a six-speed manual. The C230 asked $24,950 with no options.

BMW 325i

The elder statesman of our group from a branding perspective, the 3 Series had been going strong as BMW’s global compact offering since 1975. The 3’s fourth generation hit the streets for the 1998 model year, receiving a facelift for 2001 to keep things in step with its new German rivals. The 325 model in particular returned to BMW’s stable for 2001, after being on hiatus since the ’95 model year. BMW offered two more cylinders than its two competitors; a 2.5-liter inline-six produced 184 horsepower. The horses went to the rear tires via a five-speed manual. No options selected meant an asking price of $26,990.

Three sexy German strippers, which one goes home with you? Minds out of the gutter, please.

[Images: Mercedes-Benz, BMW, VW]

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41 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Checking Out German Strippers From 2002...”

  • avatar

    I’ll do buy on the Bimmer, drive the Audi, burn the Merc.

    I want to think the BMW would be the best driver, I love the turbine smoothness and sound of a NA I6. I’d expect it to hold up the best over time and/or be the most DIY-friendly. I might be buying a B5 Audi shortly here, but I’m still rather spooked by the turbocharged variants and increased complexity of subsequent generations. The Audi is nice to look at and I’m sure a good driving car. That leaves the Mercedes… awkward styling, doesn’t really look like a premium car at all. I have no idea how they drive.

    • 0 avatar


      [The A3 received a clean bill of health today, save rear rotor/pads, for which I was quoted $300 by my trusted mechanic, but to which I’ll also add a brake flush].

      gtem, watch out for “dipped headlights” message if your ride has xenons. mega bucks to fix them. however, going back to halogens with the bimmer was a mistake – can’t see shIt in deer-infested roads at night. xenons or bust from here on out for me.

      • 0 avatar

        I think only the German market RS4s got Xenons in the B5 from what I’ve read. I’m really antsy to get my hands on the A4 but it won’t be until mid September when I get back from some traveling. Very excited to rip around the twisty rural PA backroads.

        Related, this period test has the E46 pitted against a 30V B5 A4 like “mine” and a sedan version of the Merc:

        • 0 avatar

          >I think only the German market RS4s got Xenons in the B5 from what I’ve read.

          Nope – you could get the B5 A4 with them as well, though they were only available as an option on the ’00-01 2.8s, IIRC. I had one of those with factory xenons (I also had a ’00 1.8TQ).

          • 0 avatar

            Ah, I’m thinking of a CurbsideClassic article I recently read where the author was A4 shopping back in 1998. The one I’m buying has some kind of absurd aftermarket black house headlights haha

          • 0 avatar

            correct. I actually looked at a 2002 with the 3 liter about two weeks ago, and it had them. It was an Avant… which I thought was the perfect size. Somehow it even looks better than B7 Avants to my eye, and the interior was practically the same.

      • 0 avatar

        Got some more photos and info on the A4. Front seat leather is beyond saving (big tears), to be solved with a pair of cheap Amazon grey leatherette covers for now, might try to track down some better ones on Power steering pump is noisy when hot, will leave it be for now, OE quality replacement is a reasonable $130 online. Rear deck mini-subwoofers on the Bose system are blown, scoping out replacement parts now. But the CV boot is repaired, alignment done, and she’s fundamentally sound and ready to rip.

    • 0 avatar

      The C-Klasse Sportcoupe drove well. Precise steering feedback and a responsive automatic transmission and this combined with a compliant but also sports-capable suspension made it drive like a BMW. On the Autobahn it was well-planted and as an occupant I felt safe. They are not bad cars.

      That was a non-stripper C200 Kompressor Sportcoupe which my wife owned for roughly eight years. Good car, never gave us any problems.

  • avatar

    Burn Benz.
    Drive E46.
    Abandon A4 at Airport.

  • avatar

    I came in here ready to dump on how slow these things were, but the 325i was only a hair slower than the current 320i (which itself is decently quick for the street). 320i does get like 50% better gas mileage though.

    In any case burn the ugly Benz, drive the Audi (to count all the diagnostic lights and fault codes) and buy the Bimmer.

  • avatar

    Again I put the premium on the drive part so here goes.

    Buy The MB , let’s reward MB for trying a hatchback in the USA, ye sit was a flop but still

    Drive the A4- it is solid , and Audi had the best interior by far against these 2 others, the Q is a welcome feature in the northeast where I live, not needed b ( a good set of snows would work) but to many it is so that will help when I go to sell it down the line, and to my eye looks the best.

    Burn The BMW, I can think of nothing worse than a stripper no options BMW. Since I am not the bummer type it is an easy choice send it to the flames.

  • avatar

    Buy the BMW – Probably would be the most reliable. There was just something about the E46 that just felt right, not the most powerful motor, but the silk smooth inline 6 was a treat to rev out and drive hard.

    Drive Audi – These things have still aged well and look good, imo. With quattro, this seems like a fun car to hoon around when snow starts falling. Plus the 1.8t is a decent motor.

    Burn Merc – Always liked how these were supercharged at the time, but just look at it. I like hatchbacks but would much rather have the contemporary sedan. Torch

  • avatar

    I’d buy the Audi because it’s one of the best designs they ever penned.

    Drive the BMW

    Burn the weird hatchback

  • avatar

    Interesting one. It’s like a KFM with Anne Hathaway, Kristen Bell and Michele Bachmann.

    So, burn the Merc. What a joke of a car that was. I’d probably want to both drive and buy the BMW – I had a 2002 330ci that’s one of the best-driving, best-looking cars I ever owned – but long-term I think my odds are better with a non-turbo straight six than a 1.8T, so I’m probably driving the A4, hopefully in the snow, and taking the BMW for keeps.

  • avatar

    My wife had a C230 coupe when I met her in 2009, and after we got married in 2010 one of my first items of business was relieving ourselves of that complete piece of garbage.

    The passenger-side seatbelt refused to retract, half the radio speakers didn’t work, all tires were mismatched, and she had paid nearly half the car’s value to the local MB dealer service department over the past few years. We were thrilled to get $9k on a trade for a then-new E350 coupe. To be fair, it was ok to drive because RWD.

    I have a lot of seat time in E46 cars (owned a couple M3s in period), and those were excellent. It’s not at all a junker, and well maintained examples are great values for putting around.

    And having owned a B5 A4 and B7 S4 but not a B6 car, I can say I never really liked these things. They were screwed together nicely and had good materials, but were not enjoyable to drive beyond 5/10. The contemporaneous 3-series always seemed like superior cars.

  • avatar

    Burn the C230. It looks like a Suzuki and I don’t think I’ve ever been impressed with a “budget” Mercedes.

    Drive the A4. Looks nice but turbo-4 and FWD-biased drive don’t excite me.

    Buy the BMW. A zero-option 3-series would probably hold up the best (relatively speaking). It’s RWD, has an I6, and this platform is generally remembered fondly.

  • avatar

    I already bought an E46(2001 330xi) drive the Audi and burn the Benz(i’d much rather drive a Citation 2 X11 hatchback)

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    Buy the BMW. The E46 still has that tactile drivers-first reputation, it looks good, and therefore would be worth putting up with maintenance and repair over the years.

    Drive: Audi. Borrow it for the Quattro on ski days. Clean, no-nonsense styling is still attractive today.

    Burn: The egg with the three-pointed star logo on the front.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Buy: BMW 3-Series-I6 and RWD what a sport sedan should be.

    Drive: Audi A4-AWD and the turbo-4 handle nicely in bad weather.

    Burn: C230 coupe-I want to like it since it’s a RWD and a practical hatch but the brand was starting to get degraded particularly in the interior. The sedan is a bit better.
    When you sat in a 190E you still said “yeah it’s a Benz” these less so.

  • avatar

    Buy the 325
    Drive the Merc
    Burn the 2002 Audi A4.

    because it’s a 2002 Audi A4.

  • avatar

    There can be only one burn here and that is the Mercedes. What a pile of trash in every way. Cheap junk even new in the showroom.

    Since I gotta pick the others, buy BMW. Reliability. That A4 was BAD in that department. So leaves drive A4 tho honestly I’d rather drive the bmw too.

    Thanks for another reminder about how badly BMW has lost its way. That generation 3 was the one when where I first felt the magic of that straight 6, rwd, and bmw handling. And now what do we have. :(

  • avatar

    Burn the Merc – just what the world needs, a downmarket hatch with a coarse engine and Mercedes-Benz running costs.

    Drive the Audi – looks good and likely to be entertaining. Let someone else deal with reliability issues.

    Buy the BMW – pretty reliable, fun to drive. The only thing wrong is that there are a zillion of these things here in South Florida.

  • avatar

    Buy the BMW – The only one with a proper six.
    Drive the Audi – Even though back then it was a lot closer to a tarted up Jetta than today.
    Burn the Merc – It was the Vega of Mercedes. Ill thought-out first entry in the small car market. At least here in America

    Please note: This was a time when the numbers on the backs of the BMW and Merc still meant something.
    – BMW 325: 3-series; 2.5 liter six
    – MB C230: C-class; 2.3 liter four

  • avatar

    Well, (almost) everyone is burning the Mercedes, but I like it. So, its a buy. I have always liked the 318Ti, but these have come into my field of vision lately. I’m not in love with the front end styling, but its better than the E class.

    The BMW would likely be the best driver, so its a drive. It’d be closer to buy if it was a coupe or a hatch.

    The Audi would probably burn itself, and I KNOW that line has never been used in this series before! LOL But, seriously, VAG products do have a tendency to burn, so its a legit statement from my perspective.

  • avatar

    Drive the BMW – nothing wrong with a 325i – the best of the three

    Buy the Audi – 1.8T 4 banger is practically a diesel it burns so much oil, but the interior/exterior design has aged really well

    Burn the Mercedes – 2002 was a dark dark time, awful interior, awful reliability, mediocre style, cost cutting bargain basement special. Burn, burn in Hell.

  • avatar

    Ah, the E46…just about the finishing line for where my love of the marque came to an end. And a stripper version would be exactly what I want (to the point of being less equipped than anything ever sold in the US). Responsive and smooth I6, rear-wheel drive and still maintaining a focus on the driver’s experience, this is the one I’d still want today.
    The A4 was coming into its own with this generation. I thought it was quite buttoned up as far as styling (both inside and out). Had more than a few of these as rentals in Germany and enjoyed them.
    The C230 confuses me a tad. I love, love hatchbacks and dearly wanted a 318ti when they first came out. I’ve no issue with some of the “lesser” models, given they still represent their respective manufacturers…I’m just not sure the C230 did that.


    Buy (and drive, and love and cherish) the 3-Series (pouring one out for Herr Kuhn, the man most responsible for my love of BMW, at least from the E46 back…)
    Drive the A4
    Burn the C230

  • avatar

    The first car I ever ordered from a dealer…all the rest I bought off the lot…was a 2001 325ci…The only options were steel grey metallic paint, sport package, sunroof and cold weather package. Not many options. I loved that car. The 6 was powerful enough but the delivery was sublime. Cemented my opinion on the BMW inline 6 cylinder. I picked it up at the performance center at the South Carolina factory.

  • avatar

    Buy: Audi. I am a VWAG man and have had good experiences with their products. I also enjoy vehicles with AWD for the added traction safety during the colder months.

    Drive: Mercedes. My wife owned a C200 Kompressor Sportcoupe, well-optioned, and it was pleasant as well as exciting to drive. It handled well. It was also very reliable. In my opinion the interior was not cheap but bland.

    Burn: The BMW. I am from Munich, but I do not like BMW. Drove a few and found them harsh and uncomfortable.

    One more fact, there was also a C230 Sportcoupe with a 2.5 V6 and around 211-horsepower. The United States must have gotten this model.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    This is easy.

    Burn the Mercedes. The engine sounds and feels like it belongs in a farm tractor. The rest of the car was thoroughly “de-contented” compared to its slow, but rock-solid predecessor, the 190.

    Buy the BMW. Lotsa folks consider this generation 3-series the pinnacle of “ultimate driving machine” BMW excellence. Not a boy racer, but an extremely well-balanced car, in terms of braking, handling and acceleration. That generation BMW 6 engine is turbine smooth, with extremely linear power delivery. The cooling system is fragile, but if you replace everything (and I mean everything) at 60,000 miles, you’ll be fine.

    Drive the Audi on a snowy day. Known for its questionable reliability overall, this generation needs a complete front suspension rebuild at 60,000 miles. Great car when it works, but expensive to keep it that way.

  • avatar

    If the A4 truly had some kind of weak electronic FWD-based AWD system, then it would be:

    Buy the BMW.
    Drive the Merc in winter.
    Burn the Audi.

    But since it’s actually a fully-mechanical 50:50 system with a Torsen center diff, and I live in a location with real winters, I don’t even have to consider driving a slower (in winter) vehicle just to have more fun.

    Buy the BMW.
    Drive the Audi in winter.
    Burn the Merc.

    I don’t want to burn the Merc. I always liked those ones. But I prefer the Bimmer, and there’s nothing like a proper AWD system on studded tires for ripping around in winter.

  • avatar

    I’ve owned two of the three options here (E46 and A4).

    Buy: B6 A4 – was a great car as long as you didn’t have to deal with fixing it
    Drive: E46 – still one of the best driving compact luxury sedans around
    Burn: W203 – harsh motor and it looks terrible, Daimler Chrysler era junk.

  • avatar

    Was expecting something about Lili Von Schtupp from “Blazing Saddles!”

    Buy the Audi, drive the Bimmer, burn the Benz!

    • 0 avatar

      Exactly. Burn the ridiculous half-a-Benz as a matter of course. Drive the BMW, because I hear they drive quite nicely. And buy the Audi which, being zinc-coated, at least will never rust on its way to becoming a classic — for practical purposes I’d want the wagon, though.

  • avatar

    My love for hatchbacks still doesn’t buy this MB any love. Burn. This is no 190 or C-class from the late 90’s. It’s an odd car and looked cheap, even when new.

    Drive the Audi- I had a 2004 Jetta GLS Wagon with the 1.8T. I drive a ’17 Golf with the Gen 3 1.8T and a 5 speed manual. I’m a fan of VW/Audi cars, but I’m wary of the long term, even though my Jetta gave me zero problems ( second-hand from a Ford dealer no less)

    Buy the BMW- Inline 6, not too bloated, still handsome after all these years ( as is the Audi, but it’s more anonymous looking).

  • avatar

    Those C-series Mercedes deteriorate like an old Volare, German quality indeed.

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