Price Range: $4500 – $6,500
Okay, so I want to make one thing clear from the outset – this is probably the only time in history that a utilitarian everyman vehicle, likened to a whitegood appliance, has been pitted against a European compact executive car.
The thing is though, the Cambodian car market is unlike anything else in the world. For expats looking for a small/medium sized sedan to get around town,or for taking short trips to the provinces on a budget, you will really only be presented with two quality options in this price range – a Toyota Corolla and a Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Unfortunately, good examples of equivalent-aged Camrys tend to be outside this range.
And ‘Luxury’ is subjective. In the Cambodian car market, Toyotas are de-facto luxury vehicles. I have previously referred to the ‘face’ that is gained from driving a Japanese car in Cambodia over, say, a Hyundai, Kia or Great Wall.
Brand Japan carries huge weight in Cambodia. The rules of local demand and supply dictate that the resale price of Toyotas, of any age, is exorbitant.
In contrast, German cars occupy a curious space in the Cambodian market. On the one hand they are recognized as highly desirable vehicles for the Bong Thoms, the so-called ‘high class’ urbanites and plantation owners.
They tend to be large, black, imposing vehicles that are used as battering rams in Phnom Penh traffic and are fixtures of the escorted cavalcade.
On the other hand, at the bottom end of the market, German cars are viewed as expensive nuisances that should be avoided.
I would argue that this is a bit of a widely held misconception on the part of Khmers and expats. This will be discussed in more detail below, but the point of this article is to emphasize that these two unlikely competitors should both be seriously considered.
E110 Corolla History:
With over 30 million units sold since 1966, the Corolla is one of the most popular and successful vehicles ever made. Think the Honda Cub of cars.
The eighth generation was produced from 1995-2002 from plants across the world. It is probably safe to assume that most of the left-hand-drive imports in Cambodia were originally from the US, where they were manufactured in Japan, Canada or the US depending on model year.
The E110 continued Corolla’s already storied reputation as a reliable, bullet-proof, fuel efficient machine and vehicles were deliberately designed to be utilitarian and offer hassle free motoring for customers who were not so concerned about others’ perceptions of what they drove, as long as their vehicle got them to their destination first time, everytime.
Curiously, however, the E110 shared its Corolla nameplate with an uber successful World Rally Championship monster of the day. For some unfathomable reason, Toyota never really exploited the rallying pedigree of the Corolla in its marketing. Nor did they play up the rally tie-in by creating ‘rally bred’ halo versions of their everyman car,as was the case with Japanese competitors Subaru and Mitsubishi and their barnstorming Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo models.
W202 C-Class History:
The W202 was produced from 1993-2000 from plants across the world. Given that most examples in Cambodia are US-specced, it is likely they were manufactured in Germany. The W202 followed on from the legendary W201 190E. At the time, Mercedes-Benz referred to the vehicle as it’s ‘rescue wagon’ which would lift flagging revenues caused by spiraling development costs and heavy competition from BMW. The model was a huge sales success globally, 1.85 million units were shifted.
The C-Class was and is an aspirational model. For many customers, the C-Class was their first experience of owning a prestige brand. Despite being the cheapest model in the line-up at the time, the W202 does not look or feel cheap. Engineering, fit and finish are of a very high standard. Design cues from the flagship S-Class carried down to the baby Benz.
The dimensions of the two are extremely similar. The Corolla is about 4.3 metres long and 1.7 metres wide, while the C-Class is 4.5 metres long and 1.7 metres wide, however the higher roofline means that the C-Class can seat 4 adults in relative comfort, whereas it can be cramped in the back of the Corolla for adults who are 6-foot or more. Both are terrific vehicles at getting through tight spaces, parking and picking holes in traffic, although the rear wheel drive of the C-Class gives it a smaller turning circle.
Performance and Fuel Economy:
The front wheel drive Corolla delivers performance and fuel economy firmly in-line with the overall philosophy of the car: adequate, frugal and enough to get the job done.
The 1.8 litre, 16-valve, DOHC 4-cylinder engine delivers 85 kilowatts and 155 Nm, propelling the Corolla from 0-100 km/h in a rather sedate 12 seconds Fuel economy is excellent; on a mixed city/rural cycle expect to use about 7.5 litres per 100 kilometres. Fuel tank is 50 litres.
C-Classes in Phnom Penh can be found with a variety of different engines. Personally, I have seen C180s, C200s, and C230s, although most are either C220s or C280s, so I recommend you focus on these two particular models to locate a quality example.
The C220 was powered by a 2.2 litre16 valve, DOHC, straight 4-cylinder engine producing 110 kilowatts and 210 Nm of torque. Mixed city/rural cycle fuel economy is about 8.5 litres per 100 kilometres.
However my pick is the C280, which packs silky smooth 2.8 litre24 valve, DOHC, straight 6-cylinder engine producing 142 kilowatts and 270 Nm of torque: the classic combination offront engine, rear wheel drive vehicle with a naturally aspirated 6 ensures that the C280 delivers sports car like performance and is terrific fun on the open road.
The engine is willing and able, overtaking is never an issue. The C280 will sprint to 100 km/h in about 8 seconds – no slouch, especially in the mid-1990s. It will drink about 9.5 litres per 100 kilometres on a mixed city/rural cycle. Fuel tank is 62 litres.
Both the Corolla and C-Class have fully independent suspension, front and rear. Both cars are excellent at soaking up potholes, dirt roads and uneven surfaces. Although the C-Class’ more advanced multi-link set-up edges out the Corolla’s suspension system overall, delivering a lovely poised ride. It is not as firm as the equivalent BMW 3-Series of the day, but not soft and wafty either.
Ex-US Corollas are likely to have automatic transmission, airconditioning, power steering and aftermarket central locking and CD players. Oh, and a host of plush toys on the back shelf. Options at the time were ABS and driver’s airbag.
Most C-Classes will have automatic transmission, automatic climate control, power steering, central locking, leather seats, ABS and dual airbags (although many examples have had them removed). C280s have BOSE sound systems too, which is an added bonus.
For the most part, the Corolla is utterly unbreakable (to steal Toyota’s apt marketing slogan). No really, it is. You would be hard pressed to find a more reliable car. The car is very basic and mechanical compared to the C-Class, thus fewer problems tend to arise. That being said, US Corolla owners have reported faults including:
• Heavy consumption of oil. The consensus seems to be that this is caused by stuck or damaged piston rings, leaking valve seals or distorted/corroded cylinder bores.
• The Positive Crankcase Ventilation (PCV) valve, which vents gas from the crankcase, can become defective.
• Wheel bearing failures.
Relative to the Corolla, the more technically complicated C-Class struggles to keep up in the reliability stakes – but let’s be honest, so do all other cars. There are some very important checks that need to be done, using a reputable mechanic. If one or more of the following is failing/failed, walk away.
• Wiring Loom – owing to a dodgy supplier, Mercedes-Benz suffered terrible brand damage in the 1990s for sourcing wiring looms that were manufactured from materials designed to break down in landfill after the life of the car. Unfortunately, the materials were not adequately tested and the degradation process was expedited by the heat that built up in the engine bay. Strange electrical failures are indicative that the wiring loom is going.
• Head Gasket – oil leaks, and/or a mixing of oil and coolant in the radiator indicates the head gasket needs to be replaced.
• Gearbox – rough shifts from first to second, and vice versa should put you on notice. Listen for grinding or crunching sounds.
• Rust – check the wheel arches, and pull up the carpeting in the boot/trunk to check for rust spots.
In Cambodia, general issues for both vehicles that will require checking include:
• Condition of ball joints, both steering and suspension
• Cracks in the chassis,indicative of frequent abuse on poor roads
• Doors that don’t close easily or smoothly, or poor fitting headlight assemblycould indicate the vehicle has been rebuiltfollowing a collision
• Uneven tyre wear and vehicles that don’t track straight at cruising speed indicatespoor wheel alignment
• Aircon/climate control – MUST blow cold shortly after turning the key. It may simply need regassing, butyou are looking at big $$$ for new compressors and/or evaporators.
It may seem crazy to put a Corolla up against a C-Class; but Cambodia is a crazy place. Cambodia would be one of the few places in the world where a Toyota and a Mercedes-Benz of equivalent age would be competing in the same price bracket. In practical terms though, there are some very strong similarities between the two; size, fuel consumption (for the 4-cylinder Merc), ease of parking and resale values make them real-world competitors in Cambodia.
Which should you go for?
Depends. If you are the sort of motorist who is only concerned about hassle-free, bulletproof motoring around town or to the nearby provinces, you wouldn’t go past the Corolla. With solid resale values, and cheap and plentiful parts supply, it is a respectable, albeit dull choice.
However, if you are a car lover on a budget who accepts they will need to sink some cash into the car from time to time, I would urge you to at least test drive a C-Class. There are still many good examples of W202 C-Classes in Cambodia. The US specced C-Classes came with a tremendous amount of kit, and I think they represent tremendous value for money. Th quality of the original metallic paintwork plus the fit and finish is extraordinary. Everything has a reassuring feeling of being ‘solid’ and well thought out. Indeed, to the untrained eye the cars look much younger than they actually are.
As there has been an authorized Mercedes-Benz presence in Cambodia since the 1960s, the vehicles are known and parts are relatively plentiful and cheap compared to back home. Many expats order parts over the internet to save money, although I have never seen a need to do this (and I have owned 3 old Mercs in Cambodia).
I have had no problem sourcing parts for my wife’s C280 even when I have been as far upcountry as Battambang. Remember too, Labour is extremely cheap in Cambodia.
Finally, C-Classes at this end of the market have become so far depreciated that it is very likely that you will sell the vehicle back for what you paid for it, or for slightly more if you maintain it and keep a proper service history. Find a good example, undertake regular servicing, and you should be rewarded with many hours of happy motoring.