Mercedes-Benz C-Class Review

Mercedes-Benz C-Class ReviewYou may be wondering what we're doing testing a car that's been around for five years and will be leaving in two. The answer is that the winds of change sometimes travel faster than redesign cycles, and the current iteration of the Baby Benz seems to have lived most of its life in a virtual vortex.

Sure, it looks like the same C-class that's been filling aspiring yuppie garages since 2001, but it hasn't sat still since. By its second year, a hatchback had sprung to life with a raspy supercharged 4-cylinder we thought we'd seen the last of, followed by a station wagon, and finally a high-performance AMG variant called the C32, which retreated from its V8 upgrade back to a (supercharged) V6. Then all-wheel-drive versions came and the 4-cylinder got replaced by another. Finally, the start of 2005 saw the short-lived C32 morphing into a V8-powered C55, and by year's end all wagons and hatchbacks were AWOL. Then the 4-cylinder vanished.

Mercedes marches into 2006 with the C-class all organized and figured out. We're back to one body style, and all C-classes are now sent to this country with a minimum of six naturally aspirated cylinders. There are two new model names but three new engines (out of four), which are all related, all improved, and two of them now hook up to either transmission type - and those transmissions are new, too. Couple all this with last year's spiced up interior, and we have a car whose sense of continuity pretty much ends with those Mr. Peanut headlights.

Road TestMercedes-Benz C-Class Review
Most of you won't believe this and fewer will care, but behold: Mercedes now offers the big engine with a stick! On top of being a speed and mileage booster, that signals a real dedication in catering to drivers. And considering all C-classes were automatic as recently as Y2K, it's also quite a first.

If only first impressions lived up to first gestures. My main thought after 30 seconds of seat time: this shifter feels like it's immersed in a tub of snot. The looseness and sogginess promptly spoiled all notions of performance, and made me feel like a klutz the first time I tried a fast shift from 2nd to 3rd and wound up in 5th.

While the soggy sensation never vanished, it eventually faded from being the tranny's undoing to a mere quirk while the rest grew on me. Changing gears is very easy, and the vague directional travel is at least mitigated by positive engagements. The clutch is a charmer with its smooth takeup and low engagement point, and the unit as a whole is easier around town than BMW's box. I don't know where Mercedes gets off calling this a "short-throw shifter" when I'm throwing my arm around like a symphony conductor, but this gearbox should please the casual driver.

More than that, the rest of this car is now suited to a manual transmission, if you get the drift. It starts with the adoption of the V6 engine family first introduced in the 2005 SLK, featuring variable valve timing, 24 valves, and dual-stage intake manifolds, and it comes to the C-class in a neat succession of 2.5, 3.0, and 3.5-liter displacements. This C350 uses the third, which marks a mighty advance over the old C320's 215 horsepower to kick out 268 - exactly as much as the C36 AMG of a decade ago. While such output trails Lexus and Infiniti, it reigns supreme across the Western world and is as eager to rev as the best of them, with a sweet-sounding voice caressing your ears clearly through the firewall. Powertrain laggard no more.

That marks the end of the best news, but the C350 benefits from tweaks in other areas that were mostly strong to begin with. Despite outstretching the SLK roadster by nearly a foot in wheelbase, the C-class can still draw a 35.3-foot turning circle. Its steering rack got sped up to SLK-spec, spanning only 2.8 rotations from end to end and matching that car for best-in-a-Benz steering feel; I detected none of the "heaviness" cited in older models. The brakes, likewise, seem to have the least (though not zero) sponginess and grabbiness among all Mercedes, and the throttle seemed properly responsive for a change. It doesn't happen often, but sometimes the kid sets the example in the family.

This kid could have gone further in that regard. First suggestion: break with Mercedes' habit of staggering tire sizes, which really isn't necessary on a car with a 54% front weight bias to begin with. The C350's front tires are thinner in width and thicker in height than its rears, guaranteeing front-end skidding earlier than necessary. Mercedes compounds the tendency by specifying 28 psi of air pressure for the front tires vs. 32 in the rear - my first witness of this anywhere - and senselessly enough, the sizes only get staggered on "Sport" C-class models. Grip is still a decent 0.83g and handling is forgiving, but if you're gonna call yourself a Sport, play like one.

At the detail level, this four-pedaled C-class also has one pedal too many - come on, a foot-operated parking brake? - and the ESP stability control never completely turns off even if you tell it to. The somewhat soft suspension rocks a little more with quick applications of the clutch, brakes, etc. than the BMW's 3-series, the steering is only half as sharp, and BMW's rock-hard shifter is so much more satisfying when you're out there gunning it.

Keep BMW out of the picture, and the C-class stands fine on its own. The strut front and five-link rear suspensions deliver that firm-yet-comfortable German ride that always feels snubbed down, and long-distance travel - made more interesting by a neat digital cruise control system - is tranquil except for slightly loud tires. The 5.3-second run to 60 MPH balances out well with the 22 miles per gallon. And there's just that solid feel coming from a car that just feels, well, complete.

With the new transmissions and engines, it now is.

Inside & OutMercedes-Benz C-Class Review
As with driving it, sitting inside the C-class is a little more inspiring than it used to be. Earlier owners would recognize little that's presented before them: the former big, boring half-hemisphere speedometer and dinky tach are now equal partners in crime. The plain, flat-faced radio with the small readout became a more high-tech-looking device that now takes up both dash slots, the once-confusing climate controls got revised, and the whole places sparkles on Sport models thanks to the genuine aluminum trim. Sport models also get a three-spoke steering wheel in place of the somber four-spoker.

Still, it definitely leans on the more straight-laced side of things. The door locks hail straight from the Pinto era and the fan speed knob takes 300 degrees of rotation to reach its highest setting, consistent with the slow-response theme on Mercedes in general. The plastics on many buttons don't exactly shout class, and in a luxury class car, having 11 of your 16 dashboard buttons blank reminds you that you're a special kind of status-seeker: the cheap kind.

The controls are standard Mercedes, meaning they're slightly complicated, the turn signal's in the wrong place, and there's an occasional button whose hieroglyphic label you must look up in the cumbersome owner's manual, but are otherwise sensible. A handy button on the dash collapses the rear head restraints for a clear view, and the "key" is actually an electronic transponder (don't leave it sitting in the ignition too long). The SLK-sourced steering wheel has the same buttons: all the essentials except for buttons that can change radio presets or CD tracks. On the radio itself, it's pretty cool to have ten presets (thanks to the phone interface) and the ability to directly punch in radio frequencies and track numbers. It would be cooler if the keypad wasn't on the far right side of the car.

I already sampled Mercedes' excellent Harmon-Kardon stereo in an SLK; this C350's setup gave me a taste of the default. It's not quite as flavorful but is more than adequate. Sound is still fairly strong and bass fairly deep, and because this test car was free of Mercedes' COMAND, it didn't have that glitch of making me wait five seconds before picking a new preset. Instead, I got a new glitch: I fed it a few discs full of MP3s and it choked. MP3 readability is a new feature on all C-classes; looks like this one missed the memo.

There are no such glitches with the captain's chairs, also revised last year. Its extra-long leg travel, flexible steering wheel, and well-located armrests should fit nearly anyone. This year's new active front head restraints keep them safe (by jumping up by over an inch and forward by almost two) while three-position memory for both seats should keep a huge household happy.

Storage space is sufficient with a big glovebox (the optional CD changer fills it), a two-tier center console, and roomy map pockets. The one glaring exception is the cupholder, which Mercedes seems to trip on in a different manner every time. Here, the problem is that there's only one, and it's really puny, and on stickshift cars, it's in the wrong place. It pretty much blocks all shifting in the default position, and even when pivoted towards the side, knocks the knuckles on every shift to 4th or 6th.

Compact, rear-wheel-drive cars never escape a back seat berating, especially when that compact is actually a subcompact. That's right folks, the C-class is stuck with less than 100 cubic feet of total interior volume, relegating it to one class beneath all its competitors, not to mention a Chevy Aveo.

Sitting in the back seat, though, I wouldn't have known this without looking it up. The cushion is of a proper height (barely) and the front seats have enough room for feet (barely). The stingy 33 inches of legroom invite shin banging on the hard plastic seatbacks, but it won't happen as frequently as in the Audi A4. While the Infiniti G35 and Cadillac CTS paint the C-class as a packaging slacker, overall comfort is at least as high as in the BMW 3-series, Audi A4, or Lexus IS. Maybe a bit higher.

A folding back seat is optional; without it, the C-class can store 12.2 cubic feet in its caboose, another perfectly par score.

Other ThoughtsMercedes-Benz C-Class Review
Like last year, the C-class is still a class of four, now named C230, C280, C350, and C55. Despite C230 being a carryover label, it thankfully did not carry over either of the previous anemic 4-bangers. The absence has been filled by a 2.5-liter V6 with 201 horsepower and 181 pounds-feet of torque. It even comes $50 cheaper than the car it replaces at $29,975, though the stiff $1,390 automatic raises that to $31,365.

Next is the automatic-only C280 (replacing the 2.6-liter C240), whose 3.0-liter version of that engine ups the HP and torque to 228 and 221. That'll be $33,725, or $35,525 when ordered with the all-wheel-drive system (which splits the torque 40/60 front-to-back and can send 100% anywhere it needs to).

Third is the C350, the only model whose name actually stands for its engine size. Sticker prices of $38,925 for the Luxury model, or $38,325 (manual) and $39,715 (automatic) for the Sport models means the extra horses cost more this time. This is the only other place to get all-wheel-drive, for $40,725. C350s have little that the others don't - just a power steering wheel and standard memory for the front seats - so the decision between this trio mostly rests on how much speed you need.

About that Luxury/Sport issue: all C230 models are marketed as "Sport" and all C280s "Luxury," while C350s get to choose. (Does that make sense?) Sport models are the only place to get the 6-speed manual; Luxury models have the automatic mandatory (a 7-speed unit on normal cars, last year's 5-speeder on all-wheel-drive cars), and only Luxury models have AWD offshoots. Sports also have firmer suspensions, ride lower to the ground, and wear Z-rated tires on 17-inch wheels that are 7.5 across in front, 8.5 in back (vs. 16x7s all around); the C350 Sport also has bigger front brakes. Cosmetically, Sport models have different 5-spoke alloy wheels, aluminum interior trim, sport seats and steering wheel, and more bodywork.

There are plenty of options to pile on: a $790 Lighting Package (xenon lights with washers, fog lights that light up when turning corners), $970 Entertainment Package (Logic7 sound system, 12 speakers, 6-disc CD changer), $1,790 Sunroof Package (sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, HomeLink-compatible garage door opener, power rear sunshade), $2,210 for COMAND navigation, $820 for Tele Aid (emergency assistance), $680 for heated seats, $290 for folding back seats, $765 for a hands-free phone, $385 for rear-side airbags, and $680 if you want any color besides non-metallic black, red, or white. Yipes.

At other luxury brands, shopping is a little less costly and a lot less cumbersome. Right off the bat, I'll just say the Infiniti G35 offers way more car for the money here (with no drawbacks), and the BMW 3-series still drives like the C-class wishes it could (with no drawbacks). The C-class is still stranded without any apparent competitive advantage.

Yet unlike in the past, prices actually reside in the same universe as its competitors. And with the plentiful new range of silky, strong engines and everything else basically up to snuff (aside from reliability), it all adds up to the C-class having a fighting chance. [source :]


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