This was a great winter to test all-wheel-drive vehicles. With the frequent snow storms, all-wheel-drive seemed more a necessity than a luxury. In a bit of good timing, Mercedes-Benz decided to expand its 4Matic all-wheel-drive system to the large S-Class sedans and entry-level C-Class sedans. Having found the E-Class 4Matic one of the finest luxury sedans I've driven, I was interested to see how AWD would work in the smaller C-Class line. Mercedes-Benz provided a C320 AWD sedan for testing. 4Matic is available in both the C-Class sedan and wagon with either the 2.6-liter 168-horsepower V-6 used in the C240 or the 3.2-liter 215-horsepower V-6 employed in the C320. While the smaller V-6 is adequate when used in the rear-wheel-drive model, one would suspect the 3.2-liter V-6 would be more useful when used in an all-wheel-drive powertrain. 4Matic is a full-time system. When snowy, slippery conditions are encountered, a single transfer case can send up to 35 percent of the power to the front wheels to help regain traction. Even if three wheels lose traction, power can be sent to just one wheel. The power is still rear-based to ensure the rear-drive handling characteristics. A five-speed automatic with a manual shift feature is standard; a six-speed manual is available on non-AWD models. Power is effortless, but the all-wheel-drive C320 has a heavier feel because the 4Matic adds about 200 pounds to the C320's weight. That's not to suggest it's sluggish, but the all-wheel-drive C320 doesn't feel as light on its feet as its rear-wheel-drive counterpart. Electronic stability control is standard and uses braking and traction control to help maintain driver control. Anti-lock disc brakes also are a part of the safety package. While it is quite a steady, solid driving feel, the C320 never feels as sporting as the BMW 3-Series, even if it does seem sportier than previous small Mercedes-Benz. The C320 carves corners with aplomb, but it has a very firm ride, almost harsh. It seemed out of character for this vehicle's place in the market. The interior is typical C-Class and was redesigned last year. The instrument cluster makes the most of the available space, using the interior of the speedometer for a digital readout of trip information. The audio system proves easy to use, despite a complicated appearance upon first impression. But the C-Class doesn't use an in-dash CD changer, the changer resides in the glove box. The seats were hard and proved torturous after some time in them. They didn't have the comfort of the E-Class. Front-seat leg room is good, as one would expect, but rear-seat leg room is a bit tight. If you seek peace of mind with a luxury car, the all-wheel-drive might seem appealing until you consider the price. The C-Class sedan starts at just under $30,000 for a rear-drive C240. The vehicle tested started at $38,325. Add in the options (Capri Blue paint, leather seats, CD changer, cell phone, headlamp washers, heated front seats, auto dimming rearview mirror, rain sensing windshield washers, sunroof and a rear sunshade) and the bottom line was $46,105. While that's about the same as a fully loaded Jaguar X-Type (which is about the same size and also is all-wheel-drive), it will also net you a larger luxury car. But such is the price one pays to drive a car with the three-pointed star. To the Mercedes-Benz faithful, it's worth every penny, especially when it snows.
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