There was nothing at all wrong with the last-generation Mercedes-Benz C-Class, but Mercedes fixed it anyway. It remains the entry-level Benz, but the improvements are such that, for the first time, it stands on its own as a Mercedes that is entirely adequate on its own, rather than serving as the first step as customers climb the Mercedes-Benz product ladder.
I prefer it over the larger, more expensive E-Class, and I like the E-Class. But given the price difference, the C-Class is doubly appealing, at least until the next-generation E-Class shows up.
While globally Mercedes offers a myriad of C-Class models -- wagons, coupes, diesels -- for now, we get two basic flavors: The C300 sedan, with a 3.0-liter, 228-horsepower V-6 engine, and the C350 sedan, with a 3.5-liter, 268-horsepower V-6. The C300 is offered with a six-speed manual transmission or a seven-speed automatic, and the C350 gets only the automatic. While the C-Class is new, these powertrains really aren't, but they feel plenty modern.
Mercedes also offers "Luxury" and "Sport" versions in the C300, but mechanically the difference is small -- mostly it's a choice between the Luxury's wood interior trim, and the Sport's aluminum trim, plus some exterior styling cues. The quickest way to tell the Sport from the Luxury: The Mercedes ornament star is mounted inside the grille on the Sport, atop the hood on the Luxury. Mercedes expects the Sport to make up the majority of C-Class models sold.
The cheapest C-Class is the C300 Sport with the manual transmission, starting at $31,200, not including shipping, which adds $775. The least expensive 2007 model was the C230, which started at $29,650. But the 2007 C230 had a 2.5-liter, 201-horsepower V-6, and that engine has been dropped for 2008, accounting for one reason why the 2008 fifth-generation C-Class has a higher starting price.
The C350 Sport is the most expensive model currently available -- we'll get other versions within the next two years -- and it starts at $36,500. Check off every option box and you're at $47,260, including shipping, and that gets you a C-Class that is downright loaded.
The test car was a 2008 C350 Sport, with a list price of $41,225. Its major option was a $2,950 "Multimedia Package," which included a navigation system -- the screen is hidden until you activate the system, then it pops up from the dashboard -- plus an upgraded sound system with voice control. Leather upholstery would have added $1,500, but the cloth seats were fine. There's also a "panoramic sunroof" replacing the regular standard sunroof, but whether that's worth an extra $1,000 is up to you.
Even on the least-expensive model, as we'd expect from Mercedes, you get a whole lot of stuff. Safety equipment includes electronic stability control, traction control, side airbags and antilock disc brakes with brake assist. The attention to detail is typically German: Standard is a "sun sensor, which provides improved interior temperature control by detecting intensity and direction of the sun."
Inside, the up-front passengers are treated to supportive seats that are comfortable even on long stints. Instruments are properly placed; controls seem designed more for symmetry than practical use. Two rear-seat passengers will find the space tolerable but not generous, despite the fact that the 2008 C-Class is nearly four inches longer than the 2007 model. The trunk is big but a little shallow, though the same has been said about me.
On the road, the C350 Sport, which had optional 18-inch Michelin tires and alloy wheels replacing 17-inchers, gives a firm ride that may be a bit taut for some customers, but I found it just fine. Handling is excellent. Steering is precise, with just the right amount of feedback and road feel. Mercedes has really upped its game in this area.
Personally, my favorite aspect of the new C-Class is the styling, which moves from slightly apologetic to bold and a bit threatening on the Sport, clearly influenced by the tweaks AMG, Mercedes' in-house performance tuner, has made to its own models these past few years.
With the 2008 C-Class, Mercedes continues to take direct aim at the BMW 3-series and Audi A4, continues to supply a vehicle that slots more onto the luxury side of the ledger, despite the "Sport" moniker. The styling alone will get the car some attention from new customers, and the driving experience could seal the deal. Yes, it remains the "entry level" Mercedes, but in its placement in the lineup only.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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