Can it be seven years since Mercedes-Benz introduced their C-Class, the baby of the family, to the U.S. market? That was a good, if not lust-inducing car, far superior to the “baby Benz” that preceded it. Let’s see what a billion-dollar (!) investment can do for an encore.
The 2001 model-year C-Class sedan is completely new, looking for all the world like the patriarch of the family, the S-Class, after it was left in the dryer too long. If you’re going to resemble anything, that sure makes a fine starting point. The coupe-like profile is meant to entice younger buyers, to whom the typical squared-off-but-practical sedan lines suggest dowdy. For the image-obsessed, there’s also a 2-door version, which makes hauling passengers even less likely than the sedan does.
This is after all a compact, with an interior volume as calculated by the EPA of just 88.6 cubic feet. For comparison, the country’s best-selling family sedan, the Honda Accord, has 101.7, and is rated a midsize – not that there will be much cross-shopping between these two.
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is called a sports sedan by its maker, but might just as well be referred to as a low-end luxury sedan. That denomination would be especially a propos in the case of the one I drove, given the modest power available.
The C-Class starts at $29,950, but I imagine you’d have a hard time finding one in the sub-$30K range – there are just too many inducements to spend, spend. If you could find one so spare, it would nonetheless come with a V-6 engine; 6-speed manual transmission; climate control; alloy wheel; leather seating, steering wheel and shift knob; cruise control; electrically-adjustable front seats; AM-FM-WB-cassette stereo; auto headlamps with twilight sensor; power windows; auto dimming rearview mirrors; integrated garage door opener; trip computer, and, of no small significance, the famous three-pointed star stand-up hood ornament. That a good load, and in the safety department, the C comes with antilock, four-wheel disc brakes with brake assist, electronic stability assist, antitheft alarm, dual-stage front air bags, side air bags for driver and co-pilot, and full-length side-curtain air bags.
To some, the most important add-on might be an automatic transmission, which the tester had. It is a five-speed unit, with what M-B calls Touch Shift. You can leave it in Drive all the time and it will study your style and program itself accordingly for higher or lower shift points and also react to road gradients knowingly. If you want a bit more involvement, flicking the console-mounted lever to the left downshifts, to the right, upshifts. (It won’t perform a requested downshift if that would result in over-revving.)
I found it quite a slick implementation, preferable to those which require the gated shifter to be first moved into the semi-auto mode. As an adaptive transmission, it was middle of the pack in smarts, I thought, and could be confused by erratic power -on, power-off sequences. There’s a gear-selected indicator amid the instruments, but it’s too small and, being a yellowish-orange, hard to decipher.
It is good to have five forward gears, especially with the lesser engine under the hood. The base powerplant is a 2.6-liter (so much for the rationality of German model-naming conventions) single-overhead-camshaft aluminum job with three valves per cylinder (two in, one out).
It is rated at 168 hp (@5,500 rpm) and 177 foot-pounds of torque (@4,500). There are two coils and two sparkplugs per cylinder also, which contribute to its coveted low-emissions-vehicle status.
With a curb weight of 3,415 pounds (base car with automatic), the engine is hardly overqualified for this rear-drive machine. The best it could manage in the 0-60 dash was just a tick under 9 seconds, which puts it at something of a competitive disadvantage, on paper at least. But Mercedes has used those five forward ratios to good advantage (first is extremely l and the final drive ratio is up there, too: 3.46:1). As a result, launch feel is robust, and never does the car feel like a slug. But for the stopwatch, I would have guessed much better straight-line performance.
EPA estimates (premium fuel, please), are 20 mpg city, 26 highway. I logged 22.6.
The stroked version of this engine displaces 3.2 liters and makes 215 hp and 221 foot-pounds. To get it, you must lay out $7,500 more for a C-320, which comes only with automatic and shaves a couple of seconds off the classic American sprint time.
If you want the baddest boy in town, Mercedes’ hotrod partner AMG offers a C320 with a supercharger and sundry other tweaks (349 hp, and a chassis to match), for an entry fee of $51K and change. That would almost be scary.
On the road, the C240 felt like . . . well, a shrunken version of the S-Class. So tight was body and chassis it felt less like a collection of thousands of elements screwed, bolted and adhesived together than a casting on wheels. With rack-and-pinion steering replacing the former recirculating ball system, the Cs have gained some road feel, and hold a course with dogged determination. The included stability control mechanism – which can apply braking force to one wheel at a time when the driver seeks to flout the laws of physics – acted like a guardian angel on surfaces of varying tenacity. One would have to work at losing it with this package.
Ride quality is very good, even over badly neglected surfaces.
The cabin is very quiet, even at elevated speeds, thanks both to splendid chassis isolation and an extraordinarily low coefficient of drag – 0.27.
Braking is up to the task of bringing this car down from its (governed) top speed of 130 mph. The large discs front and rear make for excellent pedal feel and exceptionally short stopping distances. “Brake assist” senses when the driver is making a panic stop and applies the binders more quickly than normal, while the antilock smoothly keeps the wheels turning at the limit of adhesion. The test machine had the upgraded Bose stereo, which was exemplary in overall tonality, though only so-so in FM sensitivity – that dumb in-glass antenna again. The feds have not yet crash-tested the new C-Class, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has.
After subjecting it to a 40-mph offset frontal collision, they rated it a top pick in what they call the midsize luxury class, giving it their top rating – good – in every category of occupant protection. The Volvo S80 did comparably well, followed closely by the BMW 3 Series and more distantly by the Saab 9-5 and Audi A6.
Alas, the IIHS bumper-bashing was not so kind to the C-Class. In a series of four, front and rear, 5-mph impacts with flat barriers and poles, it racked up estimated repair costs of $4,674. The S80 was far worse – at $7,860 – while the Audi A6 and BMW 3-Series were much better, but still in the $2,000 range. The C-class suffered its most exp ensive mishap backing into a pole – $2,484 worth. If the bumper system is going to be so fragile, it would seem cost-effective to equip the car with a radar warning system, as some van makers do.
I had but one basic quarrel with this car, but it would keep me from buying one. It’s compact, and I’m not. The “B” pillar, the one between front and rear doors, was located unusually far forward. This meant I had to perform a contortionist act to attain driving position, similar to what’s required with a low-slung coupe. After a week of this, I had a sore back – really. If you’re six feet or more, do give it a fair test. There’s always the E-Class . . . .
The tester had an optional “brilliant silver” paint job (gorgeous), for $625; the automatic trannie, $1,300; the Bose upgrade, $595; cell phone and CD-changer package, $1,795; rain sensor, power moonroof and electric rear sunshade, $1,340, and headlamp washers and heated front seats, $800. Total, with freight, thus swelled to $3700 ayments on that car would be $751, assuming 20 percent down, 48 installments and 10 percent interest. It doesn’t hurt to ask, but don’t count on a discount at this point.