If someone asked you to name a sport sedan, your first thought probably wouldn’t be a Mercedes-Benz. With the new 2008 C-Class, Mercedes gets a little closer to that ideal in some categories while holding fast to its classic idea of luxury — isolation over involvement — in others.
The result is an entry-level luxury car that will appeal to fans of the three-pointed star but won’t win over diehard enthusiast drivers the way the 3 Series has for years. While the C-Class’ suspension tuning is sport-sedan worthy, there’s still too much detachment from the road in the steering system.
Offered in Luxury and Sport variations and in rear- and all-wheel-drive forms, the new C-Class offers a nice blend of ride comfort and handling performance, which is one of the sedan’s best attributes. While undeniably taut — even more so than a BMW 328i with the Sport Package — ride quality never becomes harsh; the suspension is able to smooth out rough spots in the road without needlessly jostling occupants.
Pushed hard on curvy mountain roads, the C-Class holds its line, and the rear-wheel-drive model hunkers down when powering out of a turn. Even though it exhibits some body roll when driven hard, it’s not excessive and won’t deter you from driving aggressively. Choosing a Sport version brings a sport suspension that lowers the car about one-half inch, but compared to Luxury models there is very little difference in ride quality between the two. The C-Class also excels when cruising on the highway, where it feels buttoned down and very stable.
While the new C-Class does an admirable job imitating the renowned dynamic qualities of the 3 Series, it lags the BMW when it comes to steering performance, mostly because it offers less road feel and too much power assist. This makes for a less engaging driving experience than either the 3 Series or Infiniti G35 offer. This isn’t particularly surprising, but it’s unfortunate because a little more steering feel would go a long way toward making the C-Class a better sport sedan, as many of the other pieces are already in place.
A 3.0-liter V-6 engine powers the C300, while the C350 gets a 3.5-liter V-6. For big horsepower fans, an AMG-tuned version of the car — the C63 AMG — holds a 6.2-liter V-8 and hits dealerships in spring 2008. I tested various versions of the C300.
|Mercedes-Benz C-Class Engines and Transmissions
|228 @ 6,000
|268 @ 6,000
|451 @ 6,800
(lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
|221 @ 2,700
|258 @ 2,400
|443 @ 5,000
|Premium or E85
|RWD or AWD
The base V-6 moves the C300 ably, if not with authority. There’s good power at low engine speeds for accelerating from a standstill, and when teamed with the standard seven-speed automatic transmission, the engine musters acceptable power for passing at highway speeds. I don’t always recommend a car’s base engine, but the base C-Class should offer plenty of power for all but the most lead-footed drivers.
The seven-speed automatic transmission is the same one used in the automaker’s flagship S-Class sedan, and while its shifts were always smooth during the course of my 200-plus mile drive, the transmission does tend to upshift a little too readily. This keeps engine speed lower, which has benefits like reduced fuel usage and engine noise, but it can leave the car in the wrong gear if you need to accelerate immediately. The transmission’s Touch Shift clutchless-manual mode will put the transmission in the appropriate gear for conditions if you want, but it wouldn’t take long for this to become tiresome.
Exacerbating the issue is the fact that you have to depress the gas pedal quite a bit before the car recognizes that you want the transmission to downshift. Flooring the pedal, meanwhile, will make the transmission downshift a few gears, but sometimes you only want to go down a single gear, and that’s not always easy to do in the C300.
The C-Class’ all-disc antilock brakes felt strong for the duration of my test drive, which included a number of long descents in the mountains surrounding Portland, Ore. Brake pedal feel is average.
The C-Class’ cabin design is simple, purposeful and uncluttered. Apart from the optional navigation system, which includes a screen that motors out from the middle of the dashboard, the cabin’s styling doesn’t push beyond the norms in this class. Depending on the model, the C-Class has real wood (Luxury) or aluminum (Sport) accents, both of which enhance the interior.
The new C-Class has a smaller version of the knob controller in the S-Class that’s used to navigate menus on the dash display. Mercedes’ system has menus that are more logical and easier to get accustomed to than either BMW’s iDrive or Audi’s Multi Media Interface.
Front bucket seats with eight-way power adjustment are standard, but the seats only have manual lumbar adjustment, unlike those of some competitors that can have power lumbar support. Leather upholstery is optional. With the range of power seat adjustments and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, it’s easy to find a comfortable driving position that affords good forward, side and rear visibility. What’s more, the front portion of the cabin doesn’t have the cramped feel of the 3 Series sedan, which is a big plus in my book.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the C-Class’ seats are too firm for long-haul comfort, as most other aspects of the driving experience were shaping up to be favorable; after more than 3 hours at the wheel, a dull pain had crept into the bottom of my thighs. The C-Class’ three-place rear seat is on the smallish side, with limited legroom and headroom, but it’s no worse than a 3 Series. The rear backrest is nicely angled.
Side-impact airbags, side curtain airbags, an electronic stability system and active head restraints for the front seats are standard. The C-Class hasn’t been crash tested as of this report.
The C-Class’ trunk has 12.4 cubic feet of cargo room. Sedans equipped with the optional 60/40-split folding rear seat can expand the cargo area into the rear seating area when it’s not in use. As is becoming more commonplace, the levers that release the rear seatbacks are in the trunk, making it easy to release the seatbacks without leaving the cargo area. The extended load floor created by the folded seats is flat. Still, there’s something irritating about paying extra for folding seats — a feature that’s standard in the least-expensive of cars.
C300 standard features include a power sunroof, one-touch up/down power windows all around, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, Bluetooth-based cell phone connectivity, and a CD stereo with an auxiliary input jack for connecting portable music players. There’s also an available iPod Integration Kit that lets the driver operate Apple’s music player via steering-wheel controls. The C350 adds additional standard features like satellite radio and heated front seats.
Optional features include rear-biased all-wheel drive (C300 only), a panoramic sunroof that includes a glass section over the rear seats, and a Multimedia Package that bundles a navigation system with an impressive Harman Kardon six-CD/DVD surround sound system. The audio system includes a 4GB hard drive that can store around 1,000 songs pulled from CDs or play music stored on a PC Card. You can also watch movies on the navigation screen when the car is stationary.
There’s plenty of fresh metal in the entry-luxury segment at the moment, what with the 3 Series, Infiniti G35 and Lexus IS all having undergone redesigns in the past few years. All of these cars are at different spots on the sport-sedan spectrum: the 3 Series and G35 skew toward the sporty side, while the IS and C-Class don’t gravitate there quite so assertively.
The C-Class is Mercedes’ best-selling model, which makes it an important one for the company to get right. It did get most things right with this version, and with some softer seats and a little more steering feel, it would have an even better car. On the whole, the C rates better than its name suggests; I give it a B.