EXPERT REVIEW

Los Angeles Times's view

Mercedes-Benz presented its C43 AMG sedan here with purple hyperbole as plain as the star on its nose. Plus a dose of political incorrectness guaranteed to have all disciples of green turning purple.

Promotional material spoke of high-performance bellows and rumbles and throaty exhaust burbles. In those precise words. Then burbles become roars, then wails, then “echoes reverberating from yesteryear’s dry lake beds to today’s road courses.”

Said Karen Makris, product manager for this C43 beast in brute’s clothing: “A land missile, a factory hot rod. It’s for the guy who says he’s going to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes and doesn’t come back for three days.”

Added Michael Bassermann, chairman and CEO of Mercedes-Benz of North America: “Not a rolling showpiece to be admired and garaged, but an everyday supercar. A perfect car for the ’90s family.”

Pause for chortles.

But not from Bassermann, an automobile senior secure in his subtle observation about this very thoughtful motor car.

Yes, the C43–a minority member of the comparatively calm and inexpensive Mercedes-Benz C-Class–will humiliate just about any four-door in the world because it has a 302-horsepower V-8 stuffed where a 194-horsepower inline six used to be. Play rough and heavy, and it delivers an indecent average of 16 mpg and flirts with 155 mph before an electric governor tugs on the reins. That’s enough anger and shoving for the most virile among us.

Yet tread lightly, be a good neighbor, remain considerate of the twins and their grandmother strapped in the backseat, and the C43 trundles along like any other family midsize from Mercedes-Benz: Always a little heavy, but with confidence and elegant deliberation. And with mechanical thoroughness and a depth of luxury and safety achieved only by a car company that has been getting it right for so many decades. Indeed, as performance enhancing partner AMG has been getting it right since 1967, when it first tweaked a Mercedes-Benz bulky S-Class sedan into the almighty AMG Hammer.

Since that baptism, AMG (which stands for founders Aufrecht and Melcher, and Grossapach, the town where Aufrecht was born) has been allowed to meddle with just about any Mercedes ripe for more horsepower. Recent transformations include a team of CLK-GTR race cars that won last year’s European GT championship.

It’s the same limited production formula BMW follows with its Motorsports Division, designer of the higher performing M Series, and the path Ford has taken with its Special Vehicle Team, creators of the enthusiast’s Mustang Cobra and Contour SVT.

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The Mercedes C43 mates much full-race technology with the chassis and shape of the C-Class; a 4.3-liter V-8 engine adapted from the populist E-Class, and a transmission borrowed from the S-Class.

Visually, the C43 is separated at birth from its lesser siblings by stubby-spoked wheel s, a resculpted bumper and lower grille, and aerodynamic skirts port and starboard. Plus twin chrome-tipped exhaust pipes and, of course, an AMG cutout on the rear deck.

There’s a similar look of powerful luxury to the inside of the car with its burl walnut trim, ivory gauges and two-tone (black with blue, or black with silver) leather upholstery. Presumably from bicolored cows. Plus a fatter steering wheel and high-bolstered seats with pneumatic lumbar and thigh adjustments, ranging from mild foreplay to death grip.

Mechanically, the 24-valve engine is given AMG power and torque through a wider, better breathing intake manifold and hotter camshafts for faster, higher valve lift. A freer-flowing exhaust system makes sure no horsepower is lost to back pressures, while stiffer valve springs handle the heavier workload.

There are wide,low-profile Michelin Pilot tires on 17-inch wheels, plus tauter springs and shocks. Huge, 13.2-inch brake discs up front (1 .8 inches at the rear) allow handling and braking qualities several hundred reflexes beyond anybody not on a career path with Michael Schumacher.

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Financial changes are equally striking: Bread-and-bratwurst C280s list for $35,000, but you’ll pay $52,750 for its big brother that rumbles. That’s a healthy hike for the privilege of getting behind the wheel of a European stock car, particularly when priorities of the motoring majority are aimed squarely at the carriage of groceries, carpoolers and beloved buddies. That could explain why Mercedes-Benz will ship only 1,500 C43s to these shores over the next three years.

All the power in the world, of course,means next to naught if it turns the car into something you might name El Diablo. Hence those big wheels and grabbier rubber, a wider track, a beautifully disciplined multi-link suspension, and ride height lowered by an inch. No matter the pace and drama of the maneuvering, this car responds with remarkable balance and a firm hold on long, high-speed sweepers that suggests each wheel is really an electromagnet.

If there is any bias, it is toward the suburbs and the C43’s role as a carrier of senior managers, kith, kinsfolk and all their clobber. It is neither as light nor as nimble as BMW’s M-Class.Nor is it as raucous, or as good-looking in a tank top, as the Mustang Cobra.

The five-speed automatic runs from rest to reckless with imperceptible shifting, although steering seems a little leaden and weighted more for thundering down interstates than for bopping lock-to-lock around Los Angeles Crest. In typical Mercedes fashion, the car lacks few personal luxuries short of a fireplace and a Gateway 2000. In fact, the only options are a phone and a CD changer.

Now forget mom and pop. Slap the C43’s flanks and here’s a four-door that fears few Porsches, even fewer BMWs,and no Jaguar or Lexus alive today. It motors with a thirsty fury and a soundtrack that should be available at Tower Records.

In that mode, not exactly a perfect car for the ’90s family.

But certainly for any black sheep lurking there.

1998 Mercedes-Benz C43 AMG

The Good: Race-tuned V-8 adds speed shop muscle to Mercedes-Benz safety and luxury. One of the fastest sedans, definitely the best handling four-door in the world, and with plates for brakes to handle all that pace. But no high- performance harshness in a vehicle equally at home crossing town in commuter traffic.

The Bad: Pricey and thirsty.

The Ugly: Only 1,500 will be shipped.

Cost Base, and as tested: $52,750. (Includes dual front and side air bags, automatic air-conditioning, 17-inch monoblock alloy wheels, five-speed automatic transmission, Bose sound system with CD, 10-way power seats, power windows, doors and mirrors, leather seats with multicontour adjustment, walnut trim, cruise control, keyless entry and alarm, telescoping wheel, and power sunroof.)

Engine 4.3-liter, 24-valve, V-8 developing 302 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, front-drive, high-performance luxury sedan.

Performance 0-60 mph, as tested, 5.8 seconds, with automatic. Top speed, electronically governed, 155 mph. Fuel consumption, measured average, mostly highway, 16 mpg.

Curb Weight 3,461 pounds.

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