EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

To those who yearned with Janis Joplin-like passion for a Mercedes-Benz,the 190 class was an answer. But somehow, it never felt like a real Mercedes.Thankfully, with the introduction of the C-class two years ago, Mercedeschanged all that. This car feels like a real Mercedes, albeit one from thepetite section.

Of course, there’s another reason for the C-Class: Mercedes needs to graball those young European-car buyers who are flocking to BMWs. In many ways,this car meets the challenge posed by BMW’s 3 series by giving its drivers acar of a different character.

Available as the 220 or 280, the two models are distinguished by theirpower trains. Opt for the 220 and you’ll find a 2.2-liter 147-horsepowerin-line four under the hood. You’ll thank yourself for stepping up to the280’s more powerful 194-horsepower 2.8-liter in-line six. Both engines featuredouble-overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and direct ignition.

The six is swift and silent, delivering ferocious gobs of power with thedignified manner one expects of a Mercedes. There’s decent initialacceleration, with most power coming on strong at higher speeds. All thispower is fed through an automatic transmission (the only tranny available) andit snicks off the shifts with firm precision.

Handling is similar to the C-Class’s larger, more expensive brethren,meaning it’s real good. Thank Mercedes’ new Sport Package. For a measly $780,you get leather upholstery, special interior and exterior trim, sportssuspension and special wheels and tires. The result is a car that handles wellthrough the corners and all speeds. This car keeps its sublime composure whiletraversing the worst of roads, always unruffled in demeanor.

The sport package might woo a BMW buyer to look, but will he or she buy?This car has a more detached, luxury-oriented feel. It lacks the mechanical,hard-edged impression of its competitor. Yet it handles just as well and iseasier to live with day in and day out. A BMW always wants to play. TheMercedes adjusts its manners to suit your mood.

Inside, the look is functionally elegant. Glossy walnut warms thelight-gray interior. Some surfaces had a lot of hard plastic, but it was allwell assembled. The controls are just as you’d expect in any Mercedes. Biggauges are viewed through a large steering wheel, while audio and climatecontrols accent the center dash. The center console houses window and mirrorswitches. Mercedes’ power door lock switches are in an unusual place, perchedatop the center dash.

The automatic climate control cooled the cabin quickly and the audio systemwas quick to entertain with its outstanding sound. This Bose outfit features atrunk-mounted CD changer.

The firm bucket seats were supportive, if a bit too much so. Leg room ismuch improved over the old 190, as is room in the rest of the cabin. It’salmost spacious. The optional leather upholstery is not as opulent feeling asother kinds, but its durability seems better.

The glass sunroof added to the fun, letting in Old Sol while keeping out alot of wind noise.

But it’s the engineering features that endear a Mercedes to you. Thecupholder is a beautiful example of this. Ditto the power retractableheadrests. Always a leader in safety, Mercedes has dual airbags, anti-lockbrakes, a steel-reinforced cabin, even an engine disable feature thatdisengages the engine if the driver’s door isn’t opened correctly. It’s thelittle touches and stout feel that give you confidence to drive this Germanmachine fast.

When compared to its competition, both German and Japanese, this C is atthe head of its class. A lot of cars handle well, but few have the feel andsolidity of a Mercedes. Fewer still have the heritage, one that makes peopleturn when they see you pull up.

This is the true mission of a luxury car: to make you feel special, likewearing an expensive piece of jewelry or clothing. In that mission, theMercedes C 80 succeeds in a way the 190 never did.

No wonder Janis wanted one.

1997 Mercedes C280 Standard: 2.8-liter double overhead cam in-line six-cylinder engine,four-speed automatic transmission, 195/65R15 tires with alloy wheels,automatic climate control with dust filter, remote locking with trunk release,Bose AM/FM-cassette-CD-weather band eight-speaker audio system, 10-wayadjustable front bucket seats, power windows with express down, burled walnuttrim, beverage holders, vanity mirrors, floor mats, cruise control, dualairbags, four-wheel power assisted disk brakes with anti-lock. Optional: CD changer, glass sunroof, headlamp washers and wipers, SportPackage (leather sport upholstery, sport trim, sport suspension, wheels andtires, adjustable steering column. Base price: $35,250. As tested: $39,435. EPA rating: 19 mpg city, 26 mpg highway. Test mileage: 23 mpg.

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