In the duke-it-out near-luxe segment of the car business, Mercedes-Benz has reloaded for the 2005 model year.

That means the C-Class sedans, coupes and wagon get a new look and new features. They went on sale earlier this summer.

"The competitive landscape is tough," Bart Herring, C-Class product manager for Mercedes-Benz USA, said recently in San Jose. "We have to have something to talk about every year."

Oh, and how's a $54,000 C-Class sedan with a 368-horsepower V-8 engine for something to talk about?

But while the C55 AMG that arrived last month is for a select few -- Mercedes says it'll sell about 1,200 of them during the second half of this year -- the raison d'être of the C-Class is to attract first-time buyers to Mercedes-Benz.

That's why the cheapest 2005 C-Class sedan, the C230 Sport sedan, starts at $29,250.

And the C240 wagon starts at $34,150.

And the C230 Kompressor coupe is the cheapest one of all, starting at $25,850.

"It's a great time to buy a car in that segment," Herring said. Longtime favorites such as the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Lexus ES 300 have been joined by newcomers such as the Infiniti G35, Acura TL and Chrysler 300C.

The result? More competition and stable prices.

Mercedes-Benz's U.S. sales have grown tremendously in the past decade, from 61,899 in 1993 to 218,117 in 2003. And the C-Class has been a primary factor of that sales success, as its sales have grown from about 15,000 units a year in the early '90s to more than 60,000 units in 2002 and 2003.

"It's been outstanding if you consider where we are in the life cycle," Herring said.

This generation of C-Class arrived in September 2000 as a 2001 model. But, according to Herring, it was the January 2003 introduction of C-Class Sport models that really turned heads.

Before that, C-Class cars were cheaper, smaller versions of the E- and S-Class models -- cars known for their engineering, festooned in wood and leather and equipped with automatic transmissions.

Those cars still exist, and they still attract about half of the C-Class buyers. Mercedes identifies them as "luxury" models, but doesn't give them badges that say that. "This is a customer we know well," he said.

But, with the Sport models -- which do get "Sport" badges -- and the changes in them for the 2005 model year, the appeal has now shifted to what Herring describes as driving enthusiasts.

"This is the customer who wants a little bit stronger driving dynamics, sportier feel, more aggressive styling," he said.

The 2005 C-Class Sport sedans -- the C230 Sport ($29,250) and the C320 Sport ($37,350) -- borrow exterior styling from the C32 AMG car that ends production this year. They come with lowered and specially tuned suspensions, bigger drilled and ventilated brakes, 17-inch all oy wheels and high-performance tires. On the inside, the Sport models have special three-spoke steering wheels, aluminum pedals, aluminum trim and chrome gauge rings, bolstered sport seats and six-speed manual transmissions.

The Sport and luxury models are different enough that they "polarize" customers, and that's just what Mercedes wants, Herring said. This year, they even produced different product brochures for Sport and luxury C-Class buyers.

And, as everyone from Saturn (Red Line) and Cadillac (V-Series) to Acura (A-Spec) have joined the game where BMW and Mercedes have long played with their M and AMG models, sportiness is "in."

And, while the Sport models add a bit of performance feel to the C-Class lineup, nothing will compare to the C55 AMG. It's a super sedan featuring a hand-built 5.5-liter V-8 that makes 362 horsepower.

Its styling, from the windshield forward, is borrowed from the CLK55 AMG model, Herring said. In fact, AMG enginee s had to lengthen the C-Class chassis by 80 millimeters to fit in the V-8 engine.

Priced at $53,900, it went on sale last month.

In other C-Class news:

* Wagons. The C240 wagon ($34,150) is now the only wagon in the lineup because the C320 wagon has been dropped. The interest in wagons seems to be growing, Herring said, but sales "still are not performing the way we all thought it would."

* All-wheel drive. Available on C-Class luxury sedans and wagons, the Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel-drive system is a full-time system that doesn't require any driver action to activate. It costs $1,200 as part of an option package that includes heated front seats.

* Coupe. The two C-Class coupes -- the C230 Kompressor ($25,850) and the C320 ($28,250) -- get all the changes made to the other C-Class models including a new dashboard with a four-gauge instrument cluster, new seats and chrome trim.