Mercedes' Classy C-Class

The Baby Benz has grown up nicely but still retains its youthful vigor

You've come a long way, baby. Baby Benz, that is.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the original Mercedes-Benz 190, a little car that led to some big changes, not only in Stuttgart, but across the entire automotive industry.

Whether or not to launch such a small car led to "an intense debate," recalls Juergen Hubbert, the former boss of the Teutonic brand, and a man known to many as "Dr. Mercedes." Back in the early 1980s, the definition of a luxury car was rigid and narrowly defined, perhaps best personified by the likes of the big Benz S-Class and slightly smaller E-Class. A compact? Verboten, argued the traditionalists. But in the wake of the second Mideast oil crisis, consumers were clamoring for something smaller and more fuel-efficient, and the radicals won.

It's easy to understand why there were so many folks inside Mercedes worried about the baby Benz. It was more than just a downsized S-Class - or perhaps less, if you prefer. On the most basic 190 models, there were cloth seats with mechanical adjusters and none of the electronic and mechanical niceties you normally associate with a Mercedes. Wood and leather yielded to inexpensive plastic. The exterior design was clunky and awkward, and the interior layout was unpleasantly inefficient, with virtually no leg room for back seat passengers.

Yet despite its drawbacks, the baby Benz proved an immediate hit with consumers around the world. It quickly demonstrated that size alone is not the measure of a luxury car. And at Mercedes, that led to a dramatic change in strategy. Back in the early '80s, you could count the marque's various models on one hand. Today, you'll run short of fingers and toes, with a range that includes the classic S- and E-; the 190's descendant, the C-Class; the SL, SLK and SLR; the CL and CLK; and, well, the list just keeps going.

Firmly luxury

Today's C-Class is firmly planted in the luxury firmament, and while it lags a bit behind its BMW counterpart, the 3-Series, it's one of Mercedes' best-sellers, accounting for over a half-million sales, worldwide, in 2001. The numbers have slipped by a third since that peak, not entirely surprising as the outgoing C-Class has come to the end of its lifecycle. Now a new, fourth-generation C-Class is making its debut, and to see if it can regain its momentum, hitched a ride over to Valencia, Spain , to spend a couple days behind the wheel.

A sirocco was blowing hard as we landed along the Mediterranean coast - no, not the sporty little Volkswagen, but the intense winds that blast out of Northern Africa and sweep across Southern Europe. The terra cotta roof tiles at our hotel were ripping off with frightening regularity, firing like cannon through upper floor windows, but somehow, the line of cars Mercedes had set out for us survived the onslaught.

For 2008, the automaker will initially offer seven different powertrain packages worldwide, including the gasoline-sipping C180, the peppy C350, and an assortment of high-mileage diesels. Though not on hand for the media preview, we were assured that a high-performance AMG model will follow soon.

For U.S. buyers, the powertrain line-up will be severely curtailed, limited to the C300 and C350 V-6s and, eventually, the AMG. We're also hoping that Mercedes, bent on rebuilding the American market for diesel, will bring over one of those oil-burners as well.

Twin personalities

Braving the winds and blowing debris, we carefully circled the line-up of C-Class sedans and were struck by the fact that the cars had two distinctly different faces. For traditionalists, there's the Elegance, which sports the traditional, frame-and-crossbar Mercedes grille along with the classic tri-star hood ornament. The alternative has been dubbed the Avantgarde, and it's heavily influenced by Mercedes' flagship sports car, the SLR, with three knife-sharp crossbars for a grille, a massive tri-star framed in the center.

Hoping not to confuse matter, for the U.S. , the Elegance will be offered as the C300 Luxury, while the Avantgarde becomes both the C300 and C350 Sport. There will also be a 4Matic version of the C300.

Beyond the distinctions between Elegance and Avantgarde , the new car is more curvaceous than the outgoing C-Class, with a sweeping roofline that owes a bit to the CLS, the "coupe-like sedan" that is easily the most beautiful model in the entire Mercedes lineup. The hood is long and muscular, an image enhanced by flaring wheel wells. The decklid is tall, a must for good aerodynamics, but without that ungainly bulge that weakens the overall feel of BMW's counterpart 3-Series. Mercedes engineers came up with a neat little trick: ventilating rear taillights that replace what would have been awkward rear spoiler lips.

Significantly, "We have stopped the trend towards excess weight," explains Dr. Michael Kramer, the man in charge of product development. "The new C-Class is bigger, but not heavier, than its predecessor." That's especially remarkable considering the new car is a full 76 millimeters, about three inches, wider than the '07 model. Yet Mercedes claims fuel economy has been maintained or improved on every one of the various powertrain packages.

Though Mercedes has tried to keep things simple for American buyers, it adds a little complication with an optional AMG suspension package. From behind the wheel, you'll spot the telltale push-button on the center stack that lets you switch from a sporty but firm ride to something a little bit softer.

Along with the distinctive grilles, Mercedes has two different cabin configurations, one for Elegance/Luxury, the other for Avantgarde/Sport, though they're largely limited to subtleties in color and material. The American Sport model, for example, uses bright aluminum accent pieces, for example, along with perforated aluminum pedals, and gets a three-spoke wheel. The classic package is softer, with less brightwork, with a four-spoke steering wheel.

In the monotone package, the expanse of plastic on the instrument panel can be a little overwhelming. The two-tone combination is a marked improvement. But either way, both interiors are notable improvements over the outgoing C-Class, with an extremely attractive three-gauge cluster that looks both elegant and expensive. A nice touch is the new, pop-up LCD screen that is used to operate a variety of vehicle functions, including the optional navigation system. For last year's S-Class remake, Mercedes developed a new COMAND operating system. It is simpler and, to our mind, much easier to learn and use, than the BMW iDrive. The updated system is now used in the C-Class.

No stick allowed

We spent nearly two days driving the new C-Class, though that was only enough time to split between a C350 Sport with the AMG suspension and a C350 Sport with a standard suspension - which, it should be noted, has been updated for 2008. Up front, there are coil spring struts with two-piece control arms. In back, the new C-Class gets a five-link suspension. There are gas shocks and stabilizer bars fore and aft.

Tap the start button, and the sedan fires up with a confident roar. We shift the seven-speed automatic into gear and immediately feel the 258 lb-ft of torque. The 3.5-liter V-6 is a solid piece of engineering, reliable and quick, making a solid, if not segment benchmark 268 horsepower. (For those interested in fuel economy, Mercedes has yet to lock down EPA-certified numbers. But we're told to expect mileage at least as good as the outgoing, 2007 model, which comes in at 20 mpg city, 29 highway.)

We must admit being disappointed by Mercedes' decision not to offer a stick on the C350. If you're wedded to a manual, opt for the C300, with its 3.0-liter V-6 making a still-sporty 228 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque. We can only hope the Germans will eventually add a version of this six-speed stick to the C350 option list.

The 3.5-liter V-6 launches like a cat. It is quick and confident, boasting 0-60 times of 6.3 seconds, with an electronically-limited top speed of 130 mph.

Our C350 whips through a series of traffic circles and one of the first impressions is just how flat the cabin sits. The AMG suspension in our first test car is simply quite remarkable. It does mean a trade-off in terms of ride comfort on harsh roads, but on the smooth tarmac outside Valencia , we can barely tell the difference.

Later on our drive, when we switch to a standard suspension car, we immediately notice more body roll. The car isn't quite as predictable going into corners and you can clearly hear the tires work harder as we race through some hill-country turns. Our conclusion: with the AMG suspension package, the new C-Class does a good judge chasing its arch-rival, the 3-Series. It's not quite there, but darned close, and the added level of refinement of the Mercedes is likely to win over fence-straddling buyers.

Towards the end of this year, Mercedes promises to go a step further, launching a new Advanced Agility System, which will feature three-mode electronically-adjustable damping valves, reinforced torsion bars, more direct steering, an adaptive gearbox, and lower ride height.

No stripper

In keeping with current trends, the new C-Class is a far cry from the spartan baby Benz. Along with electronic suspension controls and the optional navigation system, there are all the luxury features you'd expect, like power leather seats, and plenty of standard and optional electronics.

Start the list with an audiophile's delight Harmon Kardon Logic7 sound system. Add Adaptive Braking, borrowed from the new S-Class, an intelligent light system that can bend into corners and be adjusted to adapt to country roads or high-speed Autobahns. The Pre-Safe system, which intuits and responds to a potential accident, is also an option.

Standard safety features include six airbags, active head restraints, and extra-large side mirrors with built-in blinkers.

Prices won't be announced until later this year, but we were told the goal was to maintain the numbers at current levels. If that proves accurate, expect a base C350 at around $40,000, and the C300 around $35,000 (a bit more than the current C280).

The original baby Benz was a real eye-opener in its day. The sedan didn't quite live up to luxury expectations, but it certainly stretched the design envelope and helped transform industry boundaries.

The new, fourth-generation C-Class is just about everything earlier buyers would have liked: it's stylish, swift and lavishly-equipped, even without all the option packages. While BMW still sets the benchmark for small and sporty, the new C- gives good chase, and it's hard to find anything more elegant in its class. Considering all the competition, it may be difficult for Mercedes to match the record sales numbers of 2001, but if any car can capture the heart, mind, and pocketbook of entry-luxury buyers, the new C-Class is it.

2008 Mercedes-Benz C350

Base price: $40,000 (est.)

Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 268 hp/258 lb-ft

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 182.1 x 69.7 x 57.0 in

Wheelbase: 108.7 in

Curb weight: 3615 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 20/29 mpg (est.)

Major standard features: Air conditioning; power windows/locks/mirrors; AM/FM/CD/satellite radio; keyless remote; cruise control; power tilt/telescope steering wheel; engine immobilizer; alloy wheels; leather power seats

Safety features: Anti-lock brakes, traction, and stability control; dual front, side, and curtain airbags

Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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