Mercedes' Classy C

The luxury carmaker's entry-level model gets an upgrade that makes it roomier and more powerfulbut it faces stiff competition

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Roomier, more powerful, and better-looking than the out-going C-Class

The Bad: It isn't a BMW 335i

The Bottom Line: Much improved but faces stiff competition

Up Front

Mercedes-Benz did a nice job of redesigning its entry-level C-Class sedans for the '08 model year. I can only find one major problem with the new cars: They don't match up to the BMW 3 Series coupes and sedans, which got a major redesign last year and are among the finest cars I've ever driven.

Don't get me wrong. Daimler's '08 Mercedes C300 and C350 are marvelous little sedans. But even the Mercedes C350 Sport, the hottest of the new C-Class models, doesn't give you that involuntary shudder of excitement you get when you put the BMW 335i through its paces. It doesn't even quite match the less expensive BMW 328i.

Then again, many buyers won't bother to comparison-shop an entry-level Mercedes with an entry-level BMW because they're now very different cars. As of the '07 model year, BMW dramatically increased the performance of its mainstream models—so much so that the BMW 335i temporarily eclipsed the high performance M versions of the 3-Series. With Mercedes, the mainstream C300 and C350 aren't quite so fast and sporty. You have to pay a lot more for the powerful C63 AMG to beat the blinding speed of a BMW 335i.

That said, the '08 C300 and C350 are 3.5 inches longer and 1.7 inches wider than the previous C-Class sedans, making them noticeably roomier inside. The exterior styling is also more rakish and better-looking.

The new C-Class comes in three trim levels. There are two versions of the C300, which has a 228-horsepower, 3.0-liter, V6 engine: the Sport starting at $31,975 (add $3,240 for the 4Matic all-wheel drive system) and the Comfort starting at $33,675 (add $1,800 for all-wheel drive). The rear-wheel-drive-only C350 Sport, the version of the car I test-drove, has a more powerful 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 and starts at $37,275.

The Sport models come with special shocks, springs, and stabilizer bars that provide a crisper ride. They also have some of the styling of the AMG performance models, such as 17-inch spoked alloy wheels and the characteristic Mercedes "star" (usually only found on coupes and convertibles) on the front grille. The Comfort version of the car has a conventional four-spoked steering wheel and burl walnut interior trim; the Sport models have a sport steering wheel and either aluminum (in the C300) or dark maple (in the C350) trim.

The most expensive option is the Multimedia package, which includes a navigation system and a 6-CD-player sound system with a 30-gigabyte hard drive. You can even download movies and videos and replay them on the little navigation system screen (though not while driving). A $1,350 Premium II package includes 60/40 fold-down rear seats and intelligent fog lights and Xenon headlamps that light the way around curves and corners.

Other options include leather upholstery ("leatherette" is standard) for $1,550, 18-inch AMG-style alloy wheels for $1,000, metallic paint for $710, and a TeleAide emergency assistance system with a one-year subscription for $650.

Under the government's new, more realistic mileage calculations, the C300 is rated to get 18 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway, the C350 Sport 17 and 25. In 313 miles of mixed driving, I got 22.1 in a C350. That's about midway between the two BMWs: I got 25.6 in a BMW 328i Coupe, and 20.8 in a 335i Coupe.

The new C-Class only hit U.S. dealerships in August, so it's too early to know how well it will sell. But Mercedes' overall U.S. sales are holding up well in a tough year, and the C-Class has been one of the company's best performers: Combined C-Class sales were up 11.2%, to 36,184, through the end of August.

Behind the Wheel

Compared with most other sedans, the new C-Class is fast. In accelerating from 0 to 60, I consistently timed the C350 Sport at 6.2 seconds. When you punch the gas on the fly, the big V6 emits an unearthly moan, and the car really takes off. This is far from a sedate vehicle.

However, the C350 still lags its main competitors. I timed the '07 BMW 335i in as little as 4.8 seconds in 0-to-60 runs, Toyota's (TM) Lexus IS350 in 5.2, the Infiniti G35 Sport in 5.5, and the BMW 328i in about 6.

For driving enthusiasts, another negative about the '08 C-Class is that a manual transmission is only available on the C300 Sport. Granted, the sophisticated seven-speed automatic in the C300 Comfort and the C350 Sport has a manual shifting function. But you'd think the C350 would merit an optional stick shift, or at least steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters (Mercedes says paddle shifters will be available on the '09 model).

As with the BMW 3-Series, the new C-Class's interior is nice but far from sumptuous. There's plenty of leg- and headroom in the front seats, but hip space may be tight for heavyset people. The car seems roomier than its size would indicate because the power front seats are versatile. With the driver's seat adjusted all the way down, I had four or five inches of extra head space; with it all the way up, my head was scrunched against the ceiling.

The controls are easy to use. As in a Bimmer, there's a computer-mouse-style knob you use to input commands on the screen on the dash, but there are handy "back" and "cancel" buttons that help you navigate out of confusing situations. There are also easy-to-use steering-wheel controls that allow you to use the phone and sound system and view information on a message board below the speedometer.

My gripes about the new C-Class? Some of the controls are poorly designed. In the dark, I kept hitting the emergency services button when I tried to turn on the reading lamp (both are above the rearview mirror and not adequately lit), and I inadvertently opened the trunk several times by squeezing the key fob too hard while starting the car. Also, I don't understand why you have to pay $375 for an optional kit to be able to navigate through your iPod's menu via the car's entertainment system. An iPod/MP3 player jack is standard, and it seems to me Mercedes could offer that capability for free.

Finally, the sunroof in my test car developed an annoying rattle whenever I headed onto a bumpy gravel road, which just shouldn't happen in a Mercedes

Buy It or Bag It?

Given the choice between the '08 Mercedes C-Class and its main competitors, I would not hesitate to buy a BMW, with my top choice being the 335i. It costs $2,000 or $3,000 more than the C350, but the extra performance is worth it. Otherwise, I'd go with the BMW 328i, which started at about $33,000 in '07, or about four grand less than the C350.

If performance isn't your priority, or if you just covet the cachet of owning a Mercedes, the new C-Class stands up well. The '08 Audi A4 has a similar starting price of about $37,000, while the '08 Lexus IS350 starts at about $1,000 less. The best bargain among the alternative models is probably Nissan's (NSANY) Infiniti G35, which got a major freshening up for '08. It starts at $35,135, about $2,000 less than the C350.

Sheer speed aside, the Mercedes handles about as well as the others. But BMW still has the class act in this segment, as far as I'm concerned.

Click here to see more of the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C350.

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