Baby Benz gets a new attitude.

by Bengt Halvorson

As I took my first drive in a new C320, a weekend jaunt on a fine stretch of two-lane that snakes tightly over the Cascade Mountains, I pondered a car that, to me, is a bit at odds with its subtle, understated advertising campaign.

The “Live. A Lot” ad campaign that we’ve all seen previews the new C-Class as a car for younger baby boomers to splurge on and maybe hold on to their youth. But the initial feel from behind the wheel was more that of a spirited, driver’s car, rather than the stylish and practical, albeit a bit stolid and reserved feel I got from experiences with the old C. Truth is, the C-Class has changed a lot, and even if M-B doesn’t necessarily want to think of the new C as a BMW chaser, it’s going to steal some sales away from its German rival.

Personality makeover

At first glance, the C-Class retains a similar outward appearance to the car that it replaces, but at second glance you begin noticing subtle but dramatic changes in the new car. The near lack of any front overhang, and a long, sloped windshield are the most apparent changes, as well as a more raked appearance to the grille and headlights, the unusual headlight shape reminding me of the shape one might see in a lava lamp when those gooey globules are fusing together. From every angle, the new C is sharper and more curvaceous.

Mercedes-Benz attests that it didn’t forget about safety with the C-Class’s bent toward a sportier image. Dual-stage front airbags, side curtain airbags, and side door airbags for front and rear are standard. Dynamically, the company’s Electronic Stability Program (ESP) continues to be standard on all Mercedes-Benz models for 2001. The system incorporates various sensors, including yaw sensors, to determine when there’s a loss in driver control and correct for it using the throttle and anti-lock braking system. Also standard is the unique Brake Assist system, which assures that full braking force is delivered during panic braking.

While the C240 has a more refined and powerful 168-hp, 2.6-liter V-6 engine for this year, replacing a four-cylinder as the base engine, the C320 replaces the former C280 as the upscale model, featuring a 215-hp, 3.2-liter V-6. The 3.2-liter in the C320 is essentially the same engine that appears across the M-B line, in the CLK320, SLK320, E320, and ML320. The all-aluminum, single overhead cam engine has three valves and two spark points per cylinder.

Lacking manual control

Although a six-speed manual transmission is available in the base C240 model, the C320 only offers an automatic transmission. M-B officials said that there are no plans to bring the manual transmission to the 320, mainly due to a lack of market demand, but also the 3.2-liter makes more torque than the manual transmission, in its current configuration, could support reliably with this platform.

Fortunately, the automatic is one of the best I’ve ever tested in terms of being able to guess what gear I want by the movements of my right foot. The adaptable five-speed automatic copes with hills extremely well by automatically changing its shift pattern for the conditions and the driver’s throttle habits - so well that I seldom found a need to manually select the gears. When I did, I found the Touch Shift feature easy to use. From “Drive” on the selector, you simply just nudge the shift lever to the left to downshift and to the right to upshift. The Touch Shift mode is quick to provide downshifts but can be quite sluggish to perform upshifts.

The 3.2-liter engine and five-speed automatic give the C320 plenty of gusto for spirited driving. The flexibility of the engine and uncanny ability of the transmission to grab the right gear and go gives it even better passing power than M-B’s estimated 0-60 time of 6.9 seconds would indicate. Nevertheless, this mad-dash-to-sixty figure places it within about a half second of BMW’s 330i.

Driving a point home

The C tracks and rides like a much heavier car, but it has quick reflexes and better, more direct handling than the old C-Class. While the new car’s steering has the same on-center, locked-solid-ahead feel as the former car, it’s now a rack-and-pinion setup that gives just a bit more kickback to the driver’s hands off-center, which any driving enthusiast will welcome. Overall, the C-Class’s front suspension is of an all-new lower-link-and strut design, while the rear suspension is a further iteration of the familial multi-link setup that other M-B cars use in the rear. Since my drive time with the C320 was only on public roads, I didn’t get a chance to experience the limits of adhesion, but from what I gathered, the new car feels more forgiving and controllable.

The test car’s optional Sport suspension gave it a perfect ride and handling balance, and although it’s expensive, we recommend it. The Sport Package, for $2950, adds firmer shocks and springs, larger-diameter stabilizer bars, 50-series tires on alloy wheels, sport leather seats, front fog lamps, and different front and rear fascias from the base car. It rides firmly, but supply, and road noise is well isolated, so well that even the coarsest pavement surfaces fail to make themselves heard. With the Sport suspension, mid-corner bumps are wondrously absorbed without any significant body motion, yet a light kickback of the steering wheel reminds you of them.

The brakes are superb. Mercedes-Benz boasts about them, and for good reason. C-Class models get upgraded to larger discs and a revised cooling-fin design for 2001, along with a more powerful booster system. Pedal feel is firm and progressive, with absolutely no sign of fade while driving down the side of a mountain.

The interior appointments in the C320 are mostly top notch, a mix of the traditional and the new. Some of the plastics aren’t of any better quality than what you would find in a base VW, which isn’t altogether a bad thing nowadays. Another thing that people really take note of is the bold, rounded-and-creased design treatment of the dashboard area, accomplished tastefully with good-quality materials. The grid-textured, matte-aluminum interior trim that comes with the Sport Package is very attractive, and to me it fits better with the C’s interior treatment than the standard Laurel wood trim.

Interior departure

Instrumentation has really changed for the new C as compared to Merc tradition. The traditional Mercedes-Benz configuration with central speedometer, tachometer to the right, and temp and fuel gauges to the left has been replaced with a slightly recessed, broad-arc speedometer as the centerpiece, with the tachometer and fuel gauge as smaller arcs to the left and right, respectively. All of the C320’s controls and displays were intuitive, simple, and easy to use, except for the complicated dual-range climate controls that are a bit counterintuitive at first use. The steering wheel now has buttons that can control features of the sound system, telephone, and trip computer. A tilt adjustment for the steering wheel is now standard and offered on the C-Class for the first time. Also, the new Smart Key system is now offered on the C-Class, a fully electronic key system that memorizes individual information about seating position, climate-control settings, and mirror settings for each key.

Without a doubt, the new C’s greatest weakness is one retained from the last-generation car: rear-seat room. Despite dimensions that would suggest adequate room for rear-seat passengers, real, usable space for adult-size rear passengers just isn’t there, at least not enough for longer trips. Part of the reason why the rear seats seem so cramped is that there isn’t enough space to fit feet under the front seat ahead. When passengers do manage to get their legs and feet in, they sometimes have an even harder time getting out. One average-sized passenger’s feet became stuck under the front seat until it was moved well forward.

Mercedes-Benz has pitched the new C-Class as a model that comes very well equipped in $29,950 (C240) entry-level form, with our C320 test car optioned up to $44,735 from the $36,950 base price. Now that the base-model C240 has essentially the same smooth V-6 engine, it’s hard not to wonder how many people are going to opt to pay the seven-grand premium for the C320. Aside from 47 more horsepower, the C320 adds power seats and a premium sound system as standard. Otherwise, the options list remains pretty much the same for the two cars, with the same Sport Package available on the cheaper C240.

Most options on the C-Class are bundled into so-called “Value Added Packages.” In addition to the Sport Package, our C320 test car had xenon headlamps, an $850 option, and the $1340 package that includes the Rain Sensor windshield, along with a glass sunroof and electric rear-window sunshade. Other options available include an integrated Timeport cellphone system (made portable via a special handset in the center console), packaged with an integrated CD changer as a $1795 option, a ski package with split-fold seats for $425, an onboard GPS navigation system with the COMAND interface, for $2035, and headlamp washers and heated front seats for $800. Premium leather upholstery and metallic paint are stand-alone options, at $1375 and $625, respectively. The bottom line of this: A generous helping from the options list could easily put the sticker price on the high side of $45,000, nearly that of a base E320.

The lure of style

The last C-Class was originally supposed to lure in younger, baby boomer buyers, but the C’s design was just a little too staid and traditional, despite efforts in the last two years to give the car more power and a sportier appearance. This time around, the C-Class has a little more personality of its own, a good thing because target buyers are probably looking for something a little more fun to drive. With the swoopy C-Class coupe coming next summer, M-B may manage to sway a few more fringe BMW voters. The only thing that’s missing is a 4Matic option to compete, feature-wise, with all-wheel-drive systems offered by Audi and BMW.

Taking everything about the car into consideration, the C320 just seems like the best compromise for most drivers shopping at the pricey end of the now-crowded entry luxury market. While the BMW remains choice for serious enthusiast drivers and the IS300 remains a thoroughly competent, albeit toy-like, anime-influenced, racer, the C-Class is the standout car of choice that will give comfort and safety for the daily commuter grind and still be fun to put through the paces on a weekend jaunt in the mountains.

2001 Mercedes-Benz C320 Sport

Base price: $36,950
Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 215 hp
Transmission: five-speed automatic with Touch Shift
Wheelbase: 106.9 in
Length: 178.3 in
Width: 68.0 in
Height: 55.2 in
Curb weight: 3439 lb
Fuel economy: 19/26 city/highway
Safety equipment: Side door airbags, side curtain airbags, ESP stability control system, TeleAid emergency call system, BabySmart child-seat system, Brake Assist, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Power/memory front seats, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, 10-speaker Bose digital sound system, Twilight Sensor headlights
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

© 2000 The Car Connection

 

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