Mercedes C-Class Is Sexy, Modern Killer in Commuter Wars: Cars
Feb. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Commuters, pick your weapons. We all know that charging to and fleeing from work is a daily battle, executed in the dawn and dusk, and made even worse by winter weather.
The goal isn't just to survive but to thrive in the crush of highways and fender-banging foxholes of city streets. If your budget is less than $45,000, you need the perfect small arm, the auto equivalent of an AK-47.
BMW's 3 Series is a stalwart, of course; Cadillac's revamped CTS is suddenly a contender; and, since its introduction in 1993, there's been the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
There are great expectations on the fourth-generation C- Class's attractive new shoulders. The manufacturer has had serious reliability issues, and as its entry-level luxury sedan, the C-Class is likely to make or break the loyalty of new customers.
I recently drove the C350 Sport and rear-wheel-drive C300, yet I most wanted to test the lousy-weather-appropriate all- wheel-drive.
All-wheel-drive (4Matic in Mercedes's parlance) is available on both the ``sport'' and ``luxury'' C300 models (though not the more powerful C350). The premium for AWD on the sport model is about $3,200, and the option weighs an extra 145 pounds. Both downsides. Upsides are greater survivability on ice-skimmed roads and better holding power through curves.
The C-Class's new look is modern and energized, a face-lift that brings it in line with Mercedes's sexier models. The days when the C-Class had the three-point star floating upright on its hood are long gone. The lines are bolder and the stance more assured. Someone in his 20s or 30s won't feel like he's borrowing a great-uncle's sedan.
Like the Army, which now gives a beret to every soldier rather than just the elite Special Forces, you can buy the aggressive look of an AMG without anteing up AMG dollars. The C300 Sport has AMG-style body cladding, with snappy under-door rocker panels and cool details in the lower front fascia.
The rear looks great, too, with beautiful taillights and a raised lip on the trunk.
Power comes from a 3.0-liter V-6 engine, with 228 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque. (The C350 delivers 268 horses.) The seven-speed automatic transmission is standard on the 4Matic and has a sport and comfort mode. There are no steering-wheel-mounted paddles or buttons, yet you can manually upshift or downshift by pushing the gear lever to the right or left.
Whenever you opt for an AWD, you sacrifice a bit of performance purity, losing that unruly feeling of being pushed from behind. And the rear-wheel-drive C300 seems more powerful off the line. Still, the AWD retains a slight rear-wheel bias, and it will keep moving even if only a single wheel finds traction.
The 4Matic is as stable as Dr. Phil when the road gets wobbly and acquits itself especially well in corners, pulling through with gusto. The car is library-quiet at steady throttle, though it does have a nice, if not rowdy, engine note when you hammer the gas.
I take it to a wet parking lot, curious if I can get it to slip and slide a bit. In many cars, the electronic traction control will cut off power to all wheels when you try to induce a slide, yet the C300 still manages to make a hard, slip-slide U-turn if you stay on the gas and off the brake -- a testament that engineers wanted to retain a bit of genuine sportiness.
Otherwise it sticks to the road when plowing through ice patches and sprinkles of snow. Outfit the C300 4Matic with winter tires, and it would sail through formidable weather.
So the C300 handles the cruel outside world just fine. Inside, it has Mercedes's eight-way power front seats and lumbar support. A leather upgrade is a $1,550 option.
The multimedia package, at $2,950, includes a retractable screen that rises out of the dash. The navigation system is easy to program, though I cannot find an auxiliary channel for my MP3 player (Mercedes says you can play an MP3 without the $375 iPod integration kit).
The instrument cluster and dash are handsome, yet they lack the supremely thought-out charm of the new Cadillac CTS, which handily wins the Battle of the Interior. (Who could have imagined saying that two years ago?) In the overall War of the Wheels, the BMW 3 Series still has the edge.
The new Mercedes is longer and wider, and the back seat is fairly accommodating; co-workers should be willing to sit there in exchange for access to the high-occupancy vehicle lane.
All in all, Mercedes has raised its game to stay in the game. The base price on the C300 4Matic is about $35,000, and when well optioned about $44,000, the price of my tester. Consider it a fine weapon to add to a commuter's arsenal.
The 2008 Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport 4Matic at a Glance
Engine: 3.0-liter V-6 with 228 horsepower and 221 pound- feet of torque.
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 in 7.2 seconds.
Price as tested: $44,565 (base $35,665).
Best features: Handsome new exterior; the stable ride.
Worst feature: A few of those luxury options, like leather seats and satellite radio, could be standard.
Target buyer: The daily driver looking for a war-worthy commuter vehicle.