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The Mercedes-Benz C-Class brings the three-pointed star to the rest of us, with sedans starting at less than $30,000. The C-Class brings more than the three-pointed star to the table, however.
The C320 sedan, for example, is a delight to drive with its sporty engine, responsive transmission, and perfect balance of ride quality and handling. Inside, it looks and feels like a Mercedes with high-quality materials and firm, supportive seats. Meanwhile, the price-leading C230 sport coupe continues to attract first-time Mercedes buyers with its combination of style, space, and features.
For 2003, the C-Class has been expanded to nine models, which includes sedans, wagons, and sport coupes. Two new sports sedans join the 2003 line, along with a new high-powered sport coupe, and a value-priced wagon. 2003 C240 and C320 sedans and wagons are available with 4MATIC all-wheel drive. Also, the supercharged four-cylinder engine that powers the C230 sport coupe has been redesigned for better efficiency and lower emissions.
C-Class has good bones, with exterior styling inspired by the big, luxurious S-Class sedan, technology shared with the latest E-Class, and an interior design all its own. Redesigned for model year 2002, the C-Class has been enjoying strong sales, particularly in the United States.
C240 sedan ($29,900) is powered by a 168-horsepower 2.6-liter V6 with three valves per cylinder. C240 is well-equipped, with leather seat inserts, eight-way power seats with power adjustable head rests, manual tilt and telescope steering column, power windows, cruise control, a seven-speaker audio system with weatherband, Tele-aid communications, hand-polished laurel-wood trim and 16-inch aluminum wheels.
C320 sedan ($35,200) is powered by a 215-horsepower 3.2-liter version of the same V6. C320 comes standard with the five-speed automatic and a higher level of luxury amenities, including automatic climate control, Bose 10-speaker stereo, reading lamps, 10-way power seats, and a power-adjustable steering column. But most important, with more power on tap, the C320 is more satisfying to drive.
C-Class wagons are available in C320 ($36,700) and the new C240 ($31,400) trim. These are the smallest station wagons Mercedes has ever imported to the United States, yet they successfully combine sporty styling and good cargo room, perfect for that big dog (though we recommend a dog fence for safety). A six-speed manual transmission is standard on the wagons.
For 2003, C-Class sedans and wagons are available with 4MATIC all-wheel drive ($1800), a big benefit in slippery conditions.
C230 sport coupe is a hatchback, the first such design in Mercedes history. C230 sport coupe ($24,950) shares the 106.9-inch wheelbase of the C-Class sedans and wagons, but is substantially shorter overall. The sport coupe features a radical roofline, aggressive front end and sassy styling all its own. A glass panel between the tail lights contributes to rearward visibility and gives it a distinctive appearance. Inside, the sport coupe features aluminum trim instead of traditional wood. C230 is available with an optional Panoramic roof, nearly all glass from windshield to rear spoiler. Press a button, and the forward part of the roof retracts back over the rearward part, for open-air motoring. Powering this little rocket is a 1.8-liter twin-overhead-cam 16-valve inline-4 pumped up to 189 horsepower by a supercharger and intercooler.
Two new sports sedans are available for 2003, distinguished by more aggressive suspension tuning, body cladding, aluminum interior trim, seven-spoke 17-inch wheels with high performance tires, the six-speed manual transmission, and thickly bolstered front sport seats. The C320 sports sedan ($35,200) uses the same 3.2-liter V6 engine as the C320 sedan. The C230 Kompressor sedan ($27,990) is powered by the same supercharged 1.8-liter inline-4 as the C230 coupe.
For 2003, there's a new C320 sport coupe ($27,300) packing the 3.2-liter V6 engine and similar sports equipment to the new sports sedans.
C32 AMG is the hot rod of the C-Class family. Offered only as a sedan, the C32 AMG adds a Lysholm positive-displacement supercharger to the 3.2-liter V6, boosting output to 349 horsepower and 332 pounds-feet of torque. C32 AMG boasts its own SpeedShift version of the five-speed automatic gearbox, plus unique exterior decor and interior trim, special suspension and brakes, and larger tires and wheels. In fact, the C32 AMG is one of the quickest and fastest four-door cars in the world. It is also priced substantially out of the entry-luxury segment ($50,400).
The Mercedes C-Class cars offer a perfect balance between ride and handling, nice steering and excellent brakes.
We found the C320 sedan smooth and quiet in normal driving. Step on it and the engine growls to life. The 3.2-liter V6 works great in this car, with 221 foot-pounds of torque available from 3000 to 4600 rpm. Torque is that force that propels you away from intersections and the C320 has a healthy supply.
C320's suspension is a perfect balance of ride and handling. Damping is excellent. There's no bouncing after hitting a dip in the road. The C240 sedan is priced attractively, but it's the weakest engine in the line and feels short on power. The C320 is a much more satisfying ride.
The C320 wagon weighs little more than the sedan with the same engine, and is a high-style, high-function piece.
The specifications for the C230 sport coupe (189 horsepower and 192 pounds-feet of torque) don't sound exciting by today's standards, but the performance of the supercharged engine is impressive. Mercedes-Benz claims the C230 coupe can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in just 7.2 seconds with the six-speed manual transmission, and 7.5 seconds with the adaptive five-speed automatic. That's reasonably quick. The supercharged, intercooled four-cylinder engine makes pleasant mechanical and exhaust sounds (as opposed to noises), and it looks like mechanical sculpture under the hood. The supercharger is nearly transparent in its operation.
The Touch Shift automatic that comes on the C-Class cars shifts crisply, adding to the sporty driving experience. There's no need to use the manual feature at all because the automatic works so well, responsive and very smooth. It's adaptive, which means, if you drive it gently, it will upshift more quickly and reward you with excellent gas mileage (up from 22/29 mpg city/highway last year to 23/32 for 2003). If you're constantly on the throttle, it will learn that you like to drive quickly and will hold itself in each gear for more sprightly acceleration.
Moving the transmission lever into the manual mode allows the driver to shift down or up one gear with each movement of the lever. Hold the lever to left for more than a second and it shifts all the way down to the lowest appropriate gear for the speed you're traveling. Hold it to the right and it shifts back up to Drive. Stop and it automatically shifts down to first. Accelerate away and it shifts back up to the highest gear selected, a good strategy for using third gear when driving around town.
The substantial weight of the C230 sport coupe shows up in its handling, where it feels heavy compared to a BMW. The rack-and-pinion power steering, the sports seats, and the beefy steering wheel make you feel like you're in command, and if you start to lose your command of the situation, the standard ESP stability control system will put things right in a trice. The standard tilt and telescope steering column provides an extra measure of adjustability that some cars in this class don't even offer.
The P205/55R16 tires that come standard on most C-Class models are relatively grippy and very quiet at highway speeds. (Optional 17-inch wheels with low-profile 225/45R17 tires are available.) All in all, the sport coupe is good fun to drive.
Mercedes-Benz puts as much effort into its braking systems as some makers put into their whole cars, and it shows immediately in the driving. All C-Class models use large 11.8-inch discs up front and 11.4-inch discs in the rear (except the C32 AMG, whose brakes are even larger), with Electronic Brake force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist (BA) that senses when you are having a panic attack, provides extra braking, and then switches automatically into ABS mode if conditions warrant. The brakes are progressive in pedal feel, and enormously powerful in bad situations.
Once a driver learns how to use the steering-wheel-mounted controls for the driver information, audio and telephone systems, there'
The C-Class cars offer Mercedes quality and engineering at Acura prices. The sedans feel as upmarket and classy as mid-scale Mercedes sedans felt just a few years back. Smooth and sophisticated, the C-Class sedans deliver strong performance and comfortable accommodations. We dig the C320 sedan.
The Mercedes-Benz C230 sport coupe offers a nearly unbeatable combination of price, visual impact, and utility (38.1 cubic feet of storage space with the rear seats folded down). Wagons drive just like the sedans and offer 63 cubic feet of cargo space.