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The 2006 Mercedes-Benz C-Class lineup has been revised and streamlined, but the C-Class remains the most accessible of all Mercedes cars sold in the United States.
The C-Class hatchback coupes and wagons have been eliminated, and only the sedans remain. No problem here, in our view, because the sedans have always represented the C-Class best. Moreover, the 2006 C-Class is powered by an all-new line of V6 engines, with more horsepower and more advanced technology than before. The luxury models feature a high-tech seven-speed automatic transmission, and the C350 Luxury sedan has the classic Mercedes balance of ride quality and handling. The line also includes sport models for those who want a sportier driving experience, and that's what Mercedes has been emphasizing in its advertising.
Inside, the C-Class cars look and feel like a Mercedes-Benz, with firm, supportive seats and mostly high-quality materials. The C-Class delivers Mercedes engineering and safety technology, with optional all-wheel-drive that will improve traction in wet or wintry conditions.
In short, the C-Class brings the three-pointed Mercedes star to the rest of us, with sedans starting below $30,000, or about the same price as a loaded Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.
New engines for 2006 complement the substantial C-Class updates made just a year ago. Mercedes redesigned the C-Class interior for 2005, freshened the exterior styling and further distinguished the sport models from the standard luxury sedans. A new six-speed manual transmission greatly improved shift action. New paint technology imbeds microscopic ceramic flakes in the clear coat finish, increasing its resistance to chipping and degradation over time.
At the top of the C-Class line, Mercedes introduced the new C55 AMG, an extreme sports sedan that can knock your socks off when you floor the accelerator then pull them back up when you hit the brakes. (Or is it the other way around?)
Mercedes C-Class sales have increased four fold over the past decade, and it doesn't take a degree in marketing to understand why. For those seeking Mercedes-Benz engineering, design strengths and mystique in a mainstream sedan, it doesn't get any easier than the C-Class.
Most of the C-Class is divided into Sport and Luxury models. The Sport models have firmer suspensions, lower ride height and more powerful brakes than the Luxury models. The Sport sedans also have a thick, three-spoke steering wheel, more thickly bolstered front seats and aluminum trim, and are trimmed with aggressive lower body cladding previously reserved for expensive AMG models.
The least-expensive C-Class car is the C230 Sport sedan ($29,200). The C230 is powered by a 2.5-liter version of the new V6, generating 201 horsepower (considerably more than the least powerful C-Class in 2005). It comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission and 17-inch wheels with high-performance tires.
Standard equipment on the C230 Sport sedan includes dual-zone automatic climate control with interior air filtration, leather-faced seats with 10-way power adjustment for driver and front passenger, cruise control, tilt and telescopic steering wheel with redundant audio controls, one-touch power windows and automatic headlamps.
The C280 Luxury sedan ($32,950) comes with the same comfort and convenience items included in the C230. The primary difference is the C280's engine: a 3.0-liter version of the new V6 rated at 228 horsepower. The C280 also comes standard with the industry's first seven-speed automatic transmission, 16-inch wheels and all-season tires, and wood interior trim rather than aluminum.
The C350 Sport sedan ($37,550) and C350 Luxury sedan ($38,150) are both powered by a 3.5-liter V6 generating 268 horsepower. The Sport gets the six-speed manual and larger performance tires; the Luxury version gets the seven-speed automatic and all-season tires. Both add position memory for the seats and mirrors.
Sport models can be equipped with the seven-speed automatic transmission as an option ($1,410). All-wheel drive, which Mercedes calls 4MATIC ($1,800), is available on the C280 and C350 Luxury sedans; 4MATIC comes packaged with heated front seats.
Options for C-Class models include the Sunroof Package ($1,790), which includes a power sunroof, auto-dimming mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, and a universal garage-door. The DVD Navigation system ($2,200) includes a stereo upgrade. Individually priced options include a CD changer ($420), heated front seats ($680), and Tele Aid emergency communications hardware ($820).
The limited-production C55 AMG sedan ($54,450) tops the C-Class line. Powered by a hand-built 5.5-liter V8 rated at 362 horsepower. The C55's Speed Shift five-speed automatic, brakes and suspension are improved to match its prodigious horsepower.
Safety technology is a key component of the Mercedes brand, and every C-Class is equipped with world-class safety features. Among them: Active front head restraints. In the event of a rear collision exceeding the system's deployment threshold, the front head restraints move forward nearly two inches and upward by more than an inch, helping to support the head and reduce whiplash injuries. The C-Class has side-impact airbags for front passengers as well as curtain-style head-protection airbags for front and rear passengers. Rear passenger side-impact airbags ($385) are optional.
The 2006 Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedans have been improved across the board, thanks to a new family of V6 engines.
The least powerful of the new C-Class engines, the 2.5-liter V6 in the C230 Sport sedan, rated at 201 horsepower, offers more power than the supercharged four-cylinder engine it replaces. As important, it is far smoother at all speeds and generally less course in feel, sound or the amount of vibration it generates.
The 228-hp 3.0-liter V6 in the C280 Luxury sedan is much more powerful and satisfying than the anemic 2.6-liter V6 in the 2005 C240 (previously the best selling C-Class).
Even the biggest V6, which was our favorite engine on the 2005 models, is much better for 2006. The 3.5-liter V6 in the C350 generates 268 horsepower, 20 percent more than the 3.2 in the 2005 C320, which improves acceleration performance considerably. Matched with either the six-speed manual or the high-tech seven-speed automatic, the new engine makes the C350 more responsive than the 2005 C320. The 3.5-liter V6 has fully variable valve timing to deliver an impressive amount of torque from idle all the way to the redline. The C350 responds more immediately than the C320, no matter how fast it's already traveling when the driver presses the accelerator. The new engine is also noticeably smoother, particularly at high rpm. And thanks the seven-speed automatic, the improved performance comes without a corresponding decrease in fuel mileage.
All of the C-Class cars offer nice steering, effective brakes and a good balance between ride and handling. Before choosing between a Luxury or Sport model, C-Class buyers should carefully consider whether a smooth ride or sharper handling is preferred because the trade-off between comfort and response changes with the model. The Sport models are more firmly sprung than the standard Luxury models.
The Luxury models most closely replicate traditional Mercedes ride quality. Their ride is almost cushy, but it's well damped, so there's no floaty, sea-craft feeling over dips in the road. The Luxury models won't wilt if you push them a bit, but they're never stiff. We think the Luxury models best suit the tastes of most buyers and were surprised when a spokesperson for Mercedes told us the Sport models are expected to comprise the larger share of the C-Class volume.
The Sport models are livelier and turn into corners more responsively. The nicely weighted power steering, sports seats and beefy steering wheel all contribute to a feeling of better control. Indeed, if you enjoy spirited driving, the C230 Sport sedan may be the most enjoyable C-Class yet (short of the AMG). It's a bit less nose heavy and bit more spry than the C350 Sport, and its revised six-speed manual transmission contributes considerably to the fun.
All C-Class models are quiet inside, even when blasting along at 80 mph. These sedans are aerodynamically slippery cars, and very little wind noise penetrates the cabin.
As mentioned, the C-Class offers a choice of transmissions. The seven-speed automatic that comes on the C280 and C350 Luxury sedans is superior to five-speed automatics that come on most cars (to say nothing of an old-fashioned four-speed automatic). With more gears, it offers better acceleration performance and responsiveness around town as well as enhanced fuel efficiency. Gear changes are barely noticeable in normal driving, especially in the higher gears. This transmission allows significantly quicker acceleration for highway passing situations, and it doesn't have to go through every gear. Step on the gas and the transmission will skip down to the appropriate gear, switching from seventh to fifth, for example, and from there directly to third, meaning two downshifts instead of four.
As for the manual transmission, Mercedes has lowered the ratio for first gear for quicker acceleration off the line, but kept an overdrive sixth gear for quiet, low-rev highway cruising and be
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class delivers Mercedes engineering, design and safety features starting at the price of loaded mass-market, midsize sedans. The good things behind the Mercedes brand get no more accessible than they are in the C-Class. For 2006, a new line of variable-valve-timing V6 engines improves the C-Class across to board. The C230 Sport sedan with six-speed manual transmission may be the most fun of all. The new seven-speed automatic in the C280 and C350 luxury sedans is ultra responsive. The C350 may represent the best of the line, but can easily surpass $40,000 and diminish some of the appeal in the C-Class's accessibility. The C55 AMG is strictly for the serious enthusiast.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough reported from Los Angeles, with Jeff Vettraino reporting from Detroit.
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