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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.
The C-Class cars look like a Mercedes-Benz should and just about everyone will quickly identify them as such. All C-Class cars sport the traditional Mercedes three-pointed star as a standup hood ornament, but even without that they'd be immediately identifiable. The C-Class shares styling themes with the larger E-Class and S-Class cars, but retains a tight look all its own. Aerodynamically, the C-Class cars are among the most efficient in the Mercedes-Benz family. The C-Class boasts a drag coefficient of 0.27, which helps minimize wind noise and improves fuel efficiency.
Distinguishing between Sport and Luxury versions of the 2006 C-Class is easy. The Sport sedans have a more aggressive looking front air dam and sculpted lower cladding previously used only on Mercedes' exotic AMG models. The Sport sedans are further distinguished by a unique grille with three horizontal bars, darker, blue-tinted glass and larger 17-inch wheels.
The styling for all C-Class models was freshened for 2005. The changes were subtle and we're not sure how many people actually noticed. Revised styling cues included wider set quad-ovoid headlights, more pronounced fender flares and revised taillights.
The C-Class sedans are the same length as the BMW 3 Series cars, but several inches narrower, making it easier to fit them into tight garage spaces.
The C55 AMG is another beast altogether. Its body work from the windshield pillars forward was borrowed from Mercedes' larger CLK coupe in order to widen the front track and make room for a big V8 engine. From the rear, the C55 is dominated by a two pairs of chromed, oversize exhaust tips. Also noticeable from the rear is its extra-wide 18-inch alloy wheels and tires.
The C-Class interior looks like the inside of a Mercedes-Benz should, and for the most part it feels that way, too. A model re-alignment for 2006 has increased the level of luxury in the least expensive models. Fabric upholstery and manually operated seats can no longer be found in the C-Class line.
Any of the seats are very good: neither so hard that they numb the backside nor so soft that they leave occupants tired or aching. The seats in the standard luxury models are more traditional, perhaps richer in appearance, than those in the sport models. By comparison, the seats in the sport models look stark, but provide significantly more side bolstering for spirited driving. Adjustable lumbar support is now standard, meaning more comfort for the lower back. The C55 AMG has its own special sport seats and premium leather upholstery.
The C-Class got a thorough interior re-do for the 2005 model year so the 2006 models benefit from that. The dashboard, instruments and seats were redesigned, and materials were revised throughout. The instrument cluster now features four gauges, with a chromed-ringed tachometer and speedometer of identical size sitting front and center. To the left and right of these are smaller fuel and temperature gauges. In the middle sits an LCD display with various system and trip functions. Fashioned in the mold of the larger Mercedes E-Class, the instrument cluster is deeply hooded and virtually eliminates glare on the dials. The backlit script is clear and easy to read.
We like the center stack, which looks more modern than before. Audio controls are now located in what we consider the optimal spot: above the climate control switches, which sit at the bottom of the stack. Both audio and climate knobs are large and easy to locate. The lack of some of the complicated systems found on more expensive Mercedes models is, frankly, a welcome relief.
The switchgear is, for the most part, easy to use and understand. The stalk controls have a beefy feel with positive detents. Redundant buttons on the steering wheel let the driver operate the audio and telephone functions without removing a hand from the wheel. The stalk-mounted cruise control continues to be an annoyance, however. It's also easy to engage the cruise control by mistake when trying to use the turn signals, a complaint we have with every modern Mercedes that comes to mind.
Lighting inside is effective, with good illumination for entry in the dark and excellent map lights for reading. The C-Class glovebox is a good size, unless you order the CD changer, in which case you lose most of its storage space. You'll still have the center console and door pockets, but we'd like more places to stash stuff. At least they've added a pop-up cupholder in the center console.
In general, the C-Class sedans are trimmed with good-quality interior materials, but there are some exceptions. Some of the hard plastics don't match Mercedes' best. The sport sedans use aluminum trim throughout the cabin, while the luxury sedans use wood.
The rear seat offers generous space and comfort. It's installed theater style, and sits slightly higher than those in front, giving back-seat passengers a better view forward without significantly compromising head room. Indeed, the spacious rear seats are one of the strengths of the C-Class. The optional power sunshade for the rear glass reinforces the feeling you're in a Benz.
The trunk is a good size for a car this size, offering 12.2 cubic feet of cargo space. An optional split-folding rear seat expands cargo capacity.
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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