When Mercedes-Benz introduced its new C-Class sedans last year, the cars earned eight major American automotive awards, appealing to groups as diverse as AAA,Automobile magazine, the North American Car of the Year jury and the numbers-conscious IntelliChoice, which called the Mercedes-Benz C220 the best overall value in luxury cars under $40,000.
In large part, the cars' appeal was due to the low (for Mercedes) price tag. The all-new cars, which replaced Mercedes' entry-level 190 series, were bigger and more powerful, and yet came in at about the same price.
These cars were the first fruits of a new production system that proved to be more efficient than Mercedes' previous efforts. Buyers responded, and the C-Class cars are selling in greater numbers than the 190 models ever did, with sales limited primarily by availability.
For 1995, the 4-cylinder C220 and the 6-cylinder C280 continue virtually unchanged.
Prices are $31,425 for the C220 and $36,775 for the C280, but their core virtue - a rock-solid Mercedes at a competitive price - continues.
Form follows function in the Mercedes design studio. Over the years, the brick-like shape common to all Mercedes has softened but never disappeared.
To our eyes, the compact size of the C-Class cars carries this functional shape well. The long nose flows to a tall passenger compartment balanced by a short, high rear deck, all of it securely anchored by big 15-in. wheels.
Together, these elements create a slightly sportier silhouette than those of the larger E- and S-Class sedans, although none will be mistaken for sports cars.
At the rear, a V-shaped trunk lid keeps the taillights on the fixed body structure while lowering the liftover height to bumper level. And though the sloping rear roof pillars make the trunk look small from the outside, it's spacious within.
One of the functions the Mercedes form follows is safety, where the company is recognized as an industry leader. The first carmaker to conduct its own crash tests, Mercedes also conducts its own investigations of highway accidents. This real-world data is systematically incorporated into engineering designs.
Consequently, the rather conservative exterior covers one of the most complex crash-management systems available, in which as much of the impact force as possible is absorbed by the body before reaching the passenger compartment.
An optional safety feature available is a headlamp wiper system. Although some may call this a luxurious frivolity, we think headlamp wipers do lead to better nighttime visibility.
The safety approach continues on the inside. The interior is conservative, where visibility and ease of use always prevails over plush luxury or stylishness. As is typical with European cars, the Mercedes models are more spartan, hard-edged and mechanical in character than comparable American cars. Wood panels around the console, across the dashboard and on the door are the only traditional touches of luxury. This isn't to suggest that the design is unattractive. Quite the contrary.
From the high, upright seating position, the instrument panel is clearly visible.
The analog fuel and temperature gauges, speedometer and tachometer are supplemented by an electronic odometer, clock and outside temperature gauge. The standard automatic climate control is simple and effective, which has not always been the case: On previous Mercedes models the climate control fluctuated widely and it was difficult to set the desired temperature.
A sizable closed storage bin in the center console has upper and lower compartments, along with a small, smooth- opening front compartment. ("Pop-out" is too crude a description for this elegant little hideaway.) The upper compartment is thoughtfully lined to limit noise. Note, however, that there are no cupholders.
The interior is quite roomy, even with the standard power sunroof. The large doors make entering and exiting easy, and the wide, flat, hard seats are surprisingly comfortable over long drives.
Safety features are abundant: dual airbags; height-adjustable seat belts in front with emergency belt tensioners; power headrests on the front seats that raise and lower with a door-mounted control to encourage occupants to place them at the optimum position behind the center of the head; and a Mercedes-issue first-aid kit stowed in its own compartment on the parcel shelf.
If that's not enough for you, remote-retractable rear headrests are available as an optional safety feature.
Despite the overall intelligence of the interior appointments, there are some minor inconveniences. The intermittent wipers have only one interval speed; the notches for shifting the automatic transmission are unlit and easy to slip past to the wrong gear, particularly at night; and the passenger airbag has taken so much height from the glove box that the owner's manual doesn't fit.
On a comparable domestic luxury car, metallic paint, an anti-theft system and an adjustable steering wheel would be standard rather than optional, as these features are here. But overall, everything important is where it should be.
The performance goals Mercedes sets for its cars include power, security and response. These are not sporty, light, nimble cars, nor are they meant to be (though the C36 promises to be an exception). The firm ride, on-center steering and unflappable balance - combined with a perfectly quiet interior - are designed to transport occupants safely and securely. Thrills simply are not in the game book for this polished automobile.
The C220 is fitted with a 148-hp 4-cylinder engine, and the C280 has a 194-hp 6-cylinder engine. Customers seem to believe the added power, torque (199 lb.-ft. at 3750 rpm) and smoothness of the 6-cylinder engine are worth the premium, as the C280 outsells the C220 about two to one.
The 4-cylinder engine has been retuned to emit fewer hydrocarbons at the same power level. Both engines require premium fuel. The ride is firm and controlled. Acceleration is stately rather than eye-opening, even in our C280 test car. Turning and cornering are pleasant, predictable events, thanks to a well-tuned suspension system that manages every motion.
Anti-lock brakes are standard, and two optional traction-control systems can limit wheel spin in this rear-drive car. The C220 has the brakes-only Electronic Traction System, which redistributes power to whichever rear wheel has the most traction at low speeds.
Our C280 had the more sophisticated Acceleration Slip Control, which operates at all speeds and uses throttle and brakes to eliminate wheel spin and maintain stability on slippery roads. Either adds a very noticeable increase in control. The 4-speed automatic transmission is the only one available. It demonstrates the classic Mercedes personality: slow off the line with a direct, linear progression of power and authoritative shift points.
Mercedes cars have unequivocal personalities that extend across the line and across the years. Details may change, but the fundamental personality doesn't.