It's always interesting to drive, back to back, two generations of the same car. Progress, or the lack thereof, is readily evident and is also a good indication of a car company's response to ever evolving customer demands and market conditions.
Such an opportunity came when I drove the upcoming, revised C-Class sedan in Mallorca this past spring (see europeancarweb.com for a full report) and then climbed back into our long-term C230 Kompressor when I hit the ground at LAX.
Conclusion? Mercedes-Benz is one smart bunch. They clearly pay attention both to the criticism--from both within and without--as well as the plaudits. And then they react, usually quickly and well.
Example: Every--and I use this word very advisedly--every area of the old C-Class which our road testers had criticized was attended to and adjusted, fixed or replaced, just as though our personal demands were all that needed to be satisfied.
A glimpse inside the evolution of the C-Class was provided in Mallorca by two Mercedes-Benz product planners, the guys who have to predict what you and I are going to want in our motoring experience years down the line. But, to keep their vehicles fresh, they also need the quick reactions of a good counterpuncher, absorbing some blows to get a few good licks in themselves.
One of our strongest punches was directed at the 2003 edition's suspension. Perfectly acceptable in a family sedan, it just didn't give an enthusiastic driver the confidence to stretch the envelope.
Counterpunch: Extensively revised suspension geometry and settings, and an increased track, essentially bringing an AMG level of handling performance to the line of standard C-Class cars for 2004.
We also threw a left hook at the manual transmission's shift action. It wasn't so bad that you'd miss or grawnch gears, but neither could you depend on the swift shifts required for sporty driving.
Counterpunch? Mercedes replaced the complicated links between the lever and the box with a single shift rod, eliminating the extraneous, vague movements of the outgoing model's shift action.
Our staff also threw a powerful uppercut at the 2003's interior. Not bad; not offensive; not inspiring. Fit and finish was good, but the overall feel was, well, a bit cheap, and the seats were somewhere in the bland region between comfortable and supportive.
Counterpunch: All Mercedes did was design a completely refreshed cockpit, including a new instrument cluster, dashboard, center console and seats.
A few jabs were thrown as well at the outgoing car's styling. Although Mercedes had adorned the 2003 sport model with a few extra body elements, they weren't distinctive enough to draw attention to the fact it was something special, more than a base C-Class.
Counterpunch: A new front-end design, including: bumper, lower air intake, three-slat radiator grille, smoother line and a more aggressive, upmarket demeanor.
So how did our year-long sparring match with the 2003 C230K end? Even with the good shots we got in, it was essentially a draw. A few really wanted to punch it out, but several of those who'd driven the car asked whether it was for sale when the loan period was up--certainly an indication of a car's quality if a journalist wants to buy it. Plus, we'll miss its never-miss-a-beat reliability and long-distance cruising comfort.
There's also that not insignificant matter of having a car with the three-pointed star on the hood. I won't try to explain why it makes us feel good. It just does.