*Car companies talk about DNA and you know it's a load of hot air. Cars are metal, non-organic, there's more DNA in my little finger, etc. But it's funny how Mercedes-Benz excels at making big luxury cars, while BMW has the small sport sedan thing down pat. Whereas the 3 Series has become the benchmark of its segment, Benz's equivalent C-Class has merely basked in the reflected glory of its other, more desirable, siblings.
So when M-B unveiled its digital prototype for the all-new C-Class (see ec, April 2007), you could take it one of two ways. Either throwing that many gigabytes at it was a concerted effort to make the new model truly groundbreaking. Or maybe the thought process was: "What the heck? Even though it sells well, the C-Class will never be a crucial car for us in the same way an S-Class or SL is. Let's perfect the software on this model, so when it becomes time to replace the E-Class, we can hit the keyboard running." Perhaps it's a bit of both.
One thing's for sure, the time spent on aerodynamics was far from wasted. On my first outing behind the wheel, there's a wind so strong that a felled tree could be around any corner. Out on the highway, the crosswinds are vicious. But the C-Class is not just composed, it's silent as a library. The apocalypse could be going on outside and it would feel like you were watching it on the big screen, from the comfort of standard eight-way electrically adjustable seats. Which (wouldn't you know it?) has its downside.
Mercedes-Benz still seems to struggle from the perception that at least some of its products are for people who don't want to engage in the whole messy business of driving. Lack of driver involvement has been an issue for years. The thing is, this new model has some proper driving chops.
Let's look at it: front-engine, rear-wheel drive, 268 bhp and 258 lb-ft in the C350, roughly 54/46 front-to-rear weight distribution. The chassis is more than capable. It's just that it feels almost like a breach of protocol to brake hard and late, snap the wheel around, then mash the throttle again. It's like you're asking a monk to get you a girl's phone number. Everything gets done, but it's with a certain reluctance. There's no eagerness to tackle that mountain road. The previous generation had numb steering and things haven't improved much here. Even now, the C-Class is perhaps best viewed as a conveyance of comfort, like a small S-Class: the s-Class.
The new C-Class comes in two flavors: Sport and Luxury. Both cars have the same underpinnings-it's just the way they're tuned that makes the difference. The Sport has a large three-pointed star set into its grille, like sportier Mercs of old; the Luxury model has the familiar hood ornament. The Sport's front airdam is a little different. American buyers can choose between the C300 (3.0-liter) and C350 (3.5-liter) V6 models. The C300 comes with the previous generation's six-speed manual gearbox as standard, which isn't such a problem as it's probably the best manual gearbox the company has made. The 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic is an option for the C300, but is the sole transmission on the C350.
The traditional Mercedes-Benz customer should not be disappointed. The C-Class is well put together. The leather on the seats seems pretty classy. The bodyshell has been designed to pass more than 100 separate in-house crash tests. Even the driver's knees get a dedicated airbag. If a C-Class driver is forced to stand on the brakes from a speed in excess of 30 mph, the brake lights will flash, as an extra warning to those behind. The options list features many wonderful things, like the COMAND voice-activated satellite navigation or the sweet-sounding Harman Kardon Logic 7 audio system. And if all the badges were removed, you'd still be able to tell which company made this car. One might accuse the designers of phoning in their work from a Caribbean resort, but they probably had a somewhat conservative brief to start with.
Maybe it's one of those cars that gets better the more time you spend with it, but from a driver's point of view, the C-Class might still be considered a work in progress. At least it provides an excellent platform for AMG to start applying its manic magic. Our spies tell of a heavily disguised V8-powered C63 circling the Nrburgring.
2008 Mercedes-Benz C350
*Layoutlongitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
3.5-liter V6, dohc, 24-valve
Coil-spring struts with two-piece control arms (f), five-link with coil springs (r)
Four-channel system with ABS and Brake Assist, ventilated discs
Length x Width x Height (in.): 182 x 69.7 x 57Wheelbase: 108.7 in.Curb Weight: 3615 lb
Peak Power: 268 bhp @ 6000 rpmPeak Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 2400 rpm0-60 mph: 6.3 secs.Top Speed: 130 mph (limited)
Why we love it: It's a Benz-how bad can it be?
Why we don't: Preaches to the converted
The Price Tag: $37,000 (est.)
A quick chat with Peter Pfeiffer, senior vice president of design, DaimlerChrysler
What was your intention with this model?We had three key words: sporty, elegant and sovereign. We wanted to have a typical Mercedes-Benz face, but also to express self-confidence. So, for the first time, we decided to give the C-Class two characters. One that is more classic and one that is sportier, like the SL.
Did the latest S-Class influence this design?We have a new design language with the current S-Class-taut, sharp lines that intersect with clear surfaces. So in this respect, the C-Class is typical Mercedes, but it also has its own character.
How do you achieve this?Over all the models, there should be about two to five percent that is Mercedes, while other details should be innovative, to provide a clear differentiation.
Are you concerned about repeating the 'Russian doll' approach to design that BMW once had?We know about BMW. We know about Audi. We are going our own way.