PORTLAND, Oregon - Mercedes-Benz's least costly model, the C-Class is now entering its fourth generation in redesigned form. Scheduled to reach U.S. dealerships in August, the 2008 C-Class "grew in all dimensions," said Bernie Glaser, general manager of product development. Most of the additional length is in the car's wheelbase, which increases passenger space.
Two distinct models will be offered: Sport and Luxury. Nothing new about that, as Mercedes-Benz launched a Sport model for 2005. This time, though, each of the two models is unique in appearance. Grilles, for instance, are completely different. The grille on Sport models contains a Mercedes-Benz tristar emblem in its center, whereas the Luxury sedan's grille is more traditional-looking. Luxury models retain a hood ornament, too. AMG, Mercedes' performance affiliate, helped design the Sport model, which also features twisted rocker panels at the rear.
Both versions come with a choice of V-6 engines. In C300 sedans, a 3.0-liter V-6 produces 228 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque. Stepping up a notch, the C350 models get a 3.5-liter V-6 that generates 268 horsepower and 250 pound-feet. C300 Sport models may have either a six-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed automatic transmission, but others come only with the automatic.
No more 16-inch tires are installed. Sport models get staggered-width 17-inch alloy wheels, along with a sport suspension that's been lowered by 15 millimeters. Luxury editions roll on five-spoke 17-inch wheels. Sport models may be equipped with optional 18-inch wheels.
Mercedes' Agility Control suspension features selective damping and pure hydro-mechanical operation. Described as "amplitude-dependent," it provides a 6-percent quicker steering ratio than before.
For the first time, 4Matic - Mercedes' all-wheel-drive system - is available on Sport models. Integrated into the seven-speed automatic transmission, it offers rear-biased torque (45 percent of power sent to the front wheels, and 55 percent to the rear). Only the C300 series can have 4Matic.
Only a single annoyance stands out in the 2008 C-Class, but it's a noticeable one. Tire noise is a serious matter on some expressway surfaces, especially in the Sport model, and clearly noted on certain other pavements as well. At times, the driver can even feel a touch of vibration in the steering wheel.
Otherwise, there's little to grumble about in the latest C-Class. Operation of the automatic transmission is barely discernible, and it nearly always seems to be in a desirable gear. A touch of engine roar occurs during hard acceleration, but it's well subdued. At all other times, the C-Class is quiet.
Through repeated fast curves traveling up long, winding mid-mountain roads, the C350 Sport delivered quick and confident responses. Although the ride is definitely firm, it's not usually bothersome - but a long drive on harsher surfaces might grow tedious. You feel just about every road flaw in the Sport model, even if most are at least partly ironed out by the capable suspension. In curves, it does seem to react effectively. Actually, the stiffer Sport suspenson is noticed more on good roads than bad; on the latter, it's more welcome.
Overall, this is a highly refined and civilized sedan. Seats are solidly supportive and rather snugly bolstered to keep occupants neatly in place. They're nicely cushioned, too. Gauges are distinctive and clear, but not quite as easy as some to read at a glance.
Within moments behind the wheel of a C300 Luxury sedan, it's obvious that the suspension is softer and the ride more gentle. That makes the Luxury model a welcome choice for long drives - especially since not much penalty in confident control.
While the C300's less-potent engine is certainly adequate, its automatic transmission doesn't work quite as well when downshifting. There's too much delay to be fully satisfying. Ride comfort and steering qualities at highway speeds are the Luxury sedan's most appealing attributes.
On-sale date for the 2008 C-Class at U.S. dealerships is August 7. All-wheel-drive 4Matic models reach dealerships on September 5. Prices start at $31,975 (including destination charge) for the C300 Sport sedan. The Luxury sedan stickers for $33,675, while a C350 Sport sedan runs $37,275.
Standard equipment includes a sunroof, eight-way power front seats, Bluetooth connectivity, and dual-zone automatic climate control. All C-Class models have six airbags, as well as adaptive braking and Electronic Stability Control. A panorama roof costs $1,000 extra.
Only Sport sedans can be painted Mars Red, while Sand Beige metallic is limited to Luxury sedans. In addition to a three-spoke steering wheel, Sport models get a silver-finished gauge cluster and rubber-studded aluminum pedals. Either aluminum or birdseye maple trim may be installed inside the cockpit. Luxury sedans have a black gauge cluster, four-spoke steering wheel, and burl walnut wood decorating the interior.
More than 700,000 C-Class cars have been sold since the model first debuted in 1983. The C-Class serves as a "gateway into the brand," Glaser said.
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