- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2000

Mercedes-Benz has an all-new model for its entry-level luxury lineup. The 2001 C240 and C320 are designed to give the prestige carmaker a more formidable challenger to the BMW 3-Series, Lexus ES300 and Audi A4.

The new C-Class cars bristle with aerodynamic and engineering innovations that one has come to expect from Mercedes when it introduces a new model.

The remarkably sleek C-Class design produces one of the lowest coefficients of drag of any production car in the world. The C-Class models have coefficients of 0.27, (the measure that engineers get when cars are tested in wind tunnels to determine their wind-cheating qualities).

The C-Class has a new three-link front axle to improve handling and ride quality, and rack and pinion steering. The C-Class has larger disc brakes, too. The new cars have also been insulated with more foam to minimize engine, road and tire noise from intruding into the passenger cabin. Together with the new sleek body that sharply reduces wind noise, the result is a substantially quieter ride than experienced in the last generation C-Class.

Safety has also been upgraded. A total of eight air bags are designed to give more supplemental restraint to passengers in front and side crashes. In addition to the side air bags for both front and rear seat occupants, there is an inflatable air curtain to provide additional head and upper torso protection in side impacts.

One of the more innovative things Mercedes engineers have done to the C-Class is to eliminate engine oil dipsticks. Company executives and engineers believe Mercedes has enough experience and confidence in the engine oil quality sensor that comes in all its models that oil dipsticks are superfluous. Thus, the all-new 2001 C-Class models are the first from the prestige carmaker to come without dipsticks. A Mercedes spokesman forecasts that other future Mercedes cars will also dispense with oil level dipsticks.

Engineers decided to eliminate the oil dipsticks because of the reliability and accuracy of the Flexible Service System. FSS not only tells you when to add or change oil, its readings are so accurate that it can double oil-change intervals up to 20,000 miles if a vehicle is driven at light throttle, primarily on freeways.

Here's how it works. Unlike other systems that merely track how many miles a car travels to determine oil-change intervals, a dielectric sensor in the Mercedes engine oil pan signals a computer the brain of FSS which reveals how much and what type contaminants are in the oil. The same sensor detects oil level and processes engine speed, throttle opening, and oil and coolant temperature data.

The 2001 Mercedes service manual recommends oil changes every 10,000 miles, instead of the previously recommended 7,500-mile minimum, depending on the type of car usage and oil level, of course. Cars that are subjected to lots of stop-and-go driving may cut that period in half. Regardless of when an oil change is needed, a message on the Mercedes instrument panel informs the driver when to do the next oil change.

What also motivated Mercedes engineers to eliminate the dipstick is their belief that only a small number of their customers actually use the dipstick to check oil level. In addition, the dipstick can't reveal a great deal about the condition of the oil. That's why the engineers have decided that the dipstick is no longer needed. The computerized engine oil quality sensor actually does a better job passively than the owner can do using the dipstick.

Mercedes is forecasting 35,000 to 40,000 sales volume for the C-Class in 2001. That would surpass the C-Class high-water mark of 34,487 units in 1998. Karen Makris, product manager for Mercedes C-, E- and S-Class cars, claims the new C-Class models "will expand our presence in the entry-luxury segment."

There will be two C-Class models: the C240 with a price expected to be announced at about $30,000 and the C320 at about $37,000. The C240 has a 2.6-liter engine and the C320 has a 3.2-liter engine. Then why isn't the C240 called the C260? Miss Makris says that in other parts of the world the car has a 2.4-liter engine, and Mercedes wanted to use one number for the model worldwide.

The C240 comes with a new six-speed manual transmission. A five-speed fully electronic, driver-adaptive automatic is optional for this model. A five-speed automatic is standard on the C320. The 3.2-liter engine is claimed to accelerate from 0-60 mph in 6.9 seconds, lowest in the segment. Acceleration for the C240 is 8.2 seconds with manual transmission and 8.7 seconds with automatic. Both have a top speed of 130 mph, electronically limited.

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