- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2001

In the parlance of academia, "C" is considered average. Among other definitions, average means the point midway between two extremes. It can also mean mediocre. In any event, when being graded, there are worse scores and there are better. A "C" may well keep you out of detention, but it isn't going to get you into Harvard.

Where the redesigned Mercedes-Benz C-Class is concerned, "C" certainly doesn't reflect a score or a mean point on a scale. Anything but mediocre, the C-Class embodies the best traits of Mercedes, offering the cutting edge in safety, performance and technology. Carrying Mercedes banner in the small, near-luxury arena, the C-Class butts heads with the BMW 3-Series, Audi's A4 and the Lexus IS 300.

The C-Class faces competition a bit more sporty in nature. Although it handles with precision, responds without hesitation and accelerates like a scalded cat (C320), the total package is a tad more conservative than the competition. That's not a bad thing. It's just the way it is. Two versions are offered: the C240 and the C320. Setting the two models apart are their engines. A 168 horsepower 2.6-liter V-6 powers the C240, while a 215 horsepower 3.2-liter V-6 is found in the C320. My latest test C-Class was the C320. The silky smooth V-6 takes less than seven seconds to go from a standing stop to 60 mph. A 5-speed automatic transmission with Touch Shift, permitting the driver to select shift points, delivers engine output to the rear wheels. A 6-speed manual is standard in the C240. Fuel economy in the C320 is decent with an Environmental Protection Agency mpg rating of 19 in town and 26 on the highway.

Fresh C-Class styling cues come directly from the flagship S-Class. More svelte than its larger siblings, the C-Class manages to incorporate their overall shape, elliptical headlamp design and tail into a package distinctively Mercedes. A 16-percent better drag coefficient is a direct result of the new sleek styling.

Inside, four adults can ride in comfort. While trunk space is at a premium, a little more interior space has been designed into the second-generation C-Class. Taller adults may wish for more head and leg room for the rear seat, but the space is adequate. Excellent side support and firm bottom cushions characterize both front and rear seats. A tilt/telescoping steering wheel and multiadjustable power seats insure an ideal driving position.

Two rocker buttons on the steering wheel access more than 50 different functions, ranging from the trip odometers to redundant audio system controls. Through the rocker buttons, the driver can dim the interior lights, access any function in the trip computer or set the clock. Three analog gauges keep the driver appraised of vehicle speed, engine speed and fuel level. The audio system can be a bit complicated but not overly so. The 10-speaker Bose system, standard on the C320, produces awesome sound and employs new sound filtering technology called AudioPilot. A sound sensor in the cabin monitors outside sounds and automatically adjusts the audio volume level accordingly.

Although it's the entry-level Benz, Mercedes hasn't skimped on C-Class safety features. It has the full compliment of air bags and passive mechanical safety systems found in more expensive models. In addition to the dual two-stage front air bags, the C-Class also has side-curtain air bags that run from the A-pillar to the C-pillar. Side-impact air bags are located above the armrest in each of the four doors. To help keep the C-Class moving in the direction the driver is pointing it, the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) uses the anti-lock brake system to help maintain stability and course in turns, as well as straight-line driving.

Given the rather pliant ride of the C-Class, it's ability to handle cornering at speed is a tribute to Mercedes-Benz engineering. Large, 16-inch sticky tires and a superb suspension snug this Benz to the pavement in the turns. There is virtually no body roll during cornering. A sedan designed to be driven, the C-Class is at home blasting along the open road or cruising the strip.

Base price of the C320 is $36,950. A few standard features not already mentioned: 16-inch alloy wheels, leather seating inserts, wood trim, power windows all with express up/down, auto headlamps, dual auto-dimming power outboard mirrors and remote keyless entry. My test C320 also had a $1,340 option package with rain-sensor wipers, power glass sunroof and electric rear-window sunshade. Adding another $645 for delivery brought the total to $39,560.

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