- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

The C-Class used to be something of a stepchild at Mercedes-Benz, the smaller, less-expensive and less-exciting alternative to the company's most popular car, the midsize E-Class.

Until about a year ago, it came as a single model a four-door sedan with four-cylinder power, albeit supercharged. Then the folks at Mercedes got very serious with the C-Class.

Now it comes with six-cylinder power as well. And the model lineup has been expanded to the point where the C-Class has something to offer almost anybody interested in a compact luxury car.

Newest in the lineup is the C320 sport wagon, a four-door that looks like a station wagon but actually is more like a four-door hatchback. It joins the C230 sports coupe, a two-door hatchback that has supercharged four-cylinder power, and the C240 and C320 sedans, both of which are powered by V-6 engines.

With that addition, and the engineering and attention to detail the company has injected into all of the cars, it seems quite likely that the C could eclipse the E as the most popular class of car offered by Mercedes.

The 2002 C320 wagon, as befits its wearing of the three-pointed star, is not cheap. Base price is $39,095 and, with a common set of options, topped out at $43,995. As usual, Mercedes charges extra for most of its paint jobs in this case, $640 for "brilliant silver."

But the C wagon lacks for nothing, except perhaps a navigation system, which is also available. Moreover, it's a classy looker. The C-Class sedans and this new wagon bear a close family resemblance to the flagship of the Mercedes line, the S-Class. And they come nearly as well equipped.

The test car, for example, had rain-sensing windshield wipers, a sunroof, leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, a decent stereo with a six-disc CD changer mounted in the glove compartment, wood interior trim, remote locking, power seats with memory, a motorized tilt-and-telescope steering wheel, automatic headlights, side air bags, traction control, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, and the Mercedes Tele Aid communications system in short, just about everything any luxury buyer might want.

Although it looks like a station wagon, the C320 has sleek styling and a racy profile that limits its cargo-carrying capability because the rear tailgate is sharply raked. Nevertheless, it offers more than twice as much stowage as the C-Class sedan 25 cubic feet compared to 12 cubic feet. With the back seat down, the cargo area jumps to 67 cubic feet.

The main reason to consider the sport wagon as more of a hatchback than a station wagon is the fact that its dimensions are identical to those of the sedan in every way except cargo space. It's as if the Mercedes designers simply extended the sedan's roof. The only other difference between the two is weight, with the wagon at 3,495 pounds just 45 pounds more than the sedan.

What this translates into is a nifty little wagon with all the moves of a sports sedan. For driving enthusiasts, it's a have-your-cake-and-eat-it combination.

Power comes from the Mercedes 3.2-liter V-6 engine. Rated at 215 horsepower, it has enough punch to propel the C320 wagon to 60 miles an hour in seven seconds, according to the manufacturer's specifications. Top speed, electronically governed, is 130 miles an hour. The precise-shifting automatic transmission is a five-speed, which can be manually shifted.

Like most Mercedes-Benzes, the sport wagon has rear-wheel drive, which is making a strong comeback everywhere because of such advances as computerized traction control. Despite all that, there's plenty of power to get the rear tires spinning and chirping before the stability and anti-skid stuff kicks in.

The wagon's suspension system is independent at all four wheels, which enhances the size of the cargo area, as well as the handling and ride.

As with other Mercedes-Benzes, the steering feels a bit heavy until you get used to it, but the handling is precise and predictable.

Inside, the front bucket seats offer comfort and even good lateral support for spirited driving on curving roads. The rear seats, for outboard passengers of no more than average size, are well-shaped and nearly as comfortable as those in front. But, as always, the middle passenger suffers.

For many potential customers, one of the better attractions of the C320 sport wagon is its size. With all of its virtues, it's just under 15 feet long, it's easy to park, fits easily in any garage, and is quickly maneuverable in urban traffic.

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