- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2007

Thanks to the continuing wild popularity of BMW’s 3 Series and the persistent pressure from the small sedans of the Japanese luxury imports, such as Infiniti’s G35, Mercedes-Benz is challenged to produce an entry-level sedan capable of running with the segment’s big dogs.

Its early attempts, with the 190 “Baby Benz,” more than two decades ago failed to break BMW’s grip on the luxury small sedan market, and the introduction of competitors from Acura, Lexus, Infiniti and even Cadillac have further complicated the task.

As subsequent generations were launched, Mercedes-Benz never managed to get ahead of the curve. Redesigned for 2008, the C-Class is its best small car to date, but is it enough to win the hearts, minds and wallets of the entry-luxury buyer in a world where the 3 Series is the undisputed wish list frontrunner?

No matter the segment nor the price point, auto manufacturers have an unwritten rule that “redesigned” must translate into “bigger”. In the case of the C-Class, some stretching of the outer package is welcomed because it leads to extra room inside where it was certainly needed.

Outside, the new sedan is roughly four inches longer, one and a half inches wider and about 100 pounds heavier.A nearly two-inch increase in the wheelbase joins the conspiracy to swell passenger space. The passenger cabin gains are modest, but — particularly in terms of rear-seat legroom — welcomed. Front-seat occupants won’t find any extra leg-stretching space, but backseat passengers have an extra half inch or so. No sane adult will willingly assume the center backseat seating position, but when stuffed three-abreast, second-seat passengers benefit from about half an inch of additional hip room. The trunk is fractionally larger, too.

Mercedes-Benz didn’t put much sweat into 2008 C-Class engine lineup; the two V6s serving the current three models are basically carried over from last year. If you want to get your heart thumping, you’ll need to wait for the introduction of the AMG-infused 437-horsepower C63.

In the meantime, the $31,975 C300 Sport and the $33,675 C300 Luxury draw their energy from a 228-horsepower 3-liter V6. In the case of the 300 Sport (the basis for this review), a six-speed manual transmission ushers output to the rear wheels. The 300 Luxury gets a driver-shiftable seven-speed automatic that’s also found on the 300 Sport’s option list priced at $1,440. Currently serving as the top-of-the-line C-Class, the $37,275 C350 gets the 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 and the seven-speed automatic.

Equipped with the optional automatic transmission, the test C300 accelerated aggressively enough to keep it in the hunt when the traffic light flashed green. Mercedes-Benz claims a 0-60 time of about seven seconds. The seven speeds help keep the rpms at their optimum level, drawing the most out of the V6’s production.

Whether sprinting from light to light in town or cruising on the open highway, this V6 is quiet and resolute. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the C300’s fuel economy at 18 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. This compares favorably with others in the segment.

Mercedes-Benz refined the C-Class suspension for 2008. The basic architecture is the same, but lighter components improve handling. The steering is more responsive as well. These enhancements translate into a more stable and composed platform. Although it handles noticeably better than the last generation C-Class, the 2008 retains that sedan’s smooth over-the-road demeanor.Seventeen-inch wheels front large disc brakes on all four corners. The anti-lock brake system provides the basis for traction control, stability control, electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist.

Notably more handsome on the outside than the small Benzes preceding it, the new C-Class has a tastefully styled cabin with all the trimmings expected from a Mercedes-Benz. It’s a wonderful blending of function and style.

Historically, operating some Mercedes-Benz systems confounds those unwilling to dig through the owner’s manual and the C300 holds with tradition. However, the central COMAND system with its mouse-based controller and five-inch pop up screen is less challenging to use than BMW’s iDrive.

Most drivers will probably be able to access their favorite radio station on the eight-speaker audio system without reading the instructions. The power window and outboard mirror controls are at the top of the driver’s door-mounted armrest.Moderately sculpted front seats offer decent lateral support in the curves. The backseat is somewhat Spartan, suitable for shorter outings. Almost no outside noise trickles into the passenger compartment. This is one quiet sedan. Passengers enjoy well-placed cupholders and ample storage cubbies. Dual-zone automatic climate control helps maintain peace between the front-seat occupants.

A $1,400 Premium Package with Sirius satellite radio, heated front seats, rain sensing wipers, and auto-dimming and power-folding outboard mirrors nicely rounds out the C300 amenities. It’s included in the C350’s base sticker. Pony up another three large and you can have the hard drive-based navigation system with a seven-inch pop up screen, Harmon/Kardon surround sound system and six-disc CD/DVD changer.

Good looks, a meticulously crafted interior, quiet ride, decent acceleration and spot-on handling provide all the credentials the C-Class needs to stake out territory in the small luxury sedan arena. A little more oomph under the hood would go a long way to temper the singing of the B Series praises. But for those who dream of owning a Mercedes-Benz, the new C-Class offers an excellent introduction to the brand.

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