Mercedes C-Class is turning heads and delivering entry level luxury

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

If and when you purchase automotive entry-level luxury north of $30,000 you would expect your car to have a luxury persona from the way it looks inside and out and from the way it drives and performs.

You also have the right to count on a fair amount of modern automotive goodies and a full-bag of safety equipment for the base price. Options should not be necessary to make your purchase enjoyable and acceptable. Options should be there to pamper the consumer with as many desirable extras as his or her income and desires warrant.

We mention this after a seven-day stint behind the wheel of the completely redesigned 2008 C-Class Mercedes-Benz sedan. The new C-Class, Mercedes’ most inexpensive product, is not a stop-gap choice until you can afford an E-Class or the flagship S-Class. It stands alone as a complete compact luxury package. No excuses necessary. Although affording an E or S-Class would be nice.

Has Mercedes hit the entry-level luxury nail squarely on the head? A definite maybe!

That’s not always been the case. Like some other companies whose entry-level models in recent years didn’t quite measure up to what can be called traditional luxury such as Jaguar with the X-Class, BMW with the 318ti hatchback and Infiniti with the 4-cylinder G20.

Mercedes entered the modern entry-level class in 1982 with the four-cylinder 190, the predecessor of the C-Class. It carried a Mercedes star, but little else of the Mercedes-Benz persona.

More recently, Mercedes flirted with a hatchback for under 30-grand. The C320 hatch is not a bad car, but again it lacks the Mercedes cache.

For the 2008 model year Mercedes has gotten it mostly right even if you decide to cut all corners and opt for spending just $31,200 purchasing the least expensive C300 without options. You can be assured of actually getting a Mercedes that strives to give traditional Mercedes standards.

That being said, it can be argued (with some trepidation) that the previous generation C-Class — from 2001 through 2007 — was generally worthy of the three-pointed star with the exception of the aforementioned hatchback.

But the new model, while retaining the same engine choices as ’07, has been upgraded in nearly every aspect. The exterior styling is more modern and carries many of the flagship’s S-Class flourishes.

The C-Class feels solid, engineered with what appears to be the same qualities and nuisances as the E-Class and S-Class sedans.

Let’s start with the styling, which carries the new Mercedes theme. Perhaps it can best be described as more aggressive looking than the previous edition, more closely aligned with the S-Class. It features a character line that flows downward from the taillight into the front fender, a styling cue that has become popular with automotive designers. 
Another difference from the preceding sedan that we found interesting is the clam-shell-like hood treatment that takes the engine bay opening to the edge of the fenders.

And the two trim levels — Sport and Luxury — get a distinct personality due mostly to the grille design. The Luxury edition gets the traditional stand-up hood-mounted three-point star. The Sport features a large grille-mounted star and AMG body cladding. 
We like the more aggressive Sport styling, but then we are sure there are those who will opt for a more traditional signature.

Here at the office it has received some enthusiastic praise for its good looks. One young lady even had a picture taken with her standing next to the C-300 for her MySpace page.

The Luxury edition comes with the standard 3.0-liter V-6 generating 228 horsepower. The Sport can be purchased with either the 3.0-liter or a more performance appropriate 3.5-liter 268 horsepower V-6. Both editions get Mercedes’ seven-speed automatic, but for those who want to wring out the most performance, the 3.0-liter can be purchased with a six-speed manual. In reality none of the above configurations gets our heart racing.

So, you ask, isn’t Mercedes slightly behind the curve here? Virtually all entry-level luxury sedans in this price range have 300-horsepower engines available. True, indeed, and we wondered about that, too. But don’t get us wrong the smaller engine for our testing purposes was really okay and we found it very pleasing and efficient in all aspects of driving. It has been clocked from 0 to 60 in 7 seconds. Turns out it’s one of those cars that actually feels better than the numbers.

Moving up to the C350 Sport (for a base price of $36,500) we were rewarded with 0-to-60 excitement measured at around 6 seconds. More pleasing to be sure!

For those who seek bigger thrills, Mercedes will introduce its AMG version of the new C-Class with a 457-horsepower V-8 this spring. The C63 AMG should handle all challenges including giving BMW’s M3 and Lexus’ coming IS-F a run for the money. But remember the C63 like the M3 and IS-F comes at a much higher price – in this case the $55,000 to $60,000 range according to sources.

Our C300 test car felt very competent off the line at stoplights and reliably quick in merging and passing. It also displayed some nice stick-to-the-road traits in our winding, law-enforcement-deprived back road tests. In other words, the C300 Sport offers a well-balanced performance and handling package. Not as engaging as theC350 nor as quick but good never-the-less.

We like the clean-looking interior designs of both, as much as we like the attractive exterior package. The optional COMMAND system, once as difficult to operate as BMW’s infamous iDrive, has been simplified for the C-Class. We had no difficult y accessing the audio system and finding and storing our favorite FM and Sirius satellite stations. Likewise, we didn’t have to consult the owner’s manual to try out the hard-drive based navigation system. We commend Mercedes for its efforts in simplifying a once-complicated system.

Earlier we noted that an entry-level luxury sedan should come well equipped without options, but we need to throw a qualification into the mix for the base C300. The base price of $31,200 does not include the seven-speed automatic, so for the vast majority who want their shifting done automatically, add $1,440.

That brings the “true” base price to $32,640. But for that money you get a full compliment of safety features including six airbags, ABS, Electronic Stability Program and tire pressure monitoring. You also get a full range of power equipment, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, an eight-speaker stereo system, eight-way power front seats and dual-zone climate control.

Options are readily available. Our base test car, for example, had more than $9,000 worth of extras including navigation and upgraded stereo system with a 4-gig hard drive, the sports sedan package including sports suspension and 17-inch wheels, automatic transmission and a premium package that includes a multitude of features from Bi-Xenon headlamps to rain-sensing wipers. Bottom line was $41,475. You can load up the C350 the same way.

We like the new C-Class. We think its a viable competitor to the BMW 3-Series, the Lexus ES 350 and IS 250 and the Cadillac CTS. A test drive would not be a waste of time.


Base price, $31,975; as driven, $41,475

Engine: 3.0-liter V-6

Horsepower: 228 @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 221 pound-feet @ 2,700 rpm

Transmission: 7-speed automatic
Drive: rear wheel

Seating: 2/3

Wheelbase: 108.7 inches

Length: 182.3 inches

Curb weight: 3,527 pounds

Turning circle: 35.6 feet
Luggage capacity: 12.4 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 17.4 gallons (premium and E85)
EPA mileage: 25 highway, 18 city

0-60: 7 seconds (manufacturer)

Also consider: BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, Lexus ES 350

The Good

• COMMAND controller has become more intuitive

• Impressive combination of responsive handling and smooth ride quality

• Luxury car build quality

The Bad

• Entry and exit for rear-seat passengers tedious

The Ugly

• An all-new car gets small-for-the-segment carryover engines