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2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class test drive

Calling all aspiring Mercedes owners...

About.com Rating 2.5 Star Rating
User Rating 4 Star Rating (1 Review)

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2008 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport right-front view

2008 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport

Photo by Greg Jarrem
What do the Guide Rating stars mean?

The all-new C-Class is an important car for Mercedes-Benz: It's the one charged with bringing new buyers into the Mercedes fold and keeping them there. The new C is bigger and better equipped than the previous model, plus it's offered in both Sport and Luxury versions to suit different buyers' tastes. Yes, the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class is good -- but is it good enough to see off the competition? Read on. Base price in the low-to-mid $30s, EPA mileage TBA (estimated at low 20s in the city, high 20s on the road).

First Glance: If you build it, will they come?

Larger photos: Luxury (front, rear) - Sport (front, rear)

You'd think that a premium brand like Mercedes would be most concerned with its most expensive (and profitable) models. Fact is, the entry-level C-Class is a critical car for Mercedes-Benz. Last year, 60% of C-class customers were first-time Mercedes owners. The C-Class has to be priced attractively enough to bring in buyers, and built and equipped well enough to get them back to buy another (hopefully more expensive) Mercedes -- and another after that, and another after that.

While the outgoing C looked like a sporty version of the mid-size E-Class, the new C has a face that resembles the top-of-the-line S-class. It's bigger than the old car, too -- nearly 4" longer and 1.7" wider. For a mid-size sedan, those are significant increases that yield more passenger and cargo space.

Mercedes is following a strategy that began in 2007 with the introduction of the revamped E-Class: Two distinct models, Sport and Luxury, distinguished primarily by styling cues inside and out. The most noticeable difference is the grille (link goes to photo); Sport models have a giant three-pointed star embedded in the middle, while Luxury models get a more traditional grille with a stand-up hood ornament. Sports also have unique body trim and wheels with staggered-width tires (the rears are wider than the fronts). Inside, Luxury versions get a four-spoke steering wheel and wood trim, while the Sport gets a three-spoke wheel with silver trim around the center console and gauges.

Continued below...

In the Driver's Seat: Great seats, awful plastics

2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Luxury interior - tan

Tan interior looks nice in pictures, but in real life the shiny plastic gives it a bit of a low-rent feel

Photo © Aaron Gold
Larger interior pics: Sport - Luxury black/tan

The C offers a great driving position with excellent visibility and comfy front seats covered in MB Tex (a convincing faux leather; the real stuff costs $1550.) The dashboard slopes down toward the occupants, which contributes to the C's big-car feel. But the dash is covered in acres of hard plastic with only a bit of chrome to break it up. The black interior looks just okay, while the two-tone tan borders on chintzy. To me, the wood-trimmed elegance of the E-Class is the standard by which Mercedes interiors should be judged. Compare these interior pics of the C-Class and E-Class -- the C just doesn't measure up.

Things get a bit better as your eyes move downward. The stereo and Bluetooth-compatible phone controls are a bit button-happy for my liking, but both can be controlled by a dial (similar to Audi's Multimedia Interface and BMW's iDrive) and steering wheel buttons. The dial also runs the optional ($2700) Multimedia Package, which includes a navigation system, Harmon-Kardon stereo, 6-disc CD/DVD changer, 7" pop-up color screen, PCMCIA memory card slot (to read MP3s from your computer), the ability to convert CDs to MP3s and store up to 4 GB worth and to play DVD movies when the car is parked. Climate controls have been simplified and the well-designed center console has big cupholders and twin armrests that flip up to reveal a large storage bin.

I found the back seat a bit cramped and lacking in thigh support. The trunk is huge at 16.8 cubic feet, but a fold-down rear seat only comes as part of a $2750 option package.

On the Road: New powertrain options, but Sport isn't sporty enough

The new C-Class offers a choice of two V6 engines: A 3.0 liter unit for the C300 and a 3.5 liter motor for the C350. Both come with a 7-speed automatic and rear-wheel-drive, with optional all-wheel-drive for the C300 and an optional 6-speed manual for the rear-drive C300 Sport. I sampled a C300 Luxury and a C350 Sport, both with automatic transmission and rear-wheel-drive. While the C300's engine was certainly adequate, it didn't have the reserve of power one normally expects from a premium luxury car. On fast, curvy roads, it felt like it was struggling to haul the C300's 3,421 lbs. The 3.5 liter engine in the C350 had a much easier time, but the C350 is only available in Sport trim. The 7-speed automatic is wonderful for relaxed driving as you'll hardly ever feel it shift, but when a downshift was needed for more power I found it slow to respond.

Sport models have a lower suspension tuned for more aggressive handling, and the C350 Sport model I drove had optional ($1,000) 18" AMG wheels in place of the 17s standard on all C-Class models. The Sport is athletic, but I'd stop short of calling it truly fun to drive. The C300 Luxury has a noticeably softer (and somewhat quieter) ride and while it isn't quite as steady and well-composed in the corners, it holds onto the pavement nearly as well as the Sport model. The steering -- identical in Sport and Luxury models -- is excellent; it has a light feel, tracks straight and true on the freeway and responds crisply to sudden turns. Antilock brakes are standard, as is electronic stability and traction control.

Journey's End: A true Mercedes - but is that enough?

2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class grilles

C-Class Sport and Luxury models can be readily distinguished by their grilles -- that's the Sport on the left, Luxury on the right

Photo by Greg Jarrem
I found a lot to like in the new C-Class: Big-car feel, German solidity, and cool (optional) multimedia system. But there was also a lot I didn't like, and it mostly centered around the interior décor. To me, what makes a Mercedes a Mercedes is what I call the "Aaaah factor" (as in "Aaaah, that feels good," not "Open your mouth and say aaaah") -- a feeling of elegance and serenity that washes over me every time I get in. The C-Class just didn't do that for me.

So what cars have the Aaaah factor in this price range? The Lexus ES350 offers more luxury, more space, and more available options at the expense of simpler running gear. BMW's entry-level 328i makes a better family car, while the Audi A4 is more involving to drive, though its interior is Spartan and its controls more complex. If you like to go fast, the Infiniti G35 is a great alternative to the C350 Sport. The Volkswagen Passat 3.6 is fast, well-equipped, and roomy. And while I know that some people will retch when they read this, both the Hyundai Azera and Buick Lucerne deliver a smooth ride and pleasant interior at a bargain price.

If you're interested in a C because you are looking for a low-cost Mercedes, you won't be disappointed -- the C offers the stately manner and solid feel for which Mercedes is famous. Still, you do get what you pay for, and the C gives up many of the attributes that make its more expensive stablemates so endearing. Me, I'd either scrape together the money for a base-model E-Class, or I'd buy a different car. -- Aaron Gold

Next page: Pros and cons, who should buy it, specs and rivals

User Reviews

Reviews for this section have been closed.

 4 out of 5
2008 Mercedes Benz C300 vs 2008 VW Passat, Member FMZ840

Let me get straight to the point! I reviewed and drove both vehicles. MB C300 most definitely has the instant, swift speed, power and agility. The interior is comfortable, sleek and appealing to the eyes. Whereas the VW Passat (being a German cousin) has the same although I do admit the instant response is a few seconds behind it's class counter part. Comparing Apples to Apples the two cars are petty much similar, sturdy, sleek, sporty and classy. I was extremely disappointed with MD C300 for the little things that VW Passat added as standard. Door locks once you put the vehicle in gear, the lighted dash compass is very helpful, Sirius Radio not extra (although one picks up the cost after a 6 months free trail) but enjoyed the option of having it on board w/o having to pay extra for a different radio as MB offers. Yes MB's sound system has more ""ummph"" yet it's VW cousin could let out a nice loud scream! The Ipod connection is next the the driver in the side console whereas MD you pay to have it installed and it is located in the glove compartment near the right passager side (what driver in his/her right mind is going to make that kind of reach). The trunk space in the VW is slightly larger as is the back seat leg and head room for those taller passengers and it offers a full size spare tire and not a donut like MB (just feel more comfortable and safer driving off on a ""real"" tire and not a donut. Both have a very classy rich European look and VW has a life long rust protection plan. The cost for repair for the VW has it hands down (since we all know we will be paying a Kings ransom for the MB name). My conclusion is VW Passat is better choice for price since it is on equal footing with MB C300 and the little standard extras VW offers makes it worth the investment unless you just have to SHOW & TELL the world you can afford a MB.

11 out of 16 people found this helpful.

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