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?
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.
In the Driver's Seat: Great seats, awful plastics
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.
On the Road: New powertrain options, but Sport isn't sporty enough
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?
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