With the new C-Class, Mercedes-Benz once again takes dead aim at the BMW 3 Series.
by Nate Chapnick
An epic battle in showrooms across the country may crown a new king of the compact luxury sedan market. Mercedes-Benz has jumped back into the ring with its all-new 2008 C-Class, pitted against arch-rival BMW”s popular 3 Series. The purse in this luxury face-off will be millions of dollars in car sales.
When it comes to large luxury sedans, Mercedes-Benz beats BMW nearly two to one in sales “” Mercedes sold just over 30,000 S-Class sedans in 2006, compared to 17,000 7 Series Sedans sold by BMW, according to CNW Marketing Research. But with smaller luxury vehicles, the long-heralded BMW 3 Series still rules: More than 120,000 3 Series Convertibles, Coupes, Sedans and Wagons were sold in 2006, whereas Mercedes sold just over 50,000 C-Class Sedans and 16,000 CLK-Class Coupes and Convertibles (the CLK-Class competes with the 3 Series, too).
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These figures illustrate how Mercedes dominates when it comes to top-level luxury “” a hallmark of the large-sedan segment “” while BMW has basically helped define sporty driving dynamics, a crucial component in the compact car class.
But with its 2008 C-Class, and especially the C350 Sport, Mercedes-Benz has a true contender in the super-heated compact four-door sport/luxury segment.
The new C-Class has a few distinct personalities: The base C300 Sport offers an engaging driving experience at the lowest price point in the line-up; the well-appointed C300 Luxury brings more features and comfort while it dials back the driving excitement; and the edgier C350 Sport adds a more powerful V6 engine for top performance. The C-Class comes standard with rear-wheel-drive. All-wheel-drive is available on the C300 Sport and Luxury. Mercedes would not confirm by publication time whether AWD will eventually be offered on the C350 Sport.
Despite being completely redesigned, the performance-oriented C350 Sport is powered by the same 3.5-liter 24-valve V6 as its forbear. The engine generates an identical 268 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The C350 Sport comes standard with a smooth and efficient seven-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted manually when desired. A manual transmission is not offered as it was on the previous C350 Sport because so few American buyers have opted for it in the past, Mercedes says.
The C300 models likewise feature the same engine as the C280 they replace, a 3.0-liter 24-valve V6 good for the same 228 hp and 221 pound-feet of torque. The C300 Luxury gets the seven-speed automatic as standard equipment. The C300 Sport is now the only C-Class variant to come with a standard six-speed manual transmission; the automatic is optional.
Although Mercedes discontinued the manual transmission on the C350 Sport, it retained the manual transmission on the C300 Sport, the least expensive C-Class variant, because it fits the pricing structure. “It makes sense to offer it to an entry-level customer, who is more willing to opt for a manual transmission,” a spokesperson said.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the original small Mercedes-Benz, the 190. Four generations later, the C-Class has become Mercedes-Benz’s North American sales leader. And since the previous generation C-Class went on sale in 2000, Mercedes-Benz has sold more than two million of them around the world, making it the company”s highest volume vehicle ever.
Up until now, the Mercedes C-Class has favored luxury over sport. With the introduction of the new C-Class, particularly the C350 Sport, Mercedes-Benz steps up the driving experience to make its compact sedan a better match for the athletic and engaging BMW 3 Series. But will the C-Class finally come out ahead?
With a new design language that’s equal parts sporty and sexy, the Mercedes C-Class definitely makes a positive first impression, easily garnering double takes from passersby, with especially intrigued glances from 3 Series drivers.
The Mercedes tri-star emblem embedded in the grille was a touch once reserved for two-door Mercedes cars like the CL-, CLK- and SL-Class, but it now defines the front of the C300 Sport and C350 Sport as well. Those with more conservative tastes will probably gravitate toward the C300 Luxury”s subtler overall design, which includes a classic front grille topped by the traditional Mercedes-Benz hood ornament.
As the least expensive Mercedes offered in the U.S., some have referred to the C-Class as the “Baby Benz.” But the car is starting to mature.
It has grown in almost every dimension: 1.7 inches wider, 1.4 inches higher and 3.7 inches longer than its predecessor. From the front, the car”s pronounced wedge shape lends it an aggressive look, which when combined with optional 18-inch twin-spoke AMG wheels makes the C350 Sport look like an athlete dressed in an Armani suit.
The new C-Class appears more muscular than the previous generation, thanks in part to wheel arches that flare out. The front and rear styling is also more dynamic: Discreet spoilers anchor the lower edges of the front fascia and make it seem broad and aggressive; clear lenses expose all of the shiny inner workings of the large projector-beam headlamps; and chrome-trimmed fog lamps placed low and wide accentuate the look. Large exterior mirrors improve visibility while adding to the car”s physical presence.
The C-Class’ new design is the most aerodynamically efficient in its class and improves fuel economy while it reduces interior wind noise, Mercedes says. The C-Class’ form is slightly more efficient aerodynamically than that of the BMW 328i. (Aerodynamic efficiency is measured in coefficient of drag “” Cd. The C-Class’ is 0.27 Cd and the 328i”s is 0.30 Cd.)
Mercedes achieved this in part with newly patented “ventilating rear lights” that replace a conventional rear spoiler typically positioned along the upper, rear edge of the trunk lid. Air flows up through the rear wheel wells and out behind the car through tiny vents cut into the taillights to reduce turbulence and streamline airflow around the vehicle.
Overall, the redesigned C-Class is visually stunning and a big step forward from its predecessor’s unremarkable aesthetics.
On the inside, the 2008 C-Class offers more refinement and luxury than did its predecessor.
Comfortable leather seats fit like gloves and offer plenty of lumbar support for long drives. The back seat, however, isn”t spacious. But compared with the previous generation, the new C-Class has more than 1.5 inches of additional shoulder- and elbow-room up front and in the rear. Cargo capacity remains nearly identical, up to 12.3 cubic feet from 12.2.
Thoughtful detailing sets the C-Class” interior apart from its competitors. Gauges in the instrument panel are sleek and sporty thanks to silver bezels, black faces, white markings and glowing orange needles.
Buyers can choose a sporty aluminum trim or the more luxurious, warm look of wood.
Also new for 2008 on the C-Class is Mercedes-Benz”s COMAND system, the all-in-one controller for the optional GPS navigation system, standard Bluetooth device and eight-speaker sound system. Using a menu-based interface and nifty retractable screen, the COMAND system is intuitive and much easier to operate than BMW”s iDrive system.
The C350’s driving position is excellent. Unfortunately, the optional three-spoke steering wheel that comes standard with the Advanced Agility Package felt too large in diameter, especially compared to the 3 Series’ compact and thick-rimmed steering wheel.
Both optional and standard steering wheels come with 12 buttons to control everything from the audio system to the new Linguatronic voice control system. Once activated, the C-Class’ navigation system can be operated solely by voice, just like the previous model’s audio and phone systems.
Using the COMAND controller, a large dial on the center console, it was simple to input new destinations in the navigation system. Plus, the 7-inch screen made following the system”s directions easy.
On the highway, the C-Class’ whisper-quiet interior makes the deep bass and clear treble of the optional Harmon Kardon Logic 7 sound system even more pleasurable. And iPod addicts can quickly get their music fix with the auxiliary hook-up in the armrest.
Interior temperatures are kept in check with a new climate control system. Mercedes says that the 2008 C-Class is the first vehicle in its segment to offer separate climate controls for the rear seat. Called Thermotronic in accordance with Mercedes’ cryptic “-tronic” naming scheme, the system worked flawlessly in the strong sun, pumping cooler air when solar sensors detected the sun’s rays, then warming us when the sun was obstructed by nearby mountains.
Safety-conscious consumers will appreciate the seven airbags and anti-whiplash head restraints that come standard. However, Mercedes-Benz’s Pre-Safe system, which automatically prepares for impending collisions by snugging the seat belts, repositioning seats and raising windows for optimum protection, is not available on the C-Class in the U.S. It was left off because of cost, a Mercedes spokesperson said, being that Pre-Safe requires a memory function for the front power-operated seats that was excluded from U.S.-bound C-Class sedans.
The luxurious accoutrements and ergonomically designed interior of the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class make it tough competition for the BMW 3 Series. When it comes to assessing the interiors of these two vehicles, we think that the more tactile controls and the COMAND system give the C-Class an edge over 3 Series models equipped with the optional iDrive system. However, 3 Series Sedans that exclude iDrive have simple interior controls that are easy to use.
Whether you find yourself slicing and dicing mountain switchbacks or simply commuting to work, the new C-Class offers a rewarding driving experience. Through the windy stuff, the C-Class remains remarkably flat in corners, especially with the optional Advanced Agility Package.
The package allows drivers to fine-tune the C-Class’ ride with two settings: sport and comfort. Sport mode compels the automatic transmission to shift and respond to throttle input more quickly. It also stiffens the suspension’s shock absorbers and lowers the car for better handling and more stability at high speeds. Steering input is also more precise in sport mode thanks to a newly developed speed-sensitive system.
The Advanced Agility Package will be available on U.S. C300 Sport and C350 Sport models starting with the 2009 model year. Without this package, steering felt a tad sluggish, but we doubt that the average driver will notice the difference in everyday driving. The overall experience was confidence-inspiring and fun. With the right combination of steering input and gas pedal application, the rear wheels can be broken free easily to induce controlled skids around turns and offer just enough excitement without ever feeling dangerous.
The C350 sprints to 60 miles per hour in 6.3 seconds and achieves a top speed of 130 mph. Whether passing on the freeway or starting from a stoplight, the C350 Sport”s engine felt as if there was always plenty of power in reserve. The EPA rates the C350″s fuel economy at 17 miles per gallon city and 25 mpg highway, which is a bit worse than that of the BMW 3 Series.
The less potent C300 reaches 60 mph in a respectable 7.2 seconds and achieves fuel economy of 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway.
Overall, the new C350 Sport is a solid competitor to BMW’s 3 Series “” the lack of an available manual transmission not withstanding. It’s clear that with this new model, Mercedes-Benz is serious about competing in the compact luxury sport sedan category.
If luxury is the priority, the Mercedes C-Class has a slight edge. But if you want a bigger engine that can be linked with a manual transmission, BMW is the only way to go. BMW also offers free factory-scheduled maintenance for the first four years of ownership.
Then there are other compelling models like the Audi A4, Cadillac CTS and Infiniti G35 (see more below in Closest Competitors or go to the Comparison Tool).
The gold-plated gauntlet has been thrown down, and we look forward to watching these worthy luxury combatants duke it out.
Is the Mercedes-Benz C-Class for You?
Buy the C-Class if
You want to commute in comfort; you don’t usually need room for more than four adults; prestige and comfort are priorities.
Keep Looking if
You need to seat five adults comfortably; you want a high-performance compact sport sedan with a manual transmission (only the base C300 Sport offers a manual, not the C350 Sport); you don”t see the value in paying more for a Mercedes when comparable sedans from carmakers like Acura, Cadillac, Infiniti, Saab and Volvo cost less.
The C-Class comfortably seats four average-sized adults (or two adults and three kids), though backseat legroom is tight for tall/large occupants.
Audi A4, Acura TL, BMW 3 Series, Cadillac CTS, Infiniti G35, Lexus IS, Saab 9-3, Volvo S40.
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Gallery: