Saturday, October 23, 2004

Mercedes-Benz upgrades C-Class

Best-selling line of cars ripe for a little
nip and tuck

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor
2005 Mercedes-Benz C-Class


Mercedes-Benz's eight C Class models receive exterior and interior enhancements for 2005.

What I drove: Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Prices: C230 Sport Coupe: $26,570, C230 Sport Sedan: $29,970; C240 Sedan: $33,370, C240 Wagon: $34,870; C320 Sport Coupe: $28,970, C320 Sport Sedan: $38,070, C320 Sedan: $38,670; C55 AMG: $54,620

Summary: Mid-year updates give more sport and luxury to Baby Benz

Drive: Rear- and all-wheel drive

Engines: C230: 189-hp 1.8-liter supercharged inline four; C240: 168-hp 2.6-liter V-6; C320: 215-hp 3.2-liter V-6; C55 AMG: 362-hp 5.5-liter V-8

Transmissions: 6-speed manual; 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 106.9 inches

Weight: 3,250 to 3,540 pounds

EPA mpg, city/highway: 16/22 (C55 AMG) to 23/32 (C230 sport coupe)

Warranty: Basic and drivetrain: 4 years/50,000 miles; roadside assist: unlimited years/unlimited miles

Safety: Dual front, side, and side-curtain air bags; antilock brakes; traction and stability control; brake assist; LATCH child-seat anchors; seat belt pretensioners

Cool: Three slick body styles, solid build, finally a Benz-worthy interior, new 6-speed shifter, Mercedes cachet for under $30,000

Uncool: Priced above rivals, tight rear seat, lackluster 2.6-liter V-6

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Extreme Makeover. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The Swan. Pimp My Ride. Judging from the TV listings, the whole world has gone makeover mad - automakers included.

Having undergone an extreme makeover in 2000, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class was ripe for a little nip and tuck. After all, competition is heating up in the duke-it-out near-luxe segment, once the domain of the BMW 3-Series, C-Class and Audi A4, and now home to the Acura TL, Infiniti G35, Cadillac CTS and Chrysler 300.

For their mid-cycle face lift, 2005 C-Class models - eight in all - receive exterior and interior enhancements, and a greater distinction between sport and luxury models.

Previous C-Class interiors were nothing to write home about, but this year's upgrades - including a new dashboard, center console, instrument cluster, three-spoke steering wheel, and seats - have finally given the Baby Benzes the upscale ambience they deserve. A great Harmon Karmen audio system replaces the previous Bose system.

Outside, all C-Class models retain their signature low hood line, arched roofline and "sideways melting snowman" headlights, but now sport clear-lens headlamps, new front and rear bumpers, new grilles and taillights.

On the performance side, the C230 and C320 sport coupes and sedans get AMG aero packages, 17-inch wheels, lowered suspensions, stiffer front bushings and a bigger rear anti-roll bar. The six-speed manual transmission features 20-percent shorter throws for more precise shifts.

Luxury models receive an improved seat design with adjustable driver's seat lumbar support, upgraded surface finishes, and a revised center console.

Four engines power the C-Class lineup. The C230 features a 189-horsepower, supercharged 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder. The C240 houses a 168-horsepower 2.6-liter V-6, and the C320 employs a 215-horsepower 3.2-liter V-6.

The C-Class's only V-8 engine is reserved for the new C55 AMG sedan. The hand-built 5.5-liter V-8 pumps out 362 horsepower and a prodigious 376 pound-feet of torque. It comes mated to a five-speed automatic with a SpeedShift manu-shifter that holds the gears until you shift yourself. Mercedes plans to sell only 1,200 C55 AMGs during the second half of this year. At $54,000, the C55 AMG is the priciest C-Class model.

The rest of the lineup is aimed at attracting first-time Benz buyers. Base prices range from $26,570 (for the C230 sport coupe) to $38,670 (for the C320 luxury sedan).

Sport models are offered with a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic with manu-shifter. Luxury models come exclusively with the automatic. All C-Class models come standard with rear-wheel drive, but sedans and wagons can be ordered with 4Matic all-wheel drive.

I test drove a rear-wheel-drive C230 sport sedan and a 240 4Matic AWD wagon. The C230's 189-horsepower, supercharged 1.8-liter is livelier (cheaper, too) than the C240's 168-horsepower V-6, which feels lazy at takeoff - though the AWD system offers super road-holding ability. The C230's short-throw, six-speed shifter and rack-and-pinion steering give the sport sedan crisper manners than its predecessors, though it's not as snappy-sharp as the BMW 3-Series.

All in all, modest changes have made a positive impact on Mercedes-Benz's best-selling line of cars. The C-Class may be your cheapest ticket into a Benz, but now it feels Benzier than ever.


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