Full Test: 1998 Mercedes-Benz C280
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Full Test: 1998 Mercedes-Benz C280

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

1998 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Sedan

(2.8L V6 5-speed Automatic)
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Not everybody likes Mercedes-Benz. Specifically, those who can’t afford to own them. This I learned during the two weeks I spent cruising all over the state of Colorado in a 1998 Mercedes-Benz C280 sedan. It’s nothing personal, I guess, until you’re behind the wheel of the car staring through the gleaming silver lines of the three-pointed star.

Coloradoans are a friendly lot by nature, but blast by them in a snazzy new Mercedes and the mean green giant begins to awaken. Yep, jealousy rears its ugly head. Drivers who would normally let you merge into a lane of faster moving traffic refuse to, simply because you’re in a Benz. People who usually cringe and mouth ‘I’m sorry’ when they accidentally cut you off, take one look at your Mercedes hood ornament, toss their head and drive off haughtily, as if to say: you don’t deserve my apology since you have obviously arrived. Even a friend of mine admitted it, confessing that she never lets anyone driving a Mercedes pull into her lane in front of her. Behind her, okay, since she can’t help it, but she still glares.

Maybe it’s not just Mercedes’ owners. Perhaps drivers of BMWs, Saabs and Volvos get treated the same way all over the highways and backroads of America. It really doesn’t matter all that much, I eventually came to realize, secure in the knowledge that most people on the road couldn’t keep up with me in my fuel-injected 2.8-liter V6. This and every Mercedes-Benz vehicle is a finely tuned specimen of German engineering. I knew it and they knew it, and that’s what made them mad.

It’s not like I sat at red lights revving my engine, daring anyone to try and beat me off the line. I didn’t have to. And besides, in a Benz, you have to be more aloof than that. You’ve got an image to uphold, after all—one of security, confidence and refinement. Oh, and of course, toughness. Yes, these Benzes are tough. How else do you explain the chase scene in the movie, The Peacemaker? You know the one, where George Clooney and Nicole Kidman outmaneuver the thugs in a convoy of black BMWs, careening through the cobblestone streets of Vienna, Austria, as they elude, ram and ultimately destroy the BMWs and the thugs who were chasing them. Somehow, through it all, their shiny new silver Mercedes survives … at least until a fire causes the Benz to blow up, destroying the important documentation that precipitated the harrowing chase in the first place … but I digress.

From the outside, the C280 looks exactly like what it is: a small near-luxury sedan oozing style and class. The trademark Mercedes grille and the notorious hood ornament make the C280 appear fit for a queen. When I first slipped into the pumpkin-colored leather driver’s seat, I felt underdressed in my T-shirt and jeans, like I should be wearing a suit and yapping on my cell phone about stock prices or something. Then I realized this little sedan was not just a stodgy old Mercedes image car. It was much more. The car was good-looking, well built and sporty to boot.

As I howled out of the parking lot of my coworkers’ apartment complex, I noticed that there was a bit of a lag time from when I pushed the gas pedal and when the Benz lurched forward with a tremendous surge of power. Having driven a 1998 Saab 9-5 that very same day (which basically peels the asphalt off the road as soon as you hit the gas), this lag time in the Mercedes concerned me. After two weeks with the small German sedan, however, I’d gotten used to it.

Driving the C280 was pure bliss, whether screaming down the highway or snaking along a winding road. Visibility was excellent, steering was responsive and the suspension made it feel like the car was floating over the road. The seats are easy to adjust and very comfortable. More than once, I was surprised to glance down at the speedometer and realize that I was cruising along at well over 100 mph, when it felt more like 50 mph. The only negatives relating to the driving experience were the somewhat jerky transmission and that annoying lack of low-end torque.

Safety features on our test vehicle included the BabySmart airbag system that disengages the front passenger airbag when a Mercedes child seat is installed, and Brake Assist, which provides faster braking than humanly possible if the car decides that the driver hit the brake pedal in a panic. Though some are skeptical of cars that think they know more about our impending doom than we do, the Brake Assist worked extremely well when inadvertently tested on I-25, the main highway that runs through Denver. Side impact airbags are also standard, though we can’t understand why they are mounted in the door rather than the seat, which is a safer placement for passengers of varying sizes.

Inside, the smallest of the Mercedes sedans feels quite roomy to all except the tallest people who have a hard time with the low roof height of the car. Our editor-in-chief commented: "The C280 needs a tilt and telescoping steering column. With the seat comfortably positioned, I had to fold myself in and out from under the steering wheel." For a vehicle at this price point, our wish list also included a one-touch sunroof opener, an in-dash CD player, more cubby space in the front center console and the ability to position the power seats before the ignition is turned on. It would also be nice to have a power delay that allowed you to raise the windows during the first few seconds after the car was turned off, especially since many vehicles costing thousands less than the C280 offer this feature standard.

Each editor who got behind the wheel of this little sedan raved about the high quality of the interior materials, the outstanding brake action and the Volvo-level seat comfort. The backseat provides plenty of room for kids and adults on short trips, and trunk space is impressive. The CD changer located in the trunk is set down into the floor of the trunk, which leaves more room for cargo storage, and it has a protective top so that it won’t be damaged by heavy luggage. The CD player did skip quite often during the two weeks the car lived with me, though when it was working properly, the Bose stereo and speaker system helped the music sound sweet and clear.

Mercedes also gets points for an innovative and space-saving cupholder design that pops up and swivels out of the center console when needed, then tucks neatly out of the way. On a trip through the mountains to Steamboat Springs, the vehicle never seemed to notice the high altitude or the wet, snowy pavement. Overall, the car wins accolades for its solid build, sporty powertrain and soothing, luxurious interior. I did not want to give this car back. After two weeks, you sort of grow attached. In the end, though, I decided jail wasn’t a viable alternative and begrudgingly relinquished the keys to my supervisor.

Giving an automotive journalist a Mercedes for two weeks and then taking it away is akin to dangling a juicy steak in front of a Rottweiler and then eating it yourself. So I can understand the envy part of the other drivers on the road. Still, no one who has ever driven the C280 can honestly say they wouldn’t take one if it was offered to them—or if it was more affordable. And while there may be competing models out there with lower price tags and more amenities, there’s still nothing quite like driving a Benz …

It’s enough to make people jealous.

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