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Published: 11/09/2000 - by Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
So if you had $1.3 billion, what would you do with it? Invest it? Spend it frivolously by buying everything from the Macy's online catalog for each of your 500 closest friends? Donate it to charity? Get Ted Koppel some new hair? (Buying Ted hair would actually be considered a tax-deductible donation.)
Mercedes-Benz has $1.3 billion. Or, rather, it did have it. It blew through that wad of cash for a car the new C-Class, specifically. That's a pretty stunning amount of money to spend on the development of a car. But Mercedes believes that every penny of its investment was worth it. The C-Class is the company's entry-level luxury car in the United States, competing in a segment that has grown from 623,000 vehicles sold in 1991 to 875,000 sold in 1999. Those vehicles represent the largest portion of the total luxury segment, at over 70 percent. For a luxury-focused company like Mercedes to sell an uncompetitive car in this segment would be almost unthinkable.
The previous C-Class was available from 1994 to 2000. Prestigious and luxurious, the final year was perhaps the car's best, with a lineup including the supercharged C230, a V6-powered C280 and the high-performance C43. The 2000 cars also had additional content in the form of Tele Aid and Touch Shift transmissions. But even with these upgrades, proverbial gray hairs were starting to appear. More recent products from BMW and Lexus were fresher, cheaper and offered a more stimulating drive. Dynamically and stylistically, the C-Class was becoming old.
When a car is redesigned, it is common to see a growth in size, as that keeps the marketing guys happy. But place a 2001 C-Class next to a 2000 model, and you will be hard pressed to notice any dimensional changes. The new car rides on a 106.9-inch wheelbase versus the old car's 105.9-inch measurement. Overall length, height and width are virtually identical, as is cabin volume (88.6 cubic feet vs. 88.0). Trunk space is slightly less with the new car (12.0 vs. 12.9), but passenger accommodations such as legroom and headroom are either identical or slightly more. It would seem that Mercedes considered the previous C-Class "right-sized" and saw little reason to change it.
It is in the other areas of car design structural engineering, features, safety equipment, and driving dynamics that Mercedes decided to improve upon. In a way, you could think of the new C-Class as the result of a genetic experiment where C-Class, E-Class and S-Class DNA has been chopped up and placed into the automotive version of a Human Genome Project sequencing machine.
This process is most apparent by looking at the car's exterior styling. The basic profile and shape of the car is remotely similar to the previous C-Class, but it is more modern and draws heavily from the styling applied to the new-for-2000 S-Class. The car is youthful looking now, with swooping C-pillars, a sculpted hood, a trimmer waistline and stronger shoulders. Aerodynamic drag is a super-low 0.27 Cd. The headlights and taillights are styled to fit more closely into the Mercedes-Benz family lineage, with triangle-shaped taillights seemingly straight off an S-Class, LED turn signals fitted in the side mirrors and guitar-shaped headlights that look like the E-Class' quad lamps melted and stuck together. Overall, our staff wasn't drooling over the new C-Class' styling (the headlight design was the most maligned), but certainly nobody hated the styling and we compliment Mercedes for updating the car's looks without being too timid or radical.
Underneath that new sheetmetal is an all-new body structure. Mercedes says it is 26 percent stiffer in static torsional resistance, while bending resistance is 50 percent improved. The front strut-type suspension design has been updated by utilizing two lower links, along with coil springs, twin-tube gas shocks and an antiroll bar. By using two lower links instead of one large link (or control arm), Mercedes says front-impact crash absorption is enhanced. The rear multi-link suspension has also been updated to improve vehicle stability and wheel control at high cornering speeds. Complementing the improved stability are larger and thicker brake rotors, new brake calipers and a more powerful brake booster. There is also a new rack-and-pinion steering system, a change from the previous C-Class' recirculating-ball steering design.
Another C-Class change is the lineup of engines. In fact, all of the engines found in the 2000 C-Class are gone, replaced by two new V6s. The C240 Sedan has a 2.6-liter engine and the C320 has a 3.2-liter V6 (Yes, "240" makes little sense, thereby keeping Mercedes' reputation for cryptic badging intact.). The smaller engine produces 168 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 177 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm. The larger engine profits from its extra 0.6 liter of displacement by making 215 horsepower at 5,700 rpm and 221 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm. As a rather interesting aside, the C320, BMW 330i, Acura TL and Lexus IS 300 make nearly identical amounts of horsepower and torque, so no car has a clear advantage in power output.
Both C-Class engines feature modern Mercedes architecture, with aluminum construction, a double plenum intake manifold, a single overhead camshaft per cylinder bank and twin-spark/three-valve-per-cylinder technology. Mercedes says it uses two spark plugs and three valves per cylinder to reduce emissions without any corresponding loss in horsepower. There's also a computer that takes readings from a variety of sensors to determine optimal service intervals, thereby eliminating scheduled oil changes in the conventional sense.
Two transmissions are offered for the 2001 C-Class. The C240 can be ordered with a six-speed manual transmission, the first time a manual has been offered in a Mercedes sedan in a very long time. The other choice is a five-speed automatic, and that is the only transmission offered in the C320. The automatic features Touch Shift, a feature that first appeared on the C-Class in 2000. Touch Shift allows manual gear selection of the automatic by pushing the shift lever to the left slightly to downshift and to the right slightly to upshift. When in normal drive mode, the electronically controlled automatic can also adapt to both road conditions and driver style.
Another carryover from the previous car is Electronic Stability Program, or ESP. Found on every Mercedes product and tailored to each specific model, ESP uses a steering angle sensor, speed sensors at each wheel, sensors for lateral acceleration and vehicle yaw to calculate the path being asked by the driver (through the steering) versus the vehicle's actual path. If there is a discernable difference, ESP activates to reduce the chances of understeer and oversteer, thereby improving the safety of the vehicle. Traction control and ABS with brake assist are also standard equipment.
If the C-Class does get into an accident, there are plenty of other new measures to keep occupants safe. The body structure itself features new reinforcements in the body floor, doors and roof pillars to improve impact absorption. Tele Aid, Mercedes' cellular-based emergency call system, is standard in both models. Inside the cabin, all five seating positions in the new C-Class are fitted with three-point belts with electronically controlled pre-tensioners. Front passengers get dual-stage front airbags and door-mounted side airbags. Rear outboard passengers also get side airbags, and curtain airbags deploy from the headliner to offer head protection to all outboard passengers. Like before, the C-Class has BabySmart, a system that uses transponders to detect the presence of a BabySmart-compatible child seat to automatically deactivate the front passenger-side airbag. As of this writing, the 2001 C-Class hasn't been tested yet by the NHTSA or IIHS, so we can't comment on how effective the safety systems will be. There should be room for improvement, though; in NCAP tests, the previous C-Class never achieved five stars in either frontal- or side-impact ratings.
Fortunately, we never had to test the crashworthiness of the C-Class ourselves, but we were able to evaluate nearly every other aspect of the car. Our test vehicle was a C320 equipped with the C6 Sport Package. First impressions? It is obvious that Mercedes has upped the sporting content of the C-Class, a move that certainly has a few BMW execs popping more antacid tablets than usual. The new rack-and-pinion steering system is a big improvement, offering better feel and response. Some people might think it is too heavy for parking lot maneuvers, and it still does not connect the driver to the road in the way that a BMW steering system can. But it weights up nicely while cornering and exhibits little play on center, so you can't ask for too much more.
Equipped with the sport package, our test car's handling abilities seemed better than the old C280 and certainly closer to the high-performance C43. Like most Mercedes cars, the car conveys a sense of solid stability. But driven back to back against a 330i, we would say that the C320's suspension engineers still have some more work to do before they can claim superiority. On twisty canyon roads, the C320 doesn't inspire the confidence or generate the level of enthusiasm that the BMW can. There's more body roll (it's 123 pounds heavier than the 2000 C280), and the theoretical payoff in terms of better ride quality doesn't seem to be there.
Still, the fact that the new car begs to be compared to a 3 Series shows just how far it has come. When it comes down to performance handling numbers in the slalom, the Mercedes is about equal to the BMW, and the C320 is certainly more of a pleasure to pilot aggressively than a front-drive Lexus ES 300 or Acura TL.
Another enthusiast bonus is the new 3.2-liter V6 engine. It is very smooth and quiet as expected but it also puts out about 10 percent more torque and horsepower than the C280's 2.8-liter V6. At the track, our test car ran from zero to 60 in 7.5 seconds and posted a quarter-mile time of 15.75 seconds at 91 mph. Power is available throughout the rev band, and acceleration seems best from around 3,000 rpm to redline. Braking is simply outstanding. Our car stopped from 60 mph to zero in 111 feet, one of the best figures we have ever recorded.
The enthusiast leanings stop at the transmission, however. Since the manual can't be ordered with the C320, drivers are stuck with the auto. This certainly won't be a problem for the majority of current Mercedes owners, but it won't attract any buyers who insist on having a manual. Like NutraSweet or reading about sex, the Touch Shift function is a poor substitute for the real thing. There is a noticeable time delay between when the driver asks for a shift and the transmission actually acts upon the request. If we lower our expectations to more real-world usage, the transmission's fortunes improve, as it works great around town and on the freeway, always picking the right gear and just generally being transparent.
It's also during those mundane times of urban transit that the C-Class shows how it is still one of the best entry-level cars in terms of luxury and feature content. Wind and road noise are minimal, and the interior design, like the exterior, has gained many family traits found in more expensive Mercedes-Benz cars. Interior material quality has been improved, with every interior plastic panel touchable from the driver's seat being of the soft-touch variety. Leather quality on the seats was high on our sport package-equipped test car, though only one of our editors liked the sport package's engraved aluminum trim; the rest said it looked cheap and unfinished.
An all-new S-Class-inspired gauge cluster features a large analog speedometer along with a smaller fuel gauge and tachometer. The tach is too small in our opinion, but we were very impressed with the menu-driven LCD screen. Operated by large and convenient buttons on the thick steering wheel, the screen can display parameters like running time, language (no Swedish, sorry), outside temperature, service intervals and audio settings. It can also be used to adjust settings of the door locks and exterior lights.
Control ergonomics irked some members of our staff, though it seemed to trouble the newer staffers unfamiliar with the "Mercedes-Benz School of Wonky Control Layout." Window switches? Those would be on the door near the floor. Seat controls? Oh, those are on the door, too. The large allotment of buttons on the dash and for the audio and climate systems can be intimidating. Our more seasoned staffers note, however, that there is logic to the madness, and that after spending time in the car, things do make more sense. Interior storage is better than before, with large door bins and a dual-level center bin. The glove box is also roomy, but the optional CD changer in our test car took up a decent percentage of it. Nobody, but nobody, liked the elegant but nearly useless cupholder.
Best then to use the optional COMAND navigation system to get yourself to a sit-down coffee house. COMAND also integrates the telephone and audio system. Other options include heated seats, high-intensity discharge headlights and an integrated digital cellular phone system. The C2 Package includes a sunroof, rain-sensing windshield wipers and a one-touch power rear-window sunshade. Standard equipment highlights include automatic headlights, an auto-dimming mirror, remote fold-down rear headrests, a power-operated steering wheel (optional on the C240), dual-zone automatic climate control with an active charcoal filter, and a Bose premium audio system (also optional on the C240).
Of course, all of these features don't come free of charge. Pricing is similar to the previous C-Class, but to say that our test car's price is "entry-level" would be a big stretch. Compared to our car, a Lexus IS 300 costs approximately $10,000 less, and an Acura TL with the GPS navigation system (the only feature not standard) is about $12,000 less. Ouch.
But then those cars don't have the three-pointed star on the hood, do they? For consumers who want a solid and prestigious entry-level luxury car with an unparalleled list of options, the C320 is about as good as it gets for 2001. It is also more of a sedan that would appeal to the sporting enthusiast, but for the time being, that crown is still on the head of the 3 Series.
Road Test Summary
System Score: 8.0
Components. Designed by Bose, the system begins with a 9-inch, low-excursion subwoofer along the back deck. This is complemented by a pair of 6.5-inch coaxial (6.5-inch mid-bass with a 2-inch built-in tweeter) full range drivers in the rear doors. The front doors contain another pair of 6.5-inch speakers down below, rolled off to function in the mid-bass range, with a pair of nicely mated and positioned 1.5-inch tweeters in the side mirror patches. There is also a "stealth" 2-inch midrange-tweeter center fill speaker housed in the dash top, in an enclosure that also doubles as an air vent. The system has a few unusual and welcome features, such as an LED readout in the main instrument cluster that informs the driver of radio station call numbers, CD track number, etc. This is an excellent design idea, since it allows the driver to look front and center for this information, not all over the car, and keeps the driver's eyes elevated and on the road. The steering wheel buttons allow drivers to control volume, CD track numbers, seek functions and radio presets.
The head unit itself is a little more puzzling. While it offers a wonderful rubberized volume knob and a logical feel and topography to the radio as a whole, I continue to scratch my head at the station presets (10 AM/10 FM), which are located, as in many other Mercedes vehicles, on the "far" side of the radio. Is this because they're using an international, one-size-fits-all tooling design, or does Mercedes have another reason for doing this that they're not divulging? Whatever the reason, it's annoying and inconvenient, particularly, I would imagine, for drivers of smaller stature with shorter arms. Something to consider on the redesign, Mercedes.
Rounding out the system is a cassette player hidden behind the radio display, and a six-disc CD changer in the glove box. At first glance, the CD changer would appear to be a great addition, but the individual trays inside the changer cartridge must be pulled out for proper CD loading extremely aggravating! and this is irksome compared to other changers we've seen.
A few other minor beefs. The tone controls do not have a "mid" adjustment, something we've begun to see more and more of, even on much cheaper systems. And the faceplate, though well appointed, has slightly crowded buttons.
On the plus side, the radio offers marine band, so you can listen for small craft warnings while driving your 320 to the marina.
Performance. This is a great sounding system. Everything about the sound is tight, accurate, refined and impressive. Bass notes have a fullness and "roundness" not found in most OEM systems. Likewise, the mid-frequencies show great detail and definition. I found the tweeters just slightly "hot" at flat setting, but not overbearing. Kick drums and percussion have great attack, and female vocals, while a little strident, are for the most part smooth and lush. Horns are a little boxy, but the sax is a complex instrument, difficult to reproduce accurately, so join the club. The power amp kicks butt, providing tight and powerful amplification throughout the frequency band. And the soundstage is spacious and impressive, with great detail right, left and center.
Best Feature: Overall sonic balance.
Worst Feature: Funky ergonomics: misplaced presets; clunky CD tray.
Conclusion. This is one fine audio system. Other than a few irksome styling cues, it rocks. Scott Memmer
"I just received delivery of my new C320 and overall I am very impressed with the vehicle. In terms of creature comforts and performance, it beats my previous 323i hands down. The only thing that bothers me is that it idles [noisily]. I remember the Mercedes of the past and one thing I remember was how loud they sounded at the intersection. This vehicle is not that bad, but it does seem to have that characteristic Mercedes idle. Is this design intent? Are all Mercedes meant to idle like that? It doesn't run rough or anything, just louder than the BMW. There were times that I couldn't tell that the BMW was running, but I hear this engine distinctly." larryeh, "Mercedes-Benz C-Class (Part 5)," #103 of 424, Oct. 10, 2000
"You have to ask yourself if you want an "adequate" engine or a very fast engine. I think also that many people may be getting the five-speed tranny and this dictates that they buy the 240. A five-speed manual tranny 240 is actually a very good bargain compared to the alternatives. The 320's engine is just so competent and smooth, I am glad I chose it over the 240. I have driven the BMW 330 and the 320 (non sport) and 2001 GS 300 and I think the engine/tranny combo on the 320 was my favorite, the handling (cornering mostly) on the BMW was the best and the interior comfort of the GS was my first choice. But I chose the 320 because I felt it fit my wants the best: fast, excellent handling, lots of neat gadgets, very safe, and very comfortable." investormb, "Mercedes-Benz C-Class (Part 5)," #145 of 424, Oct. 13, 2000
"Took delivery of my C320 on September 14, and I'm still waiting for my CD changer to be installed. Dealer and MB headquarters claims that the mounting bracket is on back order. I was told when I took delivery it would be in one or two weeks (over a month has passed) has anyone else had the dealer install the changer for them in glove box? ... Anyway, here are some reviews since I've put 1,800 miles on the car in one month. Looks great, very fast love to drive it, very lux and handles great. My neighbor started calling me "THE JONES." Have not [run] across one person [who] didn't love this car brilliant silver with ash [interior]. This is my 1st Benz but not my last. Have to clean the front rims 2 to 3 times a week due to brake dust, any hints on how to get around this? This car draws a lot of attention, one, because it's a new model and the other is that it is a Mercedes-Benz. You will have all walks of life coming up to you, young and old different gender asking questions and looking at the car. When you park the car, coming back you will see people standing and commenting about the car. I'm sure you understand what I'm trying to say. Hope this post will help give someone some insight on how you will feel when you get your car. IT'S WORTH THE WAIT YOU WILL SEE." 4rf, "Mercedes-Benz C-Class (Part 5)," #223 of 424, Oct. 18, 2000
"I picked up my brilliant silver/ash leather, moonroof, split rear seat C320 on Monday evening. I ordered the car in late April it was built on 9/7/00 and reached the VPC in SoCal on 10/16/00. Paid precisely MSRP + tax/title/license, though I may get a break on some aftermarket stuff (CD changer, trunk net, car cover). The sales rep and dealer [Hoehn, Carlsbad, CA (San Diego North County)] handled everything in a smooth, straightforward manner. Initial impressions: this is a beautiful car, well designed, well made, and drives great. The complexity of the car's controls takes some getting used to, and some serious study of the owner's manual! That manual is 370 pages long! As with other MB cars, you also get a 32-page spiral-bound "Quick Tips" booklet, which summarizes all the control functions and options. There are some strange (to me) options: for example, the "Daytime Running Lights" option seems to simply turn on all the normal running lights when you start the car, rather than turning on only the headlights at reduced intensity." sandiegotum, "Mercedes-Benz C-Class (Part 5)," #312 of 424, Oct. 25, 2000
[A participant's rather lucid justification for not buying a 2001 C320] "We came to a realization a couple of weeks ago that a fully loaded C320 (less phone and navigation) came to almost $50K out the door. The problem is: this is not a $50K car by any means. The gadgets are great, but substance is lacking. We have a 2000 A4 (modified 1.8T quattro five-speed), and in many ways, less all the power items, it is a superior automobile (although service leaves something to be desired). By the way, it only cost $32K out the door, and it is in the same 'class' as the C. This past Saturday, we ordered a 2001 530i: it is much more car and only $5K more out the door. This is indeed a $50K car. It may not be a new body style, but the bugs are worked out. I give the best transmission award to MB, and kudos for styling, but engine, handling, comfort, safety (I know, big debate), and many more points go to the BMW making the $5K a no-brainer. MB simply priced themselves out of this segment. For those of you looking at base models with few options, the C is great, but if you're looking for substance and luxury, $15K in options is just plain crazy. Just some food for thought. jmw1072, "New 2001 Mercedes C-Class, C32 discussion," #522 of 567, Oct. 3, 2000
--Edited by Erin Riches
Specifications and Performance
|Price as Tested:||$43,617|
|Drive Type:||Rear-wheel drive|
|Transmission Type:||5-speed automatic|
|Valve Train:||3-valves per cylinder|
|Horsepower (hp @ rpm):||215 @ 5700|
|Torque (lb-feet @ rpm):||221 @ 3000-4600|
|Curb Weight (lbs):||3,439|
|Sticker EPA (mpg):||19 City 25 Highway|
|Edmunds Observed (mpg):||NA|
|Temp (deg Fahrenheit):||64|
|Wind:||9 mph (W)|
|0 - 60 Acceleration (sec):||7.5|
|1/4 Mile (sec @ mph):||firstname.lastname@example.org|
|60 - 0 Braking (ft):||111|
|200 ft. Skidpad (g's):||No Data|
|600 ft. Slalom (mph):||60.5|
|The best run was with the transmission shifting by itself and the traction control off. Strong, powerful and smooth, nice...|
|Braking performance is one of the best numbers recorded and in the same range as the Porsche Carrera and the Chevrolet Corvette Z06. The brakes felt very refined, but did allow some audbile skidding of the tires.|
|Skidpad not available at the time of testing.|
|The car certainly felt sporty and very un-Mercedes like when going through the cones, but still has a little to go to reach into BMW range. If you like Mercedes-Benz products, this will not disappoint you if you are looking for a more performance-oriented car.|
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