2002 Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG Road Test

2002 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Sedan

(3.2L V6 Supercharger 5-speed Automatic)

At 155 mph, nobody can hear you scream. Well, outside the vehicle, anyway.

Welcome to the C32 AMG, the latest automotive thrill ride from Mercedes-Benz. By packing 349 horsepower into a 3,540-pound body, Mercedes has turned the otherwise sterile C-Class sedan into a hooligan ready to riot at a Germany-UK soccer match. Drive one, and you'll need to buckle up tight and keep your arms inside the vehicle at all times. Oh, and please, no barfing on the seats.

The C32 joins the CLK55, SLK32, E55, S55, CL55 and the ML55 in the AMG stable. AMG, Mercedes' in-house tuning division, is given the mission to expand the performance envelope of Mercedes products while still providing high levels of technology, refinement and luxury. It is based in Affalterbach (near Stuttgart) and has responsibility for all its own development processes relating to engines, drivetrain, suspension, brakes, aerodynamics, interior and design.

With its $51,635 starting price, the C32 is the least expensive 2002 AMG product. It's also, for the first time in high-performance C-Class history, a true match to its nemesis, the BMW M3. And while we didn't have an M3 around for direct comparison, we're confident in saying that the new C32 has several advantages over the M3.

On the outside, the C32 subtly notifies other drivers about its potential. The front features an aggressively styled chin with a lower mesh grille and foglights, while the rear and sides get extra aerodynamic add-ons. The trunk lid is marked with AMG and C32 badges, and there's also a V6 Kompressor badge on the front left fender. Most striking are the 17-inch AMG twin-spoke wheels, a welcome stylistic change from the more typical Monoblock AMG wheels.

To find out what the C32 is really about, you'll need to look under the hood. During the production run of the previous C-Class generation, there were two performance models — the C36 and the C43 (AMG products are traditionally given only two numerals, as opposed to a standard Mercedes vehicle's three). Despite having less engine displacement and two fewer cylinders than the V8-powered C43, the new C32 is a step up in terms of power.

The usual Mercedes black plastic engine shroud has been removed, revealing a compact 18-valve 3.2-liter V6 like the C320's. But that is where the similarity ends. Snuggled up between the two cylinder banks is a belt-driven supercharger. Thanks to this hot-rodding piece of hardware, the C32's engine makes numbers even a Corvette owner would be impressed by. At 6,100 rpm (also the vehicle's redline), the C32 produces 349 hp. There's also plenty of grunt; a healthy 332-lb-ft wallop of torque is produced at 4,400 rpm.

So endowed, the C32 is quite good at embarrassing unsuspecting (or even suspecting) sports car owners. Stand on the throttle from a stop, and the car launches quicker than an Internet rumor about Jennifer Lopez's sex life. There's no waiting or windup; the car simply goes. With so much power available, the rear tires frequently lose grip even when the front wheels are pointed straight. This causes the stern traction control system to step in and squash the wheelspin party. Boo!

Turning off the traction control nets the best acceleration times. We recorded a 0-to-60-mph time of 5.4 seconds, and the quarter-mile was passed in 13.8 seconds at 105.4 mph. This isn't as fast as Mercedes' claimed 4.9-second 0-to-60 figure. After some analysis, we think the C32 should be capable of that time; the similarly powered SLK32 we tested posted a 4.8 second 0-to-60, as well as a quarter-mile time of 13.3 seconds at 105.4 mph. As the C32 and SLK32's miles-per-hour figures are identical (a good indicator of actual horsepower), we're guessing that the C32's slower times were due to the poor traction conditions in which we tested.

The C32's intercooled helical-type supercharger was jointly developed with IHI, a Japanese company known for turbocharger and supercharger applications. Mercedes says the supercharger can generate up to 14 psi of boost pressure, a much higher pressure than most other production supercharged engines make. The supercharger also features an electromagnetic coupling that allows the supercharger to disengage during partial load conditions. With the supercharger disengaged, the engine operates purely as a normally aspirated engine, thereby reducing fuel consumption, exhaust emissions and noise.

To bolster the V6 for the times when the extra atmosphere of pressure is applied, AMG equips the engine with tougher connecting rods, pistons, valve springs, camshafts and crankshaft. It also lowers the compression ratio to 9.0:1. Thanks to a tuned exhaust system, the V6 produces a deeper and throatier sound. Superchargers typically produce a whining sound, but in this application, AMG has muffled it enough so that most owners won't notice. During the development of the C32, Mercedes says it considered a variety of different engines, including a V8. In the end, its engineers found that the supercharged V6 could produce just as much power as the V8 while being more compact, thereby having positive effects on weight distribution and vehicle crash behavior.

The V6 transfers its power to the rear wheels via a five-speed automatic transmission. Keep the wheels straight and plant the throttle, and the C32 rides a big North Shore wave of acceleration. Each shift is swift, and Mercedes says they are up to 35-percent quicker than shifts in a C320. For such a fast car, though, it's a strange sensation not to be more connected to the process of gaining velocity. When a car has a good manual transmission, you feel like a part of the action while rowing through the gears and legging the clutch. Much like a horse jockey switching his horse for more speed, operating a manual makes it seem like you're willing the car to go beyond its limits.

No manual transmission is available, but Mercedes has gone to considerable lengths to make this automatic as sporting as possible. Called SpeedShift, it has a lockup clutch for every gear above first, thereby reducing torque converter slip and improving engine response. Gearing is taller than in the normal C-Class, but the C32 is still quite capable of running smack into its electronic 155-mph speed limiter. (We've heard a rumor indicating that AMG discreetly removes the limiter for customers in Germany looking for extra thrust to dust off Porsche 911s. The result is a top speed of more than 170 mph.)

The transmission also has a number of programming features not found on other Mercedes' automatics. For example, if the driver brakes aggressively, the transmission will automatically execute a downshift — useful before taking a bend in brisk fashion, for example. At a certain level of lateral acceleration, the transmission also maintains the same gear through the entire bend, maximizing chassis stability and allowing the driver to accelerate out of the corner quickly.

Leaving the transmission in drive is perhaps the best option, as the manual mode doesn't give the driver much more control. The manual mode is selected by bumping the lever to the left or right. Only the tiny and hard-to-read gear indicator on the gauge display tells the driver what gear has been selected. Even if a gear is manually selected, the transmission will automatically shift if redline is reached. We also noticed that attempts at short shifting using the manual mode are futile as the programming assumes the driver wants redline shifts at anything more than half throttle.

These are minor points, however, and the auto hardly detracts from the fun generated by driving the C32 enthusiastically on twisty roads. It is certainly the most maneuverable and tossable AMG sedan. Over the standard C320, the C32 gains a lower ride height, reconfigured spring and shock tuning, thicker antiroll bars, and larger wheels and tires. The twin-spoke wheels are wrapped with 225/45R17 Pirelli P Zero Rosso tires at the front and 245/40R17s in the rear.

After just a few corners, it's readily apparent that this isn't your regular Mercedes sedan. Body roll is kept to a minimum, and the Rosso tires grip predictably. The C32 can be pushed to impressive speeds, indeed. Understeer is the dominant handling state, but oversteer can be induced with the throttle. If the driver exceeds his own limits, the Electronic Stability Control system (ESP) is there to step in. By applying individual brakes or retarding the throttle, ESP can counteract vehicle yaw to help prevent dangerous skids or spins. We didn't find ESP to be overly intrusive, an annoyance we often encounter with Mercedes products. Should driver stupidity exceed even the ESP's limits, the C32, like other C-Class vehicles, comes with outboard seatbelt force limiters, front dual-stage airbags, door-mounted front-and-rear side airbags and head-protecting side-curtain airbags.

When Mercedes redesigned the C-Class for 2001, it paid attention to making the car more sporting, such as changing the steering from recirculating ball to a more precise rack-and-pinion setup. It carries into the C32 unchanged, offering a hefty yet direct feel. It is also responsive, but mid-turn bumps and front tire scrub result in uncomfortable kickback and shudder through the steering column, which gets transmitted directly to the driver's hands.

For our slalom test, the C32 made it through at 67.4 mph, a bit faster than the M3 we tested. Braking is handled by vented and cross-drilled front and rear discs, which measure 13.6 and 11.8 inches, respectively. Pedal feel is progressive, and repeated hammering has no negative affect on stopping ability. Equipped with ABS and Brake Assist, the C32 can stop from 60 mph in 118 feet.

In the more normal situations of highway driving or mindless urban rush-hour(s) slog, AMG's baby sedan manages to provide a fairly comfortable ride. Minor road abrasions are soaked up, though the C32 impacts harshly on more menacing obstructions like potholes or railroad tracks. Overall, it's a good compromise, and the C32 is certainly capable of being used as a daily commuter. One problem: There's no spare tire. In its place, Mercedes provides a tire-inflator kit.

Most other luxury items come standard, such as supple AMG leather seating, sport-bolstered power front seats, a folding rear seat and the 10-speaker Bose sound system. An inexplicable lack of a CD player is the one exception. If you want one from the factory, you'll need to order the COMAND navigation system or the K2a voice-activated digital phone. Both of these are rather expensive. Other options include a rear power sunshade, rain-sensing wipers, high intensity discharge headlights and special interior trim colors.

Order a couple of options, and the C32 ends up being a mid-to-upper 50s sport sedan. This is expensive compared to a Honda Civic, but still quite affordable when other Mercedes go-fast products are considered. An E55 or S55 are at least $20,000 more. For the budget-minded Mercedes sport sedan buyer, the C32 is the car to get.

This could also be the case when the Audi S4 and BMW M3 are considered. The 2002 S4, riding on the previous-generation A4 platform and making only 250 hp, is rendered ineffective just two years after its debut. And the M3? This is the standard-bearer, yet the C32 manages to match it in acceleration, handling and ability to collect speeding tickets. The differences lie in the details.

The C32 holds an advantage in versatility thanks to its four doors and automatic transmission. Those who don't want to shift themselves could order BMW's new-for-2002 sequential manual transmission, but we don't expect it to be as smooth as the C32's SpeedShift. What the M3 does offer is a more intimate connection to the driver. It's sharper, more sporting and more race-bred. The C32 seeks to disconnect its occupants from the world; the M3 welcomes them to it.

Around the Edmunds.com offices, editors were asked the following question: "C32 or M3?" Faces scrunched. Brains bogged down. After much thought, the result was a hung jury. For Mercedes, this has to be viewed as success.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 6.0

Components: It never occurred to us that, more than 20 years after the introduction of the CD player, we'd still be using cassette tapes to test the dynamics of car audio systems. Of course, this was decades before Mercedes-Benz started selling $50,000 cars without CD players. In this era when even Corollas and Civics come with a CD player in-dash, leave it to Mercedes to have the huevos to charge another two grand to add a CD player to your system — and live to tell about it. But such is the cachet of the prestigious German brand, that it's able to pull it off. More power to 'em. As for ourselves, after more than a year of grumbling, we've finally decided to add a cassette tape to our test library, if for no other reason than we're tired of trying to evaluate Mercedes' stereos with FM radio signal only. Go figure.

The Bose system in this C32 AMG starts with a head unit that is a cosmetically improved version of the head the company has been installing for several years now. We're not crazy about it. Things are very bunched together on the faceplate, with crowded buttons and user-unfriendly controls. We've beefed ad infinitum about the radio presets being on the far right side of the faceplate, away from the driver (which makes it quite a stretch for some users), but Mercedes has not seen fit to change this on the new design. Our guess is that this is an international design, a one-size-fits-all head unit, but maybe it's just the way Mercedes wants to do things. There are a few surprise-and-delight features, such as a wonderful rubberized volume knob that renders a great tactile feel, and a weather band button for tracking weather patterns. The head unit also boasts a cassette player, hidden behind the faceplate.

According to Bose, this system includes 10 separate speakers — all the more reason you'll want to reach for your wallet to the pay the two grand extra to hear this system sing. Even with a cassette, it sounds pretty good. Speakers include a pair of 1.5-inch tweeters in the front doors, mated to a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers below, with an identical arrangement in the rear doors. Finally, a pair of 4.5-inch woofers (each mounted in its own sealed 7.5-module) line the rear deck.

Performance: This is one respectable-sounding audio system, especially considering the absence of a CD player. Bass is hefty and aggressive, though not overbearing, while highs are smooth and bright. Acoustic strings present richness and depth, and horns sound brassy without that blaring quality so often found in other systems. All in all, a great listen.

Best Feature: Dual 4.5-inch subs lining the rear deck.

Worst Feature: CD player does not come as a stock item.

Conclusion: Rumor has it that there is a dealer-installed fix to the CD dilemma that costs less than $1,000. While this may fall into the apocryphal category of Big Foot and the Lochness Monster, we have, in fact, heard that the dealer can order a CD changer from the factory for you and install it on the premises (apparently this fix is unavailable as a factory option). Check with your local dealer.

Despite the impressive sound quality of this system, we marked off heavily for the funky head unit design and missing CD player. — Scott Memmer

Second Opionions

Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer says:
Once again, we have the two classic Teutonic titans battling it out for your driving dollars. BMW and Mercedes seem to be caught in this perpetual tango, each one trying to throw the other around when it comes to performance, luxury and, perhaps most importantly, image.

The latest battle roy-ale is in the entry luxury segment, where a recently redesigned C-Class continues to slug it out with the ever-evolving 3 Series (has BMW gone more than 12 months without adding a new body style or upping the horsepower of their current-generation 3 Series?). Now come the latest players, a 333-horsepower M3 and a 349-horsepower C32. But with no manual transmission available in the Benz, and no rear doors available on the Bimmer, these two aren't exactly toe-to-toe contenders (similar discrepancies exist between the M5 and E55, as well as between the M Roadster and SLK32)

Do two extra doors and no third pedal make the C32 a poser in this fight? Not in the least. As is often the case, Mercedes goes about its business in a slightly less passionate (or more refined, depending on which company's PR firm you listen to) manner. This particular model is as rock-solid and tank-like as any vehicle wearing a three-pointed star. Steering is on the heavy side, and the steering wheel rim is fat and meaty, aiding the driver when its time to muscle the car through a set of S-turns. Brakes are phenomenal, and the transmission is further proof that automatics don't have to be boring. I particularly loved how, after a few minutes of running hard through a deserted canyon road, the tranny "learned" that it should hold a lower gear when squirting between curves. This kept the engine in its (admittedly wide) powerband and allowed me to charge out of corners with slight throttle-induced oversteer, all while keeping both hands on the wheel.

Better still, the C32 does not require a twisty canyon road to be appreciated. The snug leather seats, effective dual-zone climate control and bank-vault interior never let you forget that this is still a luxury car, built by a luxury brand.

Could I drive this car every day in traffic-clogged Los Angeles, with little or no access to decreasing radius turns or empty straight-aways, and be completely happy? Certainly. But the real deal closer is, so could my wife — while shuttling two kids around.

C32 or M3 with the sequential manual transmission? Dilemmas like this I could get used to.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
What an impressive driving machine! In the last month, I've driven two AMG models with the 3.2-liter engine, the SLK and now this. Previously, I had thought of Mercedes as more of an old fogey type of vehicle in the German realm, an impression forged by the fact that the first vehicles I ever drove back to back were the BMW 750iL and the S500 (not a bad start, eh?).

Both the AMG SLK and the C were livelier and high-spirited as compared to their non-massaged versions. The C32 offered incredible thrust, driving dynamics on par with Bavaria's finest and a fit and finish that supercedes many of the Benzes we've had of late. It felt amazingly competent and managed to feel athletic without losing any of that Mercedes tank-like solidity.

A couple of items still make me lean toward the blue-and-white propeller badge over the peace sign emblem, however. The suspension is a tad harsher over road irregularities, there's not such a feeling of buoyancy when you're driving, and the interior seems starker. Materials used fall a smidgeon short, and the steering is a nanometer overboosted. Really, they're minute differences; just matters of preferences, I suppose.

Overall, the C32 is on the same plane as the M3, but, of course, it has the advantage of four doors and a full automatic tranny. Yet little things here and there tend to add up, and for my money, I'd still opt for the utterly delectable BMW.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Stunning is the only way I can describe the performance of the Mercedes-Benz C32 AMG. Who would guess that such an innocuous-looking package could produce such potent performance when pounding the pavement?

Never a big fan of the redesigned C-Class, mostly because the cost-cutting inside the cabin is so blatantly obvious to me, I absolutely love the brilliant C32. Acceleration is nothing short of brutal, but you've got to baby the car off the line or the traction control system engages, retarding forward progress. The brakes operate flawlessly, hauling the tidy sedan down from triple-digit speeds without whimper, or, notably, fade. The automatic transmission, which quickly adapts to the driver's style in any given situation, shifts intuitively, making the SpeedShift automanual feature an exercise in redundancy. The suspension manages to control body motions without beating occupants up over rough urban pavement, dialing in enough tendency toward understeer to keep overeager drivers in check. And the meaty tires exhibit astounding levels of grip.

My primary complaint is with the steering. Not because it doesn't supply enough feedback from the road, not because it isn't responsive, not because the leather-wrapped wheel isn't pleasurable to hold and spin. Rather, mid-turn bumps and front tire scrub result in uncomfortable kickback and shudder through the steering column, which gets transmitted directly to the driver's hands.

Look past the performance package and the C32 is pretty much standard-issue C-Class, with an abundance of cheap trim bits, haphazard ergonomics, a gauge cluster that reminds me of the metal protractor I used in grade school, and metallic dash trim that glares in direct sunlight. This is one cold cabin. And there isn't much space in the rear seat for adults.

But who cares, when the C32 AMG stops, goes and flows down a twisty road better than just about anything with four doors?

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