Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
We first saw the third-generation 2008 C-Class in Stuttgart, and instead of a First Look, it was more like a First Whiff. We caught the scent of the three European flavours on the C-Class menu, but we never had a chance to sample anything from the U.S.-specification platter.
This week, we managed to pry a 2008 Mercedes-Benz C350 away from its press introduction in Portland, Oregon, and drove it all the way back to our offices in Santa Monica, California. What we learned on this 1,000-mile drive and after instrumented track testing shows us that Mercedes-Benz is serious about the C-Class' competition.
Not only has Mercedes-Benz gained an inch or two on a certain yardstick sedan from Munich in terms of subjective vehicle dynamics, but also the Stuttgart-based company has jumped into the infotainment technology race to compete more effectively with high-tech Japanese sport sedans.
The First Boat Arrives in August
The 2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class will arrive in the U.S. this August, and it will initially include two models: the C300 with its 228-horsepower V6 and the C350 Sport powered by a 268-hp V6. Though these engines are familiar from the current C-Class lineup, Mercedes-Benz is quick to inform us that the C300's 3.0-liter V6 is flex-fuel-compliant straight from the factory.
The C300 will make up the vast majority of C-Class sales, and it'll be trimmed out as either Luxury or Sport. An all-wheel-drive 4Matic configuration of the C300 will arrive in September. The C350 is offered only as a rear-wheel-drive sedan in Sport trim, and it will have a seven-speed automatic transmission. (A six-speed manual transmission is available only for the C300 Sport.)
A brilliant infotainment system is standard equipment across all C-Class models, featuring a nudge-twist-press console controller and high-quality 7-inch LCD screen. Also part of this package of standard convenience features will be Bluetooth connectivity, a 12-button multifunction steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power moonroof, eight-way power front seats and more.
While Mercedes knows that the C300 will outsell the C350 3-1, the model for those of us who prefer a more enthusiastically endowed car is the C350 Sport. All Sport models now feature a unique grille, AMG-styled body cladding, big tires, a different suspension tune, upgraded brakes and dual exhaust. The C350 Sport further features the 268-hp 3.5-liter V6 plus the full allotment of interior options as standard equipment, and it's set apart visually by a trunk-mounted spoiler.
Mercedes has announced that the C300 Sport will be priced at $31, 975 (including $775 destination fee), and the C300 luxury will be $33,675. The 2008 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport will be $37,275.
It's Quite the Hard Body
Some 70 percent of the C-Class' new body-in-white is constructed of high-strength steel, and 20 percent of that is costly ultrahigh-strength steel. Meanwhile, the doors, front safety structure, front fenders and parcel shelf are made of aluminum. As a result, this new hard body is more structurally rigid than that of the outgoing C-Class, yet weighs 17 pounds less.
New chassis subframes locate new lightweight suspension components for quicker response and more precise control, and the engine is mounted lower for improved handling.
The new shock dampers feature multivalve internals that quickly firm up damping rates when a wheel moves beyond the first centimeter of suspension travel, a simple mechanical solution to deliver a compliant ride with firm control. We've found that road noise and vibration vary greatly with the texture of the road surface, so perhaps the new dampers don't work quite as well as Mercedes had hoped.
Making Your Hands Feel Good
Just as we'd hoped, this substantially revised chassis includes some important measures to improve the precision and feel of the C350's steering. The 2008 C-Class features a steering ratio that's 6 percent quicker than before, plus a rigidly mounted, aluminum rack-and-pinion unit.
It seems that Mercedes has finally addressed criticism that the C-Class' steering felt wooden and inert. Now there's actually some useful information coming through the steering wheel, while the steering effort is weightier, too. To celebrate, the newly recontoured rim of the Sport's three-spoke steering wheel no longer feels like a roll of quarters wrapped in an athletic bandage.
We can vouch for the C350 Sport's rock-solid high-speed stability, as we spent about 15 hours at serious velocity on Interstate 5 driving from Portland, Oregon, to Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the new lightweight components of the C-Class' familiar multilink independent rear suspension also add a new delicacy and poise to this car.
In terms of objective dynamics, the C350 Sport comes as close to replicating the benchmark experience of driving a BMW 3 Series as it ever has.
At the Track and on the Road
At the test track, the 2008 C350 posted a slightly disappointing figure of 0.83g on the skid pad, despite its combination of 225/40YR18 Continental ContiSport Contact3 tires at the front and 255/35YR18s at the rear. Nevertheless, it achieved a sporty 67.6-mph speed through the slalom.
At the drag strip, we're not surprised to learn that the new C350 Sport is no faster than the one it replaces. The 268-hp motivation from this 24-valve DOHC V6 is the same while the new car's 3,498-pound curb weight represents an increase of 48 pounds. The C350 arrives at 60 mph in 6.2 seconds, then makes the run through the quarter-mile in 14.5 seconds at 96.5 mph.
Full-ABS braking tests for the C350 Sport didn't improve either, halting the C350 from 60 mph in a still admirable 118 feet, exactly matching our results from a 2006 C350 test.
Despite the sporty performances at the test track, the C350 is never harsh on the road, doesn't skip like a stone over broken pavement and gobbles up miles of interstate like a presidential candidate does campaign donations. We easily consumed 15.5 gallons of premium fuel in one sitting (about 5.5 hours) and earned 25.6 mpg in the process — not bad considering the 72-mph average speed.
The Big C
For 2008 the C-Class grows in almost every dimension inside and out. Paradoxically, the measurements of available front and rear headroom shrink now that the moonroof is standard equipment.
Meanwhile, legroom up front is unchanged and in the rear it stretches by just 0.4 inch (although it feels much larger). Shoulder and hiproom in all positions increases by at least a half inch.
Although overall interior passenger volume remains essentially the same, the cabin seems more open and airy, evidence of less tumblehome.
The Onset of Styling Droop
For all its newness and increased gravitas, we wish we could say the new C-Class looks better than the outgoing C-Class, but we can't.
The blunt nose of the car is reportedly in homage to the S-Class, but we all know its existence is to meet forthcoming pedestrian-impact regulations in Europe. Why else would Mercedes forfeit the previous car's aerodynamic shape, going from a 0.26 coefficient of drag to a new 0.30 Cd?
The 2008 C-Class tries to reward its passengers on the inside rather than the onlookers on the outside. It's as if Mercedes engineered its all-new body-in-white and forgot to design an attractive wrapper for it.
It's All About Power, Isn't It?
The C350's performance is merely adequate. We hate to be horsepower mongers, but feel the minimum ante into the entry-level luxury-performance sedan category ought to be 300 hp.
Look, we know the C300 is crucial to Mercedes-Benz; it's the cost-conscious car that brings people to the Benz brand and keeps the lights on in Stuttgart. At $31,000, the C300 is a fine automobile and as it turns out, it's the right version of this car.
The C350 is enjoyable to drive, but it just doesn't make as much sense as a sport sedan as it should. It's a little down on power, a little short on interior space and just too long on price.
Second Opinion Inside Line Executive Editor Michael Jordan says:
Some cars have style, but this car is drowning in it. Rarely have I ever seen an automobile so completely overwhelmed by design gestures.
Everything in the big pot of Mercedes design cues has been ladled over an otherwise modest little package. There's an overstated Mercedes star the size of a pie plate splayed across the grille, massive jewellike headlights, directional signals in the outside mirrors, plus Mercedes-Benz badges and logos of every description. Maybe GM's Harley Earl has awoken from his long sleep and now has taken up residence in Stuttgart, and now the Mercedes designers are working from his drawings of the 1958 Oldsmobile 88.
It's not like this earnest little sedan needs anyone to make excuses for it. Though little about this car has really changed in a long time, it goes down the road with the same confident attitude that we've come to appreciate. Its abilities as the basic building block of the CLK AMG, CLK AMG Black Series and forthcoming C63 AMG should persuade you that it has nothing to prove when it comes to dynamic goodness. It could be a bit larger, but the size of a car's rear seat shouldn't be the measure of its practicality.
So let's just strip away the AMG wheels, the low-profile tires and the aggressive grille. The C-Class finds its natural level in the traditionally luxurious trim with its classic stand-up hood ornament. You build a sport sedan from the inside and then out, not from the outside and then in.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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