Great sports dynasties are born of exceptional chemistry and teamwork. But it’s usually the team superstars who receive all of the attention. While the more utilitarian, but equally vital players, toil reliably in the background. A look at the Mercedes-Benz line up reveals a similar picture. S- and CL-class superstars always steal the show from bread-and-butter sedans like this compact C-class. But this time, it’s the little guy that’s the hero, as Mercedes has turned the spotlight on a completely new C-class. Let’s see what playing next to greatness can do.
Ask any athlete who has played alongside a bonafide superstar what the experience is like, and you’ll often hear stories of how the mere presence of greatness elevated the performance of everyone on the team. And that’s certainly the story with the new 2001 Mercedes-Benz C240 and C320 sedans. And it doesn’t take more than a quick glance to see the new C has elevated its game considerably. As its stylish new face definitely favors the S, although it is also the youngest, trendiest Mercedes face ever.
And, while the wheelbase has been stretched an inch to 106.9 inches, an overall length of 178.2 inches is less than an inch longer than the current model. The longer wheelbase does slightly increase the leg and head room for both front and rear occupants.
The new instrument panel is less staid than those in past Mercedes sedans. The 3- dimensional gauges are just as trendy and sporty as the exterior. C320s, like our tester, come standard with leather trimmed, fully adjustable power front seats with 3 memory settings, for both driver and passenger. The driver faces a power tilting/telescoping steering wheel that includes controls for the message center, stereo system, and cellular phone.
The C320 sounds off with a standard 10-speaker, Bose Premium Sound system. But a 6- disc CD changer is optional, as is the COMAND system that integrates navigation, audio, and phone controls into one stack-mounted unit. The dual zone climate control system with its activated charcoal filter, rear seat outlets, and auto setting, however, is standard in both models. And so are a host of active and passive safety devices, including - count ‘em - 8 air bags.
Keep ‘em deflated, and there’s plenty of room in the back seat for two adults, three in a pinch. A split folding seat back is optional. Which makes the spacious 12.2 cubic feet of trunk space even more versatile.
Power for the new C class comes in two forms. The C240 comes with a 2.6 liter, SOHC, 18-valve, V-6 rated at 168 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. The standard tranny with this engine is the same 6-speed manual found in the SLK roadster. The entry level 4 cylinder engine is history.
Our C320 tester uses the proven 3.2 liter, SOHC, 18-valve, V-6 that also powers the ML 320 and CLK 320. Its 215 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque feed through the equally proven and ultra-smooth, driver-adaptive, 5-speed “TouchShift” automatic that is the only offering in the C320.
But, no matter. There’s still a fair amount of spirited performance here. Like runs to 60 in 7.2 seconds. And quarter mile passes in 15.5 seconds at 91 mph. The TouchShift mode does nothing to enhance acceleration performance, but it does come in handy for holding the car in gear during especially curvy stretches of road.
Where you’ll immediately notice the C’s softer and more refined ride. Up front, the strut/coil spring set up with twin tube gas shocks and stabilizer bar now uses two lower links rather than one, for more precisely tuned wheel control and damping. In the back, the multi-link system’s track link, hub carriers, and subframe, all have been re-designed.
The C320’s softer calibrations were also evident in our low speed slalom as the standard ESP system’s warning light flashed continually when pushing hard through the cones. Understeer quickly turns to oversteer, but the ESP keeps the car in line. Body roll is noticeable, but the side to side transitions feel balanced. But while rack and pinion steering now supplants the previous recirculating ball-type, it feels heavy, and feedback is surprisingly meek.
As for braking, the nearly 12 inch discs at the corners, governed by ABS and Brake Assist, brought us to a stop in a good average 130 feet. Pedal feel is excellent and the ABS kickback is minimal. Straight line stability is also outstanding.
And so is Mercedes-Benz’ pricing strategy. You can put the new C240 in your garage for just $30,595. The base price on the C320 is slightly higher at $37,595. That compares to $34,560 for the new BMW 330i, and $30,995 for the new Lexus IS300.
So, what are the results of standing in the shadows of greatness? As the 2001 Mercedes- Benz C class shows, it can have a pretty positive effect on your career. Because now that it’s equipped with a choice of two new V-6 engines, offers a big car ride without losing its small car nimbleness, and coddles you with interior appointments and hi-tech advances once reserved for high paying customers only, the new C class is undoubtedly the most elegant car in its class. And on a team already loaded with superstars, this could be the beginning of a new dynasty.
Engine: 3.2 Liter Sohc 18-valve V-6
Torque: 221 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7.2 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.5 Seconds @ 91 MPH
60-0 MPH: 130 Feet