Road Test: 2008 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport
By Dennis Simanaitis of Road & Track
Its entry-level luxury sedan, Mercedes-Benz's C-Class is one of the company's most popular single models (tying with the E-Class). And you don't mess with success. On the other hand, plenty of styling cues of the top-line S-Class have trickled down to lesser examples carrying the 3-pointed star. So think of the restyled car you see here as the "S-ence" of the C.
In fact, there are dual essences: distinct Luxury and Sport models, here for the first time differentiated visually by more than minor trim. The C300 Sport ($31,975) and C350 Sport ($37,275) share a grille-mounted star as well as AMG body cladding. The C300 Luxury ($33,675) carries its 3-pointed heritage in classic standup hood-mounted fashion, has more traditional grillework and does without the cladding.
Being "younger driving enthusiasts" — albeit, some of us only at heart — we opted for testing the C350 Sport with its 3.5-liter V-6 power. C300s of either ilk get a 3.0-liter V-6. And we respect Mercedes-Benz for its name-to-engine-displacement consistency, something not followed by all.
Other variations are in transmissions. Our C350 Sport and the C300 Luxury have 7-speed automatics. The C300 Sport comes with a 6-speed manual or the automatic as a $1440 option. Also, scheduled for September introduction are 4MATIC all-wheel-drive versions of the C300 Luxury and C300 Sport. I predict that an AMG version will appear at this fall's Frankfurt auto show. And there's even a hint of our getting a diesel C-Class (provided enough Americans clamor for it).
Regardless of variant, the new C-Class evokes its S-Class styling with commendable restraint. Several of us found its fender contours, for example, more pleasing than the overly aggressive bulges of the S-Class. Evidently shared by both designs are wide, rounded surfaces, taut lines and coupe-like profiles. The C-Class Sport's front clip, similar to those of Mercedes CLs, SLs and SUVs, sets it apart from its more formal Luxury sibling.
Compared with its predecessor, the new C-Class is 3.7 in. longer and 1.7 in. wider; at 108.7 in., its wheelbase remains unchanged. Mercedes claims modest upsizing of interior dimensions. We certainly found the front accommodations to be ample, adequate even for long-torso staff members of oversize proportions (we know who we are...). Alas, the selfsame-we found back-seat accommodations distinctly lacking. That rear roof/door line complicates (indeed, flat discourages) any attempts at ingress/egress. And once in (using top-up Morgan contortions, for goodness' sake), there's insufficient clearance for head and feet, and the devil of a time getting out again. It's fine for kids, limber sorts and those 5 ft. 8 in. or less.
A few of us challenged the ($1000) Panorama sunroof concept, a less expansive sunroof being standard equipment. Other no-cost fitments on all Cs include traction and yaw control, a full array of front, side and curtain airbags, Bluetooth connectivity and a skinned-down COMAND-like controller (which has a commendable intuitiveness in its function). This last device works with a neat center-dash flip-up screen. The C350 adds standard Sirius satellite radio, heated front seats, auto-dimming mirrors, rain-sensing wipers and a garage-door opener, all of these collected into a P1 Option Package ($1400) on other Cs.
Our particular C350 was full-house, all the better to sample C-Class offerings. Its P2 Option Package added a rear sunshade, split folding rear seats and bi-xenon headlights with corner-illuminating foglights and heated washers — not to say $2750. Its Multimedia Package ($2700) included a 6-disc DVD changer, voice actuation of various controls, fine Harman Kardon LOGIC 7 Surround Sound and full COMAND navigation.
Not unique to the C350 or Mercedes but nonetheless appreciated, the nav system's "next turns" are replicated in the instrument cluster directly ahead of the driver. Also, several of our hep audiophiles enjoyed the sound system's MusicRegister, a 4-gig hard drive capable of ripping as many as 1000 CD tracks — or even Wagner's complete Ring Cycle. By the way, the (climate-controlled) glovebox contains a power socket and MP3 plug.
Apart from these esoterics, what did we think of our $37,275 + optional $6450 C350 Sport as a car?
Said Editor-in-Chief Thos L. Bryant, "The new C looks tidy and sharp. I like its exterior styling, though the star emblem in the grille is overly large."
Proving himself more limber than your author, Bryant continued, "I can 'sit behind myself,' though I admit getting in and out back there was difficult."
We look to our Design Director Richard M. Baron for aesthetic guidance, and he had good things to say. "The horizontal 'Sport' grille really transforms the look from traditional Mercedes-Benz to a more aggressive appearance. The S-Class elements integrate into this car very well. Overall, it's a crisp update of a familiar shape."
Within, opinions were mixed. Several mentioned the exemplary fit and finish of Mercedes products. Others begged to differ (which around our place may signal unprintable commentary). "It's clean and stylish," said one, "but it doesn't really exude 'luxury' to me. The materials and graining are well done, but nothing sets it apart from the competition."
There's interesting technology, though, in that graining of interior surfaces such as the dash elements. It's a new process using robots that spray a soft polyurethane skin of appropriate thickness, depending on the desired tactile character.
Out on the road, the car's dohc 4-valve/cylinder 268-bhp V-6 and seamless 7-speed automatic garnered praise from everyone. "Exemplary performance off the line," said one (known for being first across such lines). "Good midrange acceleration for easy passing," said another.
"The automatic," said a third, "is smooth and imperceptible — lots of gears mean you rarely get caught in the wrong one." There are Comfort and Sport modes, selectable by center-console switch. The latter mode gives snappier shifts at higher engine speeds. Also, unlike many automatics, this one will skip-shift when downshifting, even something like 6th to 2nd if appropriate.
Track tester extraordinaire Jonathan Elfalan exploited the car's 258 lb.-ft. of torque in accelerating from standstill to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds. To save you the lookup in Road Test Summary, a BMW 335i with a manual gearbox did 0–60 in 5.0 sec. flat; a couple of semi-comparable Audis took 6.5; and last year's 6-speed manual C350 did it in 5.7. All these are commendably quick numbers, though it's clear the Mercedes — while no slouch — has fallen somewhat off the pace set by its rival from Munich.
However, slalom, skidpad and braking performance suggested that our new C350 Sport is a bit softer than its predecessor (skidpad: 0.81g now, 0.85g then; slalom: 63.8 mph now, 66.4 mph then; braking, 60 mph to a standstill: 135 ft. now, 124 ft. then). Nothing embarrassing, but as one staff member said, "It feels like a larger, softer car; it doesn't feel like a C-Class."
Maybe this is implicit in an S-ence transformation of the C, even in its Sport variant. Mercedes sees principal competitors in the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series. We'd agree, though we also note that the BMW 335i ($44,270 as-tested in March 2007) is considerably more sporty. And there are those among us feeling that just about any Audi A4 model is more stylish.
Yet the new C350 comes with a 3-pointed star. And — whether embedded in the grillework or standing proud on the hood — this symbol continues to carry a certain cachet.