Jan 25,2008 00:00
I have never driven a Mercedes-Benz as aggressively as I have the new C300 Sport. And I've never enjoyed a Mercedes more.
For the first time in a long time, Mercedes has put a manual transmission in its entry-level C-class, or any sedan.
The C63 AMG will debut this spring with a 451-horsepower, 6.3-liter V-8.
The manual transmission may be a price-point gimmick, but it also throws down the driver's glove to challenge BMW and Audi. Mercedes-Benz can build a driver's car, too.
The C300 has a starting price of $31,975, which includes a 228-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6 with standard manual transmission or optional seven-speed Touch Shift automatic, which is the only choice for the Luxury model.
The C350 Sport ($37,275) has a 268-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 and seven-speed Touch Shift automatic transmission.
Sure, a 451-hp, V-8 Mercedes makes a statement, but for less than half the price, I liked the simple driver involvement of the C300 with the six-speed. And it was a risk for Mercedes to offer a manual.
If it fell short of the manual BMW 3-series, the race would be over before it started as far as critics were concerned. But Mercedes got it right.
I wasn't expecting much but found myself cranking up the music and pushing hard on the throttle. The shift points match seamlessly. The engine torque and gear ratios have plenty of range to lug along in traffic then move right back up to speed without choking. It's possible to get by with minimal shifting in traffic.
And there are no worries when starting out on an incline. The electronic hill-start assist holds the car for a couple of seconds as the driver lifts from the brake to the accelerator.
The steering mimics the BMW rack-and-pinion system, but steering force feels lighter at all speeds.
The engine begins to sound interested at 4,500 rpm. Then lift off for the next turn, heel-toe shift with a big push on the accelerator for the gear change, and let it wing through the turn.
Fuel economy isn't bad, either, at 18/26 mpg manual, 18/25 automatic or 17/25 for the C350, all using 91 octane.
The new C-class is 3.9 inches longer and 1.7 inches wider. The wheelbase, 108.7 inches, is 1.8 inches longer for a smoother ride.
The Lexus IS 250 with a 107.5-inch wheelbase can be jumpy and jiggly on some sections of concrete expressway highway. On those same stretches of highway in the C300, the ride was smooth.
Noting the differences between the Sport and Luxury models isn't difficult. The Sport gets the larger three-pointed star in the front grille, not a hood ornament.
The exterior styling is still somewhat formal to punch up a Sport image, but aerodynamic AMG body panels help at the front, rear and under-door rocker panels. Twin-spoke, 17-inch wheels are staggered width front to rear. Sport shock absorbers, springs and stabilizer bars add firmness, not harshness, and lower the ride height by a half-inch.
Inside, there is a three-spoke wheel instead of four. Trim accents are aluminum, with Birdseye maple reserved for the Luxury model.
Standard equipment in either model includes a power sunroof, eight-way power front seats with lumbar support, two-zone automatic climate control, 17-inch wheels, Bluetooth connectivity, a central controller and LCD display screen.
Driver controls are ergonomic, and the car is comfortable to rest an elbow out the window without painful wind buffeting in the cabin. And this is one of the few cars that can be driven at interstate speeds with the sunroof wide open without turbulence.
But there were a few annoyances. The black leatherette on the door side armrest and center console is coarse and rubbed at my elbows, leaving scuff marks. The piercing, nuclear-alert tone of the seat-belt minder is too much. Driver foot room could be increased by getting rid of the foot brake for an electronic brake, actuated from the center console. And back-seat space is not as luxurious or functional as in the new Honda Accord EX.But much will be forgiven because this car makes driving fun. The Sport has a pulse that isn't felt in Mercedes' ultra-expensive, ultra-fast AMG cars.