Now that Mercedes has released pictures of their new C-Class, I figured it was as good a time as any to sample the dead C. In Europe, the outgoing C-Class (W203 in Stuttgart speak) is beloved of German taxi drivers and penny-pinching poseurs with a little extra pomposity in their purse. Stateside, Merc’s three-pointed star shines more brightly; the C-Class’ price tag aspires to its second name– despite suffering from a reprehensible rep for reliability. As I drove off in a 2007 C280 4Matic, I wanted to know what ground the new C had to cover to make its bones.
At least, I thought I drove off in a C280 4Matic. In fact, I found myself behind the wheel of a 2006 Camry with a Mercedes logo. Tombstone engine? Check. Barcolounger ride? Uh-huh. Featherlight feel uber alles? Yep. Absolutely adequate acceleration? Check. Value for money? Uh, let’s step outside and have another look…
Like the chubby college girl that somehow found her way into your dorm room on a regular basis, the Benz has a familiar, soggy shape, with too many curves above the beltline. Luckily Dr. Z's accessorizers added trendy jewelry (clear headlights) and sharp footwear (square edged alloys) during the model’s last makeover. The glitz diverts your attention from the generic silhouette and drooping hood. A distracted observer would even be forgiven for thinking that the C280 is a sharp car– though only just.
The 360 view of the C’s interior on the Mercedes' website is the most accurate depiction of a car cabin in the history of the world, ever. Just like the image on your computer screen, the C280’s interior is completely two dimensional. The main problem: most of the buttons bunk together in the black plastic condominium complex in the middle of the dash. It's a shame that the slab of plastic is so huge, because many units remain un-rented. The result is a random disbursement of blank buttons.
The plastics may lack an Audi’s rubbery finish, but I see enough rubber in my private life to know that the C’s shiny buttons are good enough for government work. Well exactly. No one who drops 40 large on a German four-door should be made to feel like they're slumming it. If Merc can engineer a Rolls-baiting leviathan, they should be able to concoct a C-Class interior that doesn't constantly whisper “Zu billig dummkopf.” (Here's hoping.)
Strangely, the C280 is powered by one of the few engines whose designation has been rounded-down for marketing purposes. Its 3.0-liter V6 is superbly soft, completely progressive and supernaturally quiet. In fact, it's guaranteed not to interfere with a sporting driver’s growing boredom. To wit: depress the C280’s predictably leaden go-pedal and the car moves a bit; nice and gentle, easy does it, away we go. If you could be bothered, you could hammer it and sprint from zero to sixty in a yawn over seven-and-a-half seconds. But you can’t so you won’t.
Once the C280’s ambled up to cruising speed, you’re free to space out about the cabin. In fact, driving this sedan in auto pilot is the most Mercedes-like part of this Mercedes; radio on, seat heated, cruise control set, brain disengaged. Eighty-five miles per hour never felt so easy.
Well, except in a $15k VW Rabbit. But then you wouldn’t be in a Mercedes. And you’d have to make do with a puny six-speed auto, as opposed to the Three-Pointer’s class exclusive (for this week at least) seven-speed slushbox. Of course, that’s only in rear wheel-drive trim. Since I was test driving a 4MATIC model, I had to make do with five cogs. Not shockingly, they handled the whopping 221 lb-ft of torque without a murmur. Now, let's see what this baby Benz can do in the twisties…
If you want to stress test a car's dynamics you can do worse than your local highway onramp/offramp. Of course, when I say “you,” I mean “you” driving a different car. The “you” driving a Mercedes C280 4MATIC simply goes ‘round the ramp at a sensible speed, knowing that anything more invites the electronic handling Nannies in for a nice long chat. More importantly and less tolerably, the C280’s suspension is not so good (i.e. bad) at soaking-up lumps and bumps. It’s not crashy per se, but neither is it stately. And that's a problem.
Mercedes-Benz was once famous for building automotive brick shit houses. Driving a Merc– any Merc– meant that the outside world was worlds away– as was Roadside Assistance. Now, both the street and the tow truck fleet are too close for comfort. If the new C is to defend and re-extend the brand’s rep for bulletproof engineering, it must improve its lower-priced models’ interiors, reliability and suspension. A Mercedes can be inexpensive, but it should never be cheap.