Mercedes C280 4MATIC Review

Justin Berkowitz
by Justin Berkowitz

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.

Justin Berkowitz
Justin Berkowitz

Immensely bored law student. I've also got 3 dogs.

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  • Westcott Westcott on Feb 28, 2009

    Maxwelton : mikey : Your logic is flawed. Why do you think the person's 1991 Dodge Stealth ES, 1995 GMC Yukon SLT 4x4, or 1998 Lincoln Continental came to be in such good shape in the first place? Maybe because the person that bought it NEW took good care of it? You may be saving money buying used but it is a gamble. And I do not gamble with 10's of thousands of dollars of my hard earned money. All the repair records in the world do not tell you how a car was driven. So, I would urge you to reconsider your assessment of who potentially works for you. Or, change the EOE laws to include improper questions about a person's driving habits. By the way, I own all of the above and a brand new 2008 E550 Mercedes. And I hope to have it just as long as all my other vehicles listed above. As far as the C Class is concerned, I agree with the others. It was not enjoyable to drive and seems to be built just to allow posers to say they drive a MB. The roads are flooded with them here in the Houston area. This pretty much destroys the exclusivity once associated with the name and tarnishes the reputation MB once had for reliability. P.S. My daily driver is a 2007 Chevrolet Impala LT. It is a company car. Not my first choice but I do not pay for gas, repairs, or insurance. I grow more impressed with this vehicle every day. Gets good gas mileage, adequate power, has lots of room, and saves me lots of money. Even has remote start for those cold mornings.

  • Bigmanrestless Bigmanrestless on Jan 29, 2010

    This is just too funny. The reviewer obviously has a bone to pick with Mercedes, and pick he does. It's rare to see a review that just trashes the car so consistently. There is almost nothing right about this car, except that the engine is smooth and super quiet, and everyone hates quiet engines of course. The comments about the interior are particularly puzzling. The materials are excellent and the tolerance is amazing (compare to any Acura or Infiniti and these things look like they were sculpted from a single block of plastic). I've owned two C-class cars, and I've loved both of them for what they are, not what they aren't--they're not an M3, they're not AMG, they're decent midsize cars with plenty of power and very good fuel economy in an entry level luxury car. They are very comfortable for long trips, very quiet, responsive at all speeds, and with the 4Matic, great in bad road conditions. I've also driven Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota, and I have no idea how anyone could compare the C-class with the comparable Japanese models in terms of drive and feel. My first C-class was completely trouble free (O2 sensor at 80K, other than that, oil and brakes). The only reason I sold it was because I really wanted/needed 4Matic for increasingly harsh winters. The comments are hilarious too. If it's used as a taxi, AND it's totally unreliable, then there are some REALLY stupid cab drivers in Europe. That argument contradicts itself. What's wrong with a car being used as a taxi in the first place? In New York City, there are loads of Lincoln Town cars as taxis--what does that have to do with anything? Also, I find the "class envy" comments to be very telling about the writers, who are obviously obsessed with the badge and branding. Is there no possibility that people who buy these cars like them for what they are? I could easily purchase E class as well, but I don't need the room and I like the ease of parking and the gas mileage that I get with the C-class. And I think it's a sharp looking car with lots of amenities that I really like. If I didn't, I wouldn't buy it.

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