The Mercedes-Benz C-class has always been a fine entry luxury sports sedan, but it must gall the front office in Stuttgart that it has never had the sporting appeal of its cross-country rival from Munich, the BMW 3-series.
Mercedes continues to work on the problem. It now stresses improved dynamics of the '08 W204-model C-class, having added a new adaptive damping system and employed a longer and wider stance. This latest C-class has 1.8 more inches between the wheel centers, 108.7 inches overall, and a 1.1-to-1.4-inch-wider front and 2.4-to-2.7-wider rear track, depending on engine. Inside, there are now 1.6 more inches of front shoulder room.
Externally, the fenders of the C-class bulge something like the current S-class's, a distinction that is more apparent in the flesh than in photos. And there is now some visual differentiation between the Sport and Luxury models. Sport models have the three-pointed star mounted in the grille itself; Luxury versions have the traditional badge standing proud on the hood. Despite the size increase, Mercedes says the C-class weighs about the same as its predecessor - in the C350's case, 3550 pounds compared with 3515 pounds for a C350 Sport we tested in November 2005. Credit goes to the use of high-strength steel for 70 percent of the body shell. The car's weight distribution is also said to be improved, from the previous 54 percent up front and 46 percent in back to 52/48, due in part to mounting the engine lower and farther back in the chassis.
The C-class adopts a few features from the S-class to give a more premium interior feel. The iDrive-style controller in the center console operates the pop-up 4.9-inch-wide screen for the infotainment system. The instrument cluster, too, apes that of the S-class, with a screen instead of conventional gauges.
There will be two models initially in the U.S.: the C350 Sport, which comes standard with a seven-speed automatic transmission, and the C300, in Sport and Luxury versions. The C300 Sport will have an optional six-speed manual. The cars use the existing 268-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 and 228-hp, 3.0-liter V-6, up 10 and 7 horsepower, respectively.
In northern Sweden, we got a chance to find out whether Mercedes' increased emphasis on sporty handling has been translated into reality. "Our target was to develop long-distance-driving comfort and accentuate it with sportiness, " says Klaus-Peter Claar, head of C-class development.