New Car Review: 2004 Mercedes-Benz C320 AWD wagon


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

Mercedes-Benz has jumped into all-wheel drive in a major way. For 2004, all of its regular four-door sedans and wagons, entry-luxury C-Class through premium S-Class, are available with the ``4MATIC'' all-wheel drive system. Although it is often seen as an advantage in slippery, wet, or icy situations, all-wheel drive improves traction in all conditions, wet or dry. So it is not necessary to live in the snow belt to enjoy the handling and safety advantages of AWD.

The Mercedes-Benz 4MATIC all-wheel drive system has a static 40/60 front/rear torque split. The front/rear torque bias varies according to traction at each end of the car; four-wheel electronic traction control varies side-to-side torque distribution. The wheels with the best traction get the most torque, and if three wheels lose traction, 4MATIC will direct power to the one wheel that can use it. This can be beneficial in snow, but even in dry sunny climates handling response and traction, and therefore active safety, is enhanced. At $1,250 and 200 lbs, 4MATIC is considerably lighter and less expensive than the AWD system Mercedes used a few years ago, and its benefits outweigh the weight penalty.

To experience 4MATIC first-hand, I've spent the past week with a new C320 wagon so equipped. The weather was cooperative, meaning wet with slippery roads. The 4MATIC wagon acquitted itself admirably, although in snow or ice chains or snow tires, preferably with studs, would be a necessity. (As would driver care and judgment - technology can only do so much.) And when the weather dried out, Stuttgart's small wagon made an admirable sport-luxury wagon, with handling and panache not found in any similarly-sized SUV or crossover. When it came time to fold down the rear seat and make use of its wagon capability, the C-wagen was completely capable.

There are two models of C-Class wagon, both with V6 engines. The C240 has a 2.6-liter, 168-horsepower engine, while the C320's namesake 3.2-liter powerplant makes 215 horsepower. As with the sedans, the 320 is a touch more fully-equipped than the 240, but both are true German luxury cars. And both offer a sporty alternative to an SUV.

APPEARANCE: In the past, Mercedes-Benzes had the look of Teutonic conservatism - severe, boxy, ``no-frills'' styling that was almost austere. In remaking its image and product line during the 1990s, that was changed, considerably. The current C-Class continues the design trends started by the 2000 S-Class. That is still definitely Mercedes-Benz, but with a flashier, more rounded shape and interesting, well-integrated styling details.

The wagon shares the sedan's front section, highlighted by a low, wide version of the Mercedes-Benz grille, crowned by the three-pointed star emblem on the hood. The front fender line continues the shape of the twin-oval headlamps. The front apron contains an auxiliary intake flanked by foglamps, and gently curves under. The wagon replaces the sedan's almost coupe-like roofline with a gently-tapered full-length cabin that has a curved backlight. Inserts at the corners of the bumpers add protection and decrease repair costs for minor incidents, and judicious use of chrome trim gives an elegant, not gaudy, look of luxury.

COMFORT: The C-Class wagon is as modern inside as out, with a bright, airy two-tone design. Wood trim is found on the instrument panel and doors, and a large amount of window space gives a feeling of spaciousness. That is no illusion, as passenger room, front and rear, is very good for the car's size. As is typical for Mercedes-Benz, the front seats feel very firm. If at first they don't have the plush comfort of an American luxury car seat, spend a few hours in one. You'll feel as fresh and relaxed as when you started your journey. Support is excellent, and both are power-adjustable, with memory for the driver's seat. With 4MATIC, they're heated. Driving comfort (and therefore safety) is also enhanced by a steering wheel that has controls for most interior systems and is power-adjustable for both tilt and reach.

Instruments and controls are well-placed and simple to understand and use, with the usual Mercedes quirks in the placement of the cruise control stalk (you'll use it for the turn signals at least once) and hiding of the cassette deck behind the audio control face. Door pockets, a large glove box, and a two-level console box provide storage, although the CD changer, if fitted, takes up most of the glove box. The rear seat has good leg and head room. An integrated cargo shade hides items in the rear cargo area, and a 60/40 split to the seatback allows carrying of passengers and/or long items. I had to move some five and a half foot packages during my time with the C32o wagon - flip down the rear seatback and no problem. Liftover is less than in an SUV, helping further.

SAFETY: Standard safety equipment includes a sturdy safety-cage chassis with front and rear crumple zones, dual-force front airbags, door-mounted side airbags and head-protection side curtain airbags, ESP stability control, Brake Assist, and the BabySmart child seat recognition system.

ROADABILITY: The C320 wagon boasts a rigid and well-engineered chassis structure that allows its strut front, multilink rear suspension is tuned for compliance and comfort in the manner of a contemporary European luxury car. It can also be driven in a rewardingly sporty manner, although with more body lean and less cornering power than, say, an AMG C32 sedan. Call it ``sport-touring,'' and enjoy the road, any road. The C320 4MATIC wagon is a sports car, not a sport-utility, at heart.

PERFORMANCE: Like most current Mercedes-Benz engines, the C320 V6 has two spark plugs and three valves per cylinder for good power output and fuel economy with low exhaust emissions. With 215 horsepower at 5700 rpm and, more importantly, 221 lb-ft of torque between 3000 and 4600 rpm, the C320's 3.2-liter V6 is well-matched to the car's luxury-performance specification. A turbine-smooth five-speed automatic transmission with adaptive shift logic that learns the driver's driving patterns and adjusts shift points accordingly is the perfect match to the engine's smooth power delivery. ``TouchShift'' manual mode is standard, but except on slow, twisting, hilly roads I left the shift lever in ``D'' with no appreciable loss of performance. And shifting manually in the twisties was more a personal decision than a necessity. 4MATIC traction ensures all of the power gets to the road.

CONCLUSIONS: Luxury comfort, spirited performance, and versatility are hallmarks of the 2004 Mercedes-Benz C320 wagon.

SPECIFICATIONS 2004 Mercedes Benz C320 AWD wagon

Base Price $ 39,610
Price As Tested $ 43,720
Engine Type single overhead cam 18-valve 90-degree V6
Engine Size 3.2 liters / 195 cu. in.
Horsepower 215 @ 5700 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 221 @ 3000-4600 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic with adaptive logic and ``TouchShift'' manual mode
Wheelbase / Length 106.9 in. / 178.9 in.
Curb Weight 3,650 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 17.0
Fuel Capacity 16.4 gal.
Fuel Requirement 91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires P205/55 HR16 Michelin MXV4 Plus xse
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, anti-lock and Brake Assist standard
Suspension, front/rear independent strut / independent multilink
Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 19 / 27 / 21 0 to 60 mph 7.1 sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.31

OPTIONS AND CHARGES Pewter paint $ 670
Tele Aid system $ 800
Factory-installed CD changer $ 410
Sunroof package - includes: glass sunroof, rain sensor, auto-dimming driver's-side and rear-view mirrors $ 1,510
Destination and delivery $ 720

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