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New Car Review: 2005 Mercedes-Benz C320 Sport Sedan

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SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz was one of the first luxury automakers to realize that it needed to make its products attractive to a new generation, and it has been one of the most successful at this difficult task. A line once noted for conservatively-severe, squarely Teutonic styling has become modern. While some other luxury manufacturers are struggling, Mercedes-Benz is doing well.

Mercedes-Benz sees its C-Class sedans and coupes as the entry into its lineup, and it apparently is not alone. Buyers have been voting with their checkbooks, and C-Class sales have steadily increased over the years, topped by a 15 percent increase in 2003. Why? Value is one part of the answer, and the previous C-Class led the way a decade ago when it introduced new, leaner development and production techniques that kept the cost down with no detriment to quality. ``More car without more cost'' was the motto, and it quickly spread throughout the German automaker's line in response to competition from Japan.

The current C-Class builds on its predecessor, and adds more flowing, less formal looks. Most importantly to its success, the current C-Class offers a growing and very complete lineup of sedans, wagon, and coupes for every taste. The most significant change has been one of direction: Mercedes-Benz has split the C-Class in two, with one half emphasizing luxury and the other emphasizing sport. When that concept was developed, Mercedes-Benz product planners estimated 20 to 30 percent of sales would be the sport models. They miscalculated. Sport models account for nearly half of C-Class sales. Sports and luxury versions are distinguished by differences in appearance and equipment. All have subtle but significant interior and exterior changes for 2005.

On the luxury side are found the C240 sedan and wagon and a version of the C320 sedan, all with V6 engines. On the sport side are the C230 and C320 coupes and the C230 and C320 sports sedans featuring a supercharged four-cylinder engine for the 230s or the 3.2-liter V6. New for 2005, and for serious sports performance, is the return of V8 power to the C-Class in the guise of the AMG C55, described by a Mercedes-Benz spokesman as ``a C43 on steroids.''

No C55 was available, so I made do with a C320 Sport for a recent week. Life is so rough.... ``Sports sedan'' Mercedes-Benz style is not a hardcore performance-at-all-costs machine. It means a well-rounded car that is capable of being driven for long distances at high average speeds in great comfort. The suspension is a touch firmer than that of the luxury models, but never jarring. It is very much a gentleman's (or woman's) express, in a style that is best described as ``sport-touring.''

APPEARANCE: If a quick glance shows no difference between a 2004 and a 2005 C-Class, look more closely. The body sheetmetal is the same as before, a sculpted, flowing design far from the austere boxiness of 80s and 90s Benzes. But the details have changed, and differ between sport and luxury models. Both share headlights with new lenses. There are three horizontal chrome bars in the grille instead of four, on a black background for the sport models and gray for the luxury models. The sport sedans have what used to be the optional AMG lower body kit as standard equipment, with race-inspired front and rear aprons and side sills. Seventeen-inch alloy wheels shod with low-profile performance tires highlight some impressive-looking brakes.

COMFORT: There are also small but significant changes inside the new C-Class. All models have a new instrument panel that features chrome-bezeled instruments in a hooded pod and a revised center console and stack with audio and climate controls similar to those of the larger E-Class. Sport models have a three-spoke steering wheel; luxury models have a four-spoke wheel. Sedan seats are slightly different, with sport seats having higher side bolsters for better support in cornering. Luxury models have the luxury-standard wood interior trim, while sport models have textured aluminum. The design is bright, airy, and modern, and comfort levels are very high. The front seats provide fine support, and the rear bench is among the best in a sedan of this size. The relaxing interior environment, large trunk, and good interior storage space make a C-Class sedan an excellent travel machine.

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: On the road, the C320 Sport is comfortable and well-balanced. It works as well for long-distance touring as it does for a spirited romp on a twisting road. Its fully-independent three-link front, five-link rear suspension strikes a very good balance between ride comfort and handling ability, with relatively (to other, more hard-core sports sedans, anyway) soft spring and shock settings taking care of the comfort and ultra-low profile staggered-size high-performance tires on 17-inch alloy wheels providing plenty of contact patch and quick turn-in response. It responds better when driven assertively, and excellent brakes, all vented, with cross-drilled rotors and four-piston calipers in front and standard antilock and brake assist stop it very, very well.

PERFORMANCE: The aluminum alloy 3.2-liter twin-spark, three-valve-per-cylinder single overhead cam V6 under the C320's hood is familiar. Horsepower is unchanged at 215 (at 5,700 rpm) but torque is up 8 lb-ft at 229, usefully between 3,000 and 4,600 rpm. As expected from the numbers, midrange response is very good, as it top-end power. This is a German car made for triple-digit Autobahn cruising, and it shows. In the Sport model, a six-speed manual transmission is standard. I experienced that in a C230K a year ago and found it to have excellent linkage and shift action. My test C320 had the optional five-speed automatic. Like all of Mercedes-Benz's automatics, it has adaptive logic for better shifting, and ``TouchShift'' manual mode. Befitting its sports sedan specification, the drivetrain, like the suspension, responds better when driven hard.

CONCLUSIONS: Mercedes-Benz has a choice for everyone interested in an entry-luxury sedan, coupe, or wagon in its 2005 C-Class line. SPECIFICATIONS

2005 Mercedes-Benz C320 Sport Sedan

Base Price			$ 37,350
Price As Tested			$ 43,430
Engine Type			90-degree single overhead cam 18-valve V6
Engine Size			3.2 liters / 195 cu. in.
Horsepower			215 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			229 @ 3,000-4,600 rpm (+8)
Transmission			5-speed automatic (opt)
Wheelbase / Length		106.9 in. / 178.3 in.
Curb Weight			3,450 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		16.1
Fuel Capacity			16.4 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				Michelin Pilot Sport
				Front: 225/45 ZR17
				Rear: 245/40 ZR17
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / vented disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent three-link /
				  independent five-link
Drivetrain			front engine, rear-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		20 / 26 / 21
0 to 60 mph				6.9  sec

Orion Blue paint			$   680
Split fold-down rear seat		$   290
5-speed automatic transmission  	$ 1,390
Factory-installed 6-disc CD changer	$   420
Lighting Package - includes:
  Headlamp washing system, bi-xenon
  headlamps				$   720
Sunroof Package - includes:
  garage door opener, auto-dimming
  mirrors, rain sensor, glass sunroof,
  power rear-window sunshade	        $ 1,790
Destination and delivery		$   720