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New Car/Review

1998 Mercedes-Benz C43

by John Heilig


SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide


ENGINE:                  4.3-liter V-8
HORSEPOWER:              302 hp @5500 rpm
TRANSMISSION:            Five-speed automatic
FUEL ECONOMY:            21 mpg city, 27 mpg highway, 19.8 mpg test
WHEELBASE:               105.9 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH X HEIGHT: 177.4 x 67.7 x 56.1 in.
CURB WEIGHT:             3300 lbs (est.)
FUEL CAPACITY:           16.4 gal.
CARRYING CAPACITY:       12.9 cu. ft. 
TIRES:                   225/45R17 (F)/ 245/40R17 (R)
INSTRUMENTS:             Speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, 
                         water temperature, oil pressure,
                         battery voltage, digital clock.
EQUIPMENT:               Power mirrors, power windows,
                         power door locks, cruise control,
                         air conditioner, AM-FM stereo radio
                         with cassette and CD, ABS, dual air bags. 
STICKER PRICE:           $52,750

It's a funny thing about these conservative car companies. Every now and then they come up with surprises that knock your socks off.

Mercedes-Benz is a conservative car company. Most of its designs are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and what you can expect from one year to the next is fairly predictable. Okay, the Chrysler merger wasn't necessarily predictable, but in car design Mercedes-Benz follows one success with another. After all, if it isn't broken, why fix it?

But Mercedes has also been collaborating with the German firm AMG to create a few special cars. Most of these are used in the European Touring Car Championship races, but two have found their way to showroom floors, much to the delight of consumers. The first was the C36 sedan, with a bored-out 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine in a C-class body. It had other AMG tweaks and body additions to make it a hot street car.

Now Mercedes and AMG have upped the ante with the C43. This time the C-Class is home to a 4.3-liter V-8. As a 4.2-liter unit, this engine delivers 275 horsepower in the S-Class. But with AMG "breathing" on it, output is increased to 302 horsepower. Believe me, anything you want to do, you can do with this car. Mercedes claims a 0-60 time of xx.x seconds and a top speed (regulated) in the neighborhood of 150 mph.

But the C43 is more than just power. There are suspension tweaks as well so that if you have your foot to the floor and the road twists and turns you don't have to fear going off the road. The base C-Class suspension is such and such, while the C43 uses such and such.

There are styling changes as well. AMG-styled side and front air dams help clean the air going under the car, while a tasteful spoiler on the rear deck keeps the rear end glued to the pavement. AMG wheels offer the opportunity to use wider and larger-diameter tires, increasing traction.

Inside, the leather seats are black with white inserts. I'm not sure about the practicality of this color combination, but it is striking. In addition, the steering wheel is wrapped in black leather with a white section at the upper quarter to match the seats.

I have been a Mercedes-Benz fan since I saw my first 300SL and 300SC cabriolet many years ago. But even die-hard fans of the three-pronged star have to admit that the usual Mercedes-Benz sedans aren't a lot of fun to drive. they're luxurious and comfortable and safe, but fun usually isn't part of the equation.

The C43 upsets the balance of the equation. Here is Mercedes' smallest sedan with one of its largest motors generating a lot of horsepower. Putting the power output together with a great suspension and the usual Mercedes-Benz amenities and suddenly you have a car that is fun to drive. I was fortunate in that I had the car for an extra day, and the other cars in the driveway didn't get the miles they may have deserved.

Driving the C43 is out-and-out fun. You look for challenging roads, but unlike other fun cars like the Mazda Miata, for example, even getting to the challenging roads is fun. Once you get to the challenges though, there are few cars that can compare.

All we're looking for now is for AMG to "do its thing" on a CLK coupe. Now there would be a hot car.