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Mercedes-Benz C320 (2001)

SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

They did it again. Mercedes-Benz engineers have once again taken all the relevant design cues from the top-of-the-line S-Class sedan to create the new generation of the company's entry-level C-Class. This first happened with the 1994 C-Class. Faced with increasing competition from Japanese luxury manufacturers in the early 1990s, particularly in the entry-level luxury class, Mercedes-Benz met its competition with the then-new C-Class. That car utilized new technologies and construction techniques to provide "more car without more cost," setting the theme for subsequent Mercedes-Benz products. The 1994 to 2000 C-Class leveraged the style of the S-Class of its time, but was a very different sort of machine than that S-Class.

The current S-Class inherited the techniques and technologies born with the 1994 C-Class when it debuted in 2000. It built on the increasingly stylish look of the Mercedes-Benz coupes and sedans that debuted in the late 1990s. Gone was the Teutonically severe imperial limousine, replaced by a youthfully sporty shape. And that coupelike shape is very discernable in the lines of the 2001 C-Class.

This time, the C-Class inherits more than just looks from its big sibling, getting most of the S-Class's safety systems as well. The new C-Class's unibody structure is more rigid, with increased crush-zone structures. The suspension has been revised, and the four-wheel antilock disc brakes are larger. Most notably, two new engines are found under the hood. The previous-generation C's inline four- and six- cylinder engines have been replaced by two V6es. The C240 has a 168- horsepower, 2.6-liter engine; the C320 uses the 215-hp 3.2-liter V6 also found in the E-, CLK-, ML-, and SLK-Classes.

I've been driving a 2001 C320 for the past week. It's definitely a Mercedes-Benz. It's also definitely much more car than the old C280, with a more modern, U.S.-friendly design and increased power and refinement. There is nothing "entry level" about it. Mercedes-Benz has again raised the bar in the small luxury sedan class.

APPEARANCE: The old C-Class was boxily conservative. Conservative styling is history at Mercedes-Benz. The 2001 C-Class is very much the junior sibling to the S-Class, with similar figure-eight headlights and a low, wide implementation of the traditional Mercedes grille. The well-raked windshield, arched roofline, and short, high rear deck give it a coupe-like appearance, even more than the S-Class. Look closely at the rear-view mirrors. They have integrated auxiliary turn signals and very convenient puddle lights. The large triangular taillights were a previous-generation C-Class trademark, and were copied widely. That style was modified for the S-Class, and is slightly restyled again for the C. Although it's only an inch longer, the new C-Class looks much more substantial than the old version.

COMFORT: Even more than outside, the inside of the new C-Class resembles the S. And, like the S, it's very Americanized, with window lifts on the doors and auxiliary controls on the steering wheel. Elegantly-rounded style replaces the old C's austere severity, and makes the interior seem more spacious. It is larger inside, especially in rear- seat room. Seats are typical Mercedes-Benz - firmly supportive for long-distance comfort, with standard perforated leather upholstery. The front buckets are both power-adjustable, with three-position memory for the driver's seat. The rear bench is contoured for two people, and optionally can have a 60/40 split and ski passthrough. The trunk is large for the size of the car. Back up front, a tilt and telescope-adjustable steering wheel allows the perfect driving position. Most controls are intuitively-placed and operated. The optional CD changer is in the glovebox, where the passenger can operate it, and there is still useful glovebox space. The two-layer center console has a useful cooled lower compartment. Dual windshield wipers are an improvement on the old single wiper, offering faster clearing and better visibility.

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

ROADABILITY: "Insulated, not isolated" has long been the Mercedes suspension philosophy, and that still applies. The C320 is more a luxury sedan than a sports sedan. It has a softer suspension calibration with more body motion than a sports sedan, but is composed in hard cornering. In standard form, it's a compliantly-comfortable car for touring long distances in comfort on any type of paved road. A sport suspension is available.

PERFORMANCE: Welcome to the new, fun Benz. While the C320's maximum 215 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque aren't quite up to the levels of the old AMG C36 and C43 hot rods, the new car is noticeably healthier than the old C280. The five-speed automatic transmission features adaptive logic that learns a driver's style and compensates for grade ascents by delaying shifting and descents by shifting to a lower gear. "Touch Shift" manual control allows the driver to over-ride the computer, and does improve acceleration and entertainment a bit. But with the torque peak plateau between 3000 and 4600 rpm, shifting is strictly optional.

CONCLUSIONS: Mercedes-Benz has improved its small C-Class sedans. Think of them as the C++ Class.

2001 Mercedes-Benz C320

Base Price              $ 36,950
Price As Tested         $ 43,995
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 electronically-controlled 
                          automatic with adaptive logic control
                          and "Touch Shift" manual shifting.
Wheelbase / Length      106.9 in. / 178.3 in.
Curb Weight             3,439 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   16.0
Fuel Capacity           18.3 gal.
Fuel Requirement        unleaded premium, 92 octane
Tires                   P205/55 HR16 Goodyear Eagle RS-A
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear  independent twin lower-link strut / 
                          independent multilink
Drivetrain              front engine, rear-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      19 / 26 / 21
0 to 60 mph                6.9  sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)   0.27

Desert Silver paint                                       $   625
Java leather                                              $ 1,375
Integrated Timeport phone and integrated CD Changer       $ 1,795
Rain sensor, glass sunroof, electric rear window sunshade $ 1,340
Ski sack with trunk passthrough split folding rear seat   $   425
Headlamp washing system and heated front seats            $   800
Destination charge                                        $   645