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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - C-Class - C320 Avantgarde sedan

Our Opinion

We like
On-road poise, comfort, safety, performance
Room for improvement
Complicated radio controls, sanitised interior

12 Apr 2001

MERCEDES is dealing another body blow to the collective players in the prestige category with its new C-class model.

The new cars come onto the market with an impressive armoury of equipment and flaunt a light, agile look aimed at appealing to younger buyers.

The new body claims a surprisingly low Cd figure (0.26) as well as improved safety through more strength, all for a relatively low weight gain of around 80kg.

The engine lineup is similar to before except for the addition of the C200 Kompressor supercharged four-cylinder, and the lifting in capacity of the C180 and C240 engines. These now displace 2.0 and 2.6 litres respectively. At the top end, there is the 3.2-litre V6 used in just about every other Benz except the A-class. This is the spiritual successor to the outgoing C280.

With a distinct family connection to other Benz models such as the latest S-class and the A-class, the new cars are less conservative in style as well as being noticeably lighter and more airy inside.

This tends to banish any feelings that this - A-class aside - is the "little" Mercedes intended for those who do not wish to take on the bulk of the bigger E-class and S-class models.

In fact the initial impression is that the C-class is a much larger car than its predecessor, even if the tape measure tends to deny it. The car is longer, yes, but only by 10mm, and it?s barely any wider (8mm) and the wheelbase has grown by just 25mm. And the front and rear tracks have actually been reduced, by 8mm and 12mm respectively.

The upshot however is that the interior is bigger than before, with more shoulder room in the front (11mm) and more elbow room front and rear (8mm and 12mm respectively). Rear knee room has also been increased, by just 4mm, as has rear headroom, which is up 10mm.

All small increments but, with the new pastel-hued, colour-coded interiors, enough to make the car seem a lot more spacious than before.

The new body structure, as well as being the most aerodynamic in its class, is stronger and safer than the outgoing C-class, picking up 26 per cent in body stiffness as well as gains in resonant frequencies that make the car feel generally quieter and more solid on the road.

Not surprisingly, Mercedes has also made the C-class a safer car than before with significant improvements in crash performance coming from new technologies developed for the S-class.

An example is the new "ellipsoid" firewall construction that enables the central passenger compartment to resist impact forces more effectively than the forked side members used in the previous car.

Side impact protection has also been upgraded with three floor cross members and a solid beam under the instrument panel adding to common measures such as side-impact door beams, strengthened B-pillars and reinforced roof structure.

The doors have separate inner and outer shells as well as sectional reinforcements inside.

A peek into the boot area with its split-fold seats reveals a heavily reinforced construction that in some ways compromises boot usefulness in the name of passenger protection by slightly constricting load-through space. Can't argue with the philosophy though.

Underpinning this is a reworked chassis with a new three-link MacPherson strut front suspension and a redesigned multi-link rear end.

Always a Benz strongpoint, the suspension strikes a balance between ride and handling that seems to err on the comfort side but actually creates a fine, on-road poise that makes the car thoroughly competent in all kinds of road conditions - particularly when a stability control system is built in as standard. More on that later.

Our test car was the Avantgarde version of the top of the line C320 model, which meant that not a lot was missing.

At this level, an already impressive standard equipment list adds leather upholstery, climate control air-conditioning and a glovebox-mounted CD stacker.

This is on top of the comprehensive list of standard gear fitted to the base C180 Classic model, which gets dual front airbags, side airbags front and rear, a full-length side window airbag for extra head protection, cruise control, power driver's seat and trip computer.

A strange mix of power and manual adjustment in the front seats gives power-adjusted height and backrest adjust, but passengers must adjust for length and cushion tilt manually.

The Avantgarde is a sportier interpretation of the C-class and gets textured aluminium where others use wood, as well as its own front and rear bumpers and side sills. Wheel size goes up from 15 to 16 inches and so does tyre size, while numerous external splashes of paint differentiate it from other C-class models.

Sporty it may be, but an Avantgarde C320 is not a BMW 330i. It lacks the almost single-minded focus of the Bavarian, exhibiting a softer, more user-friendly persona.

So the ride quality has that controlled, poised feel - so much Mercedes - that eludes many other prestige car-makers. The longish-travel suspension allows the C320 to squat, rather than roll, as it makes its way through a fast corner.

Attack a rough, undulating road and the Benz absorbs the ruts and bumps with very little feedback coming through to the interior by way of the rack and pinion steering system, or the suspension itself.

The feeling is not that of a quickly-responding sporting saloon - like a BMW - but the car will put fast kilometres behind it with surprising ease.

The steering is slower than a 3 Series BMW, suggesting lurking understeer, but the reality is that the C320 tracks a chosen line faithfully and is not unduly disturbed by any mid-corner bumps or potholes.

And of course there is always the underlying security of the Benz ESP stability control system to keep the car stable should the driver over-commit.

The 18-valve, 3.2-litre V6 engine winds out a respectable 160kW and produces 310Nm of torque at 3000rpm - not a bad figure at all for the capacity.

It leans more towards flexibility than the high-winding 3.0-litre inline six used in the BMW (170kW and 300Nm), entirely appropriate considering its intended applications, but out-and-out acceleration is pretty rapid at 7.8 seconds for 0-100km/h. The 10kg heavier 330i is faster though, at 7.3 seconds.

The Benz also lacks the delicious sound of the BMW it is smooth and pleasant, but lacks the hard edge of the Bavarian inline six. And it idles with a subdued, but noticeable mechanical clatter.

Working through a standard five-speed automatic transmission, the V6 slurs through the gear changes smoothly and is intelligent enough to know when to hold a gear and when not to.

The Mercedes version of a manual override Tiptronic-style transmission allows the driver to select an up or downshift by moving the lever laterally, from right to left or vice-versa. The downside - apart from the not-intuitive lateral lever shift - is that moving down a ratio merely contains the range of gears in which the box operates.

Shifting to "3", for example, means the box shuffles automatically through the three lower gears only, leaving out fourth and fifth. Mostly, drivers leave in auto and let it make up its own mind - which it does very competently.

All this is backed up by the slightly larger interior, which offers great leg-space up front - in fact so great the seat adjustment is sufficient for the seats to slide back so far they virtually touch the leading edge of the rear cushions - good shoulder room and a littering of decent-size storage areas. The large, 8.2-litre glovebox helps too.

The rear seat has the useful split-fold, activated by levers in the boot, that increases loading versatility.

The Avantgarde gets the Mercedes Thermotronic climate-control system and the odd touch of leather - steering wheel and shift lever - to distinguish it from the base-level Classic model, as well as an adjustable centre console armrest, exit lights on the front doors, illuminated vanity mirrors on the sun visors and blue-tinted glass.

The colour-matching is perhaps a little too enthusiastic because, while it might help promote a spacious look, it also makes the interior look almost ? monotonous.

Wood grain does not make an appearance on the Avantgarde - substituted by "alu-quadra" textured aluminium trim - so the lack of upmarket sumptuousness is probably more noticeable at this level.

The control layout follows the usual Benz principles, with a relatively simple layout of controls to eliminate driver confusion.

The steering column wand for the cruise control remains the best system in the industry.

The large arc of speedometer is very S-class and the park-distance control readout provides a visual, as well as audible means of judging exactly where the car is in tight situations via displays set on top of the dash and above the rear window.

The only real ergonomic aberration is unnecessarily confusing presentation of control buttons for the radio - although thankfully the important volume control knob is large and easy to find.

Some nice little touches found in the BMW - such as remote-controlled window/sunroof - are missing in the Benz but then again these are compensated by a generally more comprehensive equipment list.

There is a lot to like in this new small Benz, enough to seriously rattle BMW?s 3 Series cage.

Pricing is within cooee across the board, and equipment levels are generally similar - maybe favouring Mercedes in certain areas such as the standard provision of ESP stability control.

The persona is quite different, but similar in that both are essentially Germanic which means unquestioned build integrity, the highest levels of safety and a generally rewarding driving experience.

In the end, we suspect the C-class would be the easier high-profile compact German sedan to live with.

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