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First drive: Benz C-class V8 fightback

Sales performer: The C-class now accounts for 30 per cent of Mercedes-Benz sales in Australia.

The Mercedes-Benz C-class adds V8 performance as part of its mid-life makeover

10 Sep 2004

MERCEDES-BENZ and BMW battle fiercely on ever-expanding grounds, from mini cars to hulking great off-roaders.

But at the core of the fight is the compact prestige contest between the C-class and the 3 Series – both icons, both highly desirable, both symbols of success for aspiring young professionals.

After a surge to sales leadership in 2002, the W203 C-class has had to concede top spot to the E46 3 Series since, settling back into a close but familiar second place, still accounting for around 30 per cent of local Mercedes volume.

Now Benz is providing C-class with fresh impetus, launching a mid-life update that includes a bunch of smaller changes and one doozy, the return of the V8.

Until now the AMG version of the W203 has had to ‘make do’ with a 260kW supercharged V6. Bloody fast, bloody potent, but still not a V8.

That’s all changed now with the 270kW/510Nm 24-valve SOHC 5.4-litre engine mated to a five-speed auto, the combo seen previously in the CLK 55 AMG.

While it doesn’t up the performance ante over the V6 (both have 0-100km/h claims of 5.2 seconds), it does mean this car has two more cylinders than the BMW M3 coupe, the legend that is the king of this pocket rocket niche market.

Two extra cylinders seems to mean you can charge a pretty significant price premium, the new car clocking in at $159,900, $9000 above the C32.

It’s also well above the M3 which starts at $142,000 and miles above Audi’s impressive all-wheel drive V8 S4 which is priced at $129,500 for the sedan. Let the battle commence.

To fit the engine in, the front end of C55 has been extended 80mm compared to the rest of the range, while elliptical twin headlights, AMG bodykit, 18-inch alloy wheels in different sizes front to rear are also pretty decent giveaways.

Inside, the 55 also gets Alcantara upholstery and sport instrument cluster with silver dials.

It’s not only at the top end of the range where the Benz boys have been busy for this update, but for the most part we are talking details.

There are styling changes outside that include a redesigned front bumper with new lower intakes and new three-slat grille, as well as clear lens headlights.

The C-class also now has more scratch-resistant paintwork, through the use of nano-technology.

4 center imageInside, the instrument panel area has been redesigned, while there are new switches, changes to the air-conditioning controls and seat modifications.

Mechanically, there has been refinement to the chassis (including a wider track and 16-inch tyres), suspension and steering in an attempt to make them more sporting, all these changes bundled together as ‘Direct Control’. The six-speed manual gearbox is uprated and the turbo-diesel CDI 220’s engine power goes up by five per cent to 110kW, while delivering a fuel average of 6.1L/100km.

Benz has played the pricing game cautiously, with some models not going up at all and others by no more than a few hundred dollars. Check the pricing guide (below) for the full story.

As this update covers off not only the sedan, but the wagon and Coupe as well, there’s plenty of pricing to actually go through, what with Classic, Elegance and Avantagarde trim levels as well as a sports pack, AMG pack and the Sports Coupe-specific Evolution trim level.

And as for the options list, let’s just say it’s long! For all their rivalry, that’s definitely something C-class and 3 Series have in common.

PRICING

C180 K Classic sedan (a) $56,990
C180 K Avantgarde sedan (a) $62,490
C180 K Elegance sedan (a) $63,290
C200 K Classic sedan (a) $63,990
C200 K Avantgarde sedan (a) $67,990
C200 K Elegance sedan (a) $68,790
C220 CDI Classic sedan (a) $68,400
C220 CDI Avantgarde sedan (a) $72,400
C220 CDI Elegance sedan (a) $73,200
C240 Classic sedan (a) $74,900
C240 Avantgarde sedan (a) $78,900
C240 Elegance sedan (a) $79,700
C320 Elegance/Avantgarde sedan (a) $99,900
C55 AMG sedan (a) $159,900C200 K Classic estate (a) $68,390C180 K Sports Coupe (a) $54,890
C180 K Sports Coupe Evolution (a) $59,540
C200 K Sports Coupe (a) $61,990
C200 K Sports Coupe Evolution (a) $66,640
C230 K Sports Coupe (a) $71,600
C230 K Sports Coupe Evolution (a) $76,250
C320 Evolution Sports Coupe (a) $89,900Six-speed manual transmission: Deduct $3100 from price of C180 K, C200 K sedan and Sports Coupe and C230 K Sports Coupe.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS

OBVIOUSLY, the V8 is the centre of attention for this C-class update and where we will concentrate our attention.

While you can hear that there’s a couple of extra cylinders up front doing their V8 thing, the exhaust noise produced by the C55 AMG is actually a little bit muffled.

There’s certainly no doubt the engine gets up and goes, although it seems to be somewhat peakier in its delivery than the V8 S4. Where the Audi flows, the Benz is good and then suddenly great, like a lumpier camshaft is up and running.

That makes this an engine of some character, demanding to be driven and enjoying big bursts of acceleration. It’s a beauty.

The engine mates to a five-speed auto that includes steering wheel gearchange buttons you can accidentally activate (which can be inconvenient), or the very easy tipshift mode on the gear lever.

It’s a pretty smart gearbox and holds ratios well rather than dive for top when you lift the throttle. So that means for the most part it’s easy enough to leave it in ‘D’ and let the V8’s torque do the work.

Although hardly a launch drive program that stretched the car’s abilities, it was noticeable how firm the suspension set-up was on chopped up-roads. There was also a touch of vagueness off centre in the steering.

It was slightly disappointing in this regard, as there are other blasters around these days that are able to balance the handling and ride compromise that touch better. Quibbling? Perhaps, but this is a $160,000 motor car.

That’s also something of an AMG trademark. Inspiring drivetrains but not quite so inspiring when it comes to the chassis.

The amount of shiny metal-look plastic and chrome in the cockpit, as well as the sports seats with acres of adjustment, back up the sports message this car is selling. On the whole it’s a good place to be.

There are some characteristics that spread from C55 to other Benzes, like the world’s easiest cruise control – one touch and you are done – and at the other end of the scale, a vertical centre console festooned with buttons.

Annoyingly, the power window control sits on the lower part of the driver's door, right where I wanted to brace my right knee. It became painful after a while.

But there’s no doubt it’s a great view out the front, with that three-pointed star crowning the steeply sloping bonnet.

That might be enough for some, but it’s what’s under the bonnet that makes this car worthwhile.

The Road to Recovery podcast series


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