2001 Mercedes-Benz C-Class - Print Version
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The last vestige of 'baby Benz' disappears with new design

written by Bob Storck


If there is any color that complements silver it is a deep green, and a whole barrage of sleek shimmering Teutonic arrows flashing through the Northwest woods cannot help but capture attention-and envy.

"'Betcha these cost over sixty," a rest stop observer opines, which draws a delighted correction from the Mercedes staffer. Even with the difference in the Canadian dollar, a new, well-equipped entry-level Benz is well under $40K, even with a heavy hand on the option list.

Mercedes-Benz has completely redesigned and re-engineered the C-Class for 2001. The only carryover items from the old C-Class are the three-pointed star on the hood and the lug nuts.

The only people likely to find fault with the C-Class styling are current E-Class buyers who may resent the sleek lines of this more affordable junior relative. Mercedes has rolled out this all new C-Class lineup in an attempt to double its share in the swelling and competitive entry-level luxury market.


Model Lineup

Two C-Class models are available: C240 ($29,950 ) and C320 ($36,950).

The two new C-Class models are identically designed sedans. (Over the next 12 to 18 months, the company will be adding different body styles to the line including a wagon and a coupe.)

C240 comes with a 2.6-liter V6 rated at 168 horsepower; C320 uses a 3.2-liter V6 that develops 215 horsepower.

While the main difference between the two models is engine size, the C320 comes equipped with a little more standard equipment. For example, on C240 sedans, seat height and backrest adjust electrically. C320 models come with full power memory front seats, Bose premium audio system.

A five-speed automatic transmission with Touch Shift comes standard on the C320 and is optional on the C240. In a nod toward sports appeal and frugality, a six-speed manual transmission comes standard on the C240.



It is apparent that the new C-Class gets its looks from the super-luxury S and CL lines. In style and concept, the C-Class has a personality all its own. It is pitched at young customers who want a car that is strong on emotion and distinctive in design.

Powerful proportions give the new C-Class a distinctly sporty look, with a much more rounded roof and a smoother front and rear. At the same time the characteristic ribbed Mercedes radiator grille with the centrally positioned star and the eye-catching ellipsoid front headlamps clearly identify this car as a member of the Mercedes family. The sleek new C-Class features a unique interpretation of the familiar elliptical headlight design, resembling overlapping ovals with a figure-eight outline.

Though it seems significantly larger than the predecessor C-Class, it's longer by less than an inch. Aerodynamics are a key component of design, and the C-Class excels with an improved drag coefficient of 0.27. Furthermore, seemingly minor details add up. The A-pillars are shaped to minimize wind noise at speed, as are the door seals and side-view mirrors. Airflow over the windshield wipers is minimized for noise as well as air turbulence. A notched sunroof deflector effectively eliminates interior booming.


Interior Features

The interior of both C240 and C320 show a common design heritage with its larger Mercedes-Benz siblings. There may be a concern with the many small control buttons presented to the driver, but that is something the individual buyer will have to determine. There are a number of functions that can be controlled from the steering wheel, including audio, navigation (optional), trip computer and telephone (a fully integrated digital and portable cellphone is also optional).

With its well-perfected ergonomics, this handsome interior fits like a perfectly tailored garment. The driver has all the controls at his or her fingertips-a key requirement for dynamic driving.

Adopting a higher standard of materials, feel, and quality appearance led designers to a significant redesign. Many of the interior surfaces have been created by spraying a layer of polyurethane into a mold with the desired texture.

To minimize reflection, the upper segment of the dashboard is finished in Charcoal, while the lower section is finished in the dominant color of the interior. Central, side and side-window defrost vents grow out of the upper dash, as does the new instrument panel with multifunction display. The lower dash is home to side mirror adjustments, as well as the large glove box that offers 500 cubic inches of storage.

The new instrument cluster has a central LCD display within the speedometer for the standard-equipment stereo adjustments, plus odometer, trip computer and optional COMAND (Cockpit MANagement and Data) system information. Three analog gauges monitor engine speed, road speed and fuel level, while the multifunction display can call up a variety of other detailed information, including water temperature.

Dual-zone climate control with rear-seat outlets and activated charcoal filtration is standard, as is a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, genuine wood trim and an AM/FM/cassette audio system. An optional Bose 10-speaker digital audio system is available as well as a glove-box mounted six-disc CD changer.

On C240 sedans, seat height and backrest adjust electrically. C320 models come with full power memory front seats. Bose premium audio system and five-speed automatic transmission with Touch Shift are also standard on C320 models. The front seats feature headrests that expand forward, enhancing comfort and safety. All three rear seating positions benefit from adjustable head restraints and three-point seat belts, while outboard rear seats have belt height adjustments and belt force limiters.

The center console echoes the curved contour of the central dash in wood trim. Each programmable SmartKey holds memory information for seat adjustment, steering wheel, rear view mirror and the automatic climate control at the driver's preferred settings.

The C-Class comes equipped with a tilt-telescoping steering wheel, leather seating surfaces, and wood trim. The steering wheel provides large, illuminated rocker buttons for convenient control of many of the car's systems. Two rockers with eight detents control the dash display and adjustment of: trip odometers and the trip computer; audio system (radio station seek, cassette deck operation, volume, CD changer track and seek); fault or error messages (for vehicle diagnostics); clock; interior and exterior light dimming; and system language. The driver can scroll forward or back between additional "windows" using the buttons on the left side.

Passive safety is not overlooked on the C-Class. With eight airbags, smart seat belts, child seat tethers, and BabySmart child seat options, the C-Class has an impressive array of safety features. The eight airbags include dual powered front airbags, four side airbags and two head curtain airbags that run the length of the interior on either side.

The BabySmart automatic child seat recognition system, standard on every Mercedes-Benz model, deactivates the passenger-side front airbag in the presence of a BabySmart-compatible infant, toddler or child booster seat (available from Mercedes-Benz retailers).

If an airbag is deployed the standard Tele Aid system will place a call to an operator who will dispatch needed assistance. The Tele Aid service is free for one year.

The trunk is roomy, with a pass-through that allowed us to head out from the home-improvement center parking lot with a rug cleaner and a couple of mops.


Driving Impressions

Mercedes is openly envious of the brisk sales of the sportier BMW 3 Series and sees new challenges from Lexus and Lincoln. Mercedes is going back to the sporty part of its tri-star heritage, and the C-Class reflects there are still some enthusiasts in the design department.

Both models are powered by new V6 engines. C240 gets spirited performance from a 2.6-liter V6 rated at 168 horsepower and 177 foot-pounds of torque. C240 comes with a great 6-speed manual transmission, and a 5-speed automatic is optional. C320 uses a 3.2-liter V6 that develops 215 horsepower and 221 foot-pounds of torque.

The C320 can accelerate from 0-60 mph in an impressive 7.1 seconds with its automatic transmission. Even the C240 clocks in at 8.2 seconds (with the standard transmission), about as quick as the more expensive Lexus ES 300.

Most C-Class models will come with the five-speed automatic; it offers Touch Shift manual gear selection, eliminating the need to operate a clutch. Touch Shift allows the driver to manually select all five forward speeds by pushing the gear lever left to downshift or right to upshift while in Drive. It isn't necessary to move the lever to another gate to make manual gear changes. This is a completely natural motion, and allows the driver to easily shift.

We don't normally associate a manual gearbox with a Mercedes sedan, but the six-speed manual in the C240 adds sports appeal to this car. Throttle response is always right there.

It's hard to make a luxury car handle well; it's probably easier to make a sports car luxurious. Mercedes has done a good job with the C-Class. Handling is crisp, yet the ride is not harsh in any way. BMW will not worry about losing some of its true enthusiasts, but a lot of cross-shoppers will find the Mercedes ride more to their liking. The C-Class cars are smooth and extremely stable at high speeds.

C-Class uses a multi-link independent suspension fore and aft similar to what is found in many sports cars. Enthusiast drivers will appreciate its rear-wheel-drive layout, not found on cars from Lexus, Acura, Volvo, and Cadillac. In the past, there may have been some benefit to front-wheel drive in adverse traction conditions; with the advent of anti-lock brake systems (ABS) and electronic traction control, however, some of the advantages of front-wheel drive have been neutralized. With new-generation electronic stability programs (ESP), rear-wheel drive can overcome skid conditions that normal front-drive cars cannot handle.

Active safety is an often-overlooked feature of total vehicle safety and it starts with making the driver feel comfortable and in control. Active safety measures on the C-Class include ABS, Brake Assist, traction control, and an Electronic Stability Program.

Brake Assist allows the driver to modulate the brakes in normal situations, working just like normal brakes. But when the pedal is depressed very hard or very quickly, Brake Assist goes into a maximum-stopping mode, reducing stopping distances. Under less critical conditions, the ABS and disc brakes work commendably; the C-Class cars are very stable under hard braking, even when braking and turning at the same time.

Electronic Stability Program (ESP) calculates the car's path through a turn; if it detects a difference between the actual path and the one the driver is trying to achieve with the steering wheel, then it applies selective braking at one of the wheels to put the car back onto the driver's intended path. It works great and can help prevent an accident. However, the system can be objectionable if you're on a race track or trying to drive aggressively. Fortunately, it can be switched off. Even with the system switched off, the car responds predictably with a bias toward understeer at the limit (the front wheels lose traction before the rear wheels), which makes it easy to drive.

A sport package is available for drivers who want a little more edge in their Mercedes, with higher-rate springs, shocks, stabilizer bars, larger tires and alloy wheels; the package also includes sport seats and leather upholstery. The suspension tuning provides more feedback to the driver and enhances response.


Final Word

The redesigned C-Class boasts more room, power, styling and performance than the previous models. C-Class is so good, it could lure E-Class buyers away.


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