2004 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
    MSRP
    $32,650
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    2004 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

    The Benz for the rest of us.

    Introduction

    The Mercedes-Benz C-Class cars offer the Benz experience for the price of a Toyota Camry, which is why they are the company's best-selling line. 

    The C-Class starts at less than $27,000 for C230 coupe, but the line is perhaps best represented by the C320 sedan ($37,630). It's a pleasure to drive, with its smooth, powerful engine, responsive automatic transmission and classic Mercedes balance of ride quality and handling. Inside, it looks and, for the most part, feels like a Mercedes-Benz, with firm, supportive seats and mostly high-quality materials. Meanwhile, the price-leading C230 sport coupe continues to attract first-time Mercedes buyers with its sportiness, practicality, features and that three-pointed star on the grille. The pinnacle of the C-Class line, at least from a performance standpoint, is the limited-production C32 AMG sedan ($51,200). 

    For 2004, Mercedes has focused improvements on the sportier models. The sport sedans get a healthy dose of performance and styling updates, including a lower ride height, upgraded brakes, a short-throw shifter and unique interior features to further distinguish them from the standard sedans. The sport coupes benefit from similar interior changes, and now come standard with 17-inch alloy wheels and high-performance tires. On the standard sedans and wagons, the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive has been packaged with heated seats for a savings of $1,250 compared to 2003. 

    The C-Class has good bones, with exterior styling inspired by the big, luxurious S-Class, technology shared with the E-Class, and an interior design all its own. Every model, starting with the less-expensive coupes, comes standard with a full-complement of airbags and Mercedes' Electronic Stability Program skid-control system. 

    While this is Mercedes' least expensive line in the United States, you'll still pay a premium for the three-pointed star. Comparably equipped C-Class sedans are priced slightly higher than BMW's 3 Series and substantially higher than Audi's A4 models. If it's a sports sedan you seek, you might still consider Audi or BMW. But if you want Mercedes-Benz engineering, design strengths and mystique in a solid, mainstream sedan, it doesn't get anymore accessible than the C-Class, and the C320 sedan represents the best of this. 

    Lineup

    At last count, the nine variants that make up the Mercedes C-Class included five four-door sedans, two wagons, and two hatchback coupes. All nine have rear-wheel drive, one of four different engines, and either a standard six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission, depending on the model. All-wheel-drive is optional on two of the sedans and the wagons. 

    The best-selling C-Class models, and perhaps the most familiar, are the mainstream sedans. The C240 sedan ($32,280) is powered by a 168-horsepower 2.6-liter V6 with three valves per cylinder and a standard five-speed Touch Shift automatic transmission with manual shift mode. C240 is well-equipped, with leather seat inserts, front seats with power height and backrest adjustment, a manual tilt-and-telescope steering column, power windows, cruise control, a seven-speaker audio system with weatherband, laurel-wood trim and 16-inch aluminum wheels with all-season tires. 

    The C320 sedan ($37,630) is powered by a 215-horsepower 3.2-liter version of the same V6. C320 comes standard a higher level of luxury amenities, including dual-zone automatic climate control, a Bose 10-speaker stereo, reading lamps, 10-way power front seats with memory, and a power-adjustable steering column. 

    The wagons are identical counterparts to these sedans. The C240 ($33,780) and C320 ($39,130) wagons are the smallest wagons Mercedes has ever imported into the United States, yet they successfully combine sporty styling and good cargo room, perfect for that big dog (though we recommend a dog fence for safety). 

    The C240 and C320 sedans and wagons are available with optional 4MATIC all-wheel drive ($1200), which includes heated seats. All-wheel drive is a valuable asset for the rainy Pacific Northwest and for the harsh winters of the Midwest and Northeast. 

    The C-Class sport sedans have firmer suspensions, racy body cladding, 17-inch spoke wheels with high performance tires, the six-speed manual transmission, thickly bolstered front sport seats and aluminum interior trim. The C230 Kompressor sedan ($28,710) is powered by the same supercharged inline-4 as the C230 coupe. The C320 sports sedan ($35,920) uses the 3.2-liter V6. For 2004, the sport sedans get the same interior upgrades as the sport coupes, as well as a couple of significant mechanical upgrades. The front brakes now feature four-piston fixed calipers and cross-drilled rotors, which add more fade-resistant stopping power and visual appeal. Ride height has been lowered one inch and the suspension has been recalibrated to further improve handling. A new leather covered short-throw shifter reduces the space between gear positions for a sportier feel and more precise gear selection. 

    The least-expensive C-Class models are the sport coupes, which are hatchbacks. The C230 Kompressor ($26,020) is powered by a 1.8-liter dual-overhead-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine pumped up to 189 horsepower by a supercharger (the Kompressor) and intercooler. The C320 coupe ($28,320) comes with the 3.2-liter V6 and a manual transmission and gets amenity upgrades similar to the C320 sedan. Both coupes have been upgraded for 2004. Standard equipment now includes 17-inch seven-spoke alloy wheels and high-performance 225/45R17 tires, a three-spoke multifunction sport steering wheel with raised thumb-grips, leather-covered sport shift knob, rubber-studded stainless steel pedals, an enlarged chrome exhaust tip, body-colored door handles and aluminum door sills. 

    The C32 AMG is the hottest hot rod of the C-Class family. Offered only as a sedan, the C32 adds a Lysholm positive-displacement supercharger to the 3.2-liter V6, boosting output to 349 horsepower and 332 pounds-feet of torque. It boasts its own SpeedShift version of the five-speed automatic gearbox, plus unique exterior decor and interior trim, special suspension and brakes, and larger tires and wheels. In fact, the C32 AMG is one of the quickest four-door cars in the world. It is also priced. 

    Walkaround

    The C-Class cars are a mix of design cues from other Mercedes-Benz cars. All C-Class models feature quad ovoid headlamp assemblies that are joined, very similar in design to that of the CLK and SL models. C-Class sedans wear the horizontal-bar grille topped with the traditional three-pointed star hood ornament, very similar to that of the S-Class and E-Class sedans, but the much smaller C-Class sedans nonetheless have a tight look all their own. Aerodynamically, they're among the slickest cars in the Mercedes-Benz family. The C-Class sedans boast a drag coefficient of 0.27, lowering wind noise, improving fuel efficiency, and theoretically increasing their top speed. 

    C-Class coupes feature unique styling, with a radical roofline, a shortened rear end, and an aggressive front end and. In fact, not a single exterior panel is shared between the sedan and the coupe. Up front, the Mercedes star-grille is used in place of the sedan's bar-grille, with the tri-star badge ensconced in the grille work, similar to that of the SL, CLK, and CL models. The coupe's double-elliptical headlights are similar to those of the C-Class sedan. The swooping roofline incorporates a smoked Plexiglas panel. A rear spoiler adds aerodynamic downforce to the rear tires, good for high-speed curves in the rain, and a glass panel between the tail lights contributes to rearward visibility and gives it a distinctive appearance. The coupe is 7 inches shorter than the sedan in overall length, but all C-Class cars ride on the same 106.9-inch wheelbase. The coupe's long doors make for easy ingress and egress. Nice touches include sporty wheels and turn signal repeaters built into the outside mirrors. 

    Some consider the wagon the neatest of all C-Class models. The sedan provides the foundation for an elegant wagon. The wagon's roof sweeps almost teardrop style into the rear gate. This gives it a sleek profile, and minimizes the stodginess inherent in a station wagon's utilitarian design. 

    Interior

    The C-Class interiors look and largely feel like Mercedes-Benz interiors. Their firm, supportive seats are supremely comfortable: neither so hard that they numb the backside nor so soft that they leave occupants tired or aching. 

    The C-Class switchgear, again with a few exceptions, is easy to use and understand. The lack of some the complicated systems present on more expensive Mercedes cars simplifies things. The deeply hooded instrument cluster is shared among the coupe, sedan and wagon with minor variations, and virtually eliminates glare on the dials. We like the layout and decor of the center stack, with its wood or aluminum trim and large controls for the audio system and climate controls. 

    The stalk controls have a nice, beefy feel with positive detents. Among them is a stalk for the cruise control. Many drivers new to Mercedes cars, and that includes us, often move this cruise control stalk when we intended to use the turn signals. This can cause the cruise control to switch on right as you are about to brake for a turn or make a lane change. Controls mounted on the steering wheel allow the driver to operate the audio and telephone systems, and other functions. 

    Overhead is a console with nice map lights. The glovebox is a good size, unless you order the CD changer, in which case you lose most of it, although you'll still have the center console and door pockets. Still, we'd like more places to stash things. German automakers just don't seem to think people should stash stuff in their cars, nor do they think they need cup holders. 

    The seats in the sedans come standard with leather facings. The sport coupe comes standard with cloth seats with manual fore-aft adjusters. The C32 AMG has its own special sport seats and premium leather upholstery. 

    The coupes feature aluminum trim instead of traditional wood. In general, the C-Class models are trimmed with good-quality interior materials, but some of hard plastics don't measure up to traditional Mercedes standards. The sunshade over the expansive glass roof in the coupe is somewhat rickety. Apparently, Mercedes had to account for the lower prices somewhere. 

    The rear seats in the sedans are generous in space and comfort. They're installed theater style, and sit slightly higher than those in front, allowing rear passengers a better view forward without significantly compromising head room. Indeed, the spacious rear seats in the sedans are one of the strengths of the C-Class when compared to some competitors. The optional power sunshade for the rear glass reinforces the feeling you're in a Benz. 

    The rear seats in the coupes are comfortable even for small to medium adults, but the roof slopes down quite a bit, restricting headroom. Getting in the back of the two-door coupe is aided by a release system for the front passenger seats; the whole seat automatically slides forward when the seatback is flipped forward, opening up the rear compartment for entry. The hatchback design of the coupe offers more cargo utility than that of the sedans. The 60/40 split rear seats can be folded down effortlessly, either with the bottom sections flipped forward or left in place, depending on how much cargo room is needed. With the rear seats in place, the coupe's rear hold offers 10.2 cubic feet of space, which is as much as the trunks of some sedans provide. But folding the rear seats down reveals 38.1 cubic feet of space that can be filled with much larger items. 

    The sedan's trunk is spacious for a car of its compact exterior dimensions. It offers 12.2 cubic feet of cargo space, which is significantly more than a BMW 3 Series sedan (10.7) though less than an Audi A4 (13.4). Moreover, when you hit the trunk button, the C-Class lid pops all the way open, something many trunk lids do not do. There's also an optional split-folding rear seat ($460) that expands cargo room in the C-Class sedans. 

    C-Class wagons have exactly the same interior. 

    Driving Impression

    The Mercedes C-Class offers a fine balance of ride and handling, nice steering and excellent brakes. The ride/handling trade-off changes with the model; coupes and sports sedans are more firmly sprung, for example. Wagons offer ride and handling to the sedans. 

    We found the C320 sedan smooth and quiet in normal driving, but step on it and the engine growls to life. The 3.2-liter V6 works great in this car, with 221 foot-pounds of torque available from 3000 to 4600 rpm. Torque is that force that propels you away from intersections and stop lights, and the C320 has a healthy supply for a car its size. The 3.2-liter engine is our first choice for the C-Class for its power and overall smoothness. The C320 wagon weighs a little more than the sedan, but the difference in acceleration is negligible. The wagon remains a high-style, high-function piece. 

    The C240 sedan is priced more attractively than the C320 and for that reason it's the most popular model, but the 2.6-liter V6 is the weakest engine in the line and feels short on power. The C320 is a much more satisfying car. 

    The automatic transmission in the C320 works very well. It shifts crisply and is suitably matched with the V6's wide power band and strong torque, adding to the sporty driving experience. The Touch Shift automatic has a manual-shift feature, but there's no need to use it because the automatic is so responsive. It's adaptive, which means that if you drive it gently, it will upshift at lower rpm and reward you with good gas mileage (20/26 mpg). If you're constantly on the throttle, the transmission learns that you like to drive quickly and will hold itself in each gear longer for quicker acceleration performance. Moving the Touch Shift transmission lever into the manual mode allows the driver to manually shift down or up one gear with each click. Hold the lever to the left for more than a second and it shifts all the way down to the lowest appropriate gear for the speed you're traveling. Hold it to the right for more than a second and it shifts back up to Drive. Stop and it automatically shifts down to first. Accelerate away and it shifts back up to the highest gear selected, a good strategy for using third gear when driving around town. 

    The C230 sport coupe demonstrates that size isn't everything, at least in terms of engines. Its four-cylinder engine generates 189 horsepower and 192 pounds-feet of torque, making it more powerful than the C240 sedan. The C230's supercharged engine is impressive. Mercedes claims the C230 coupe can sprint from 0 to 60 mph in just 7.2 seconds with the six-speed manual transmission, and 7.5 seconds with the adaptive five-speed automatic. That's reasonably quick. Moreover, the engine is very responsive to throttle commands. Its more responsive than other four-cylinder engines, and its powerband is nicely suited to a small sport coupe. However, the supercharged engine in the C230 is the roughest in the C-Class line. The V6 engines are much smoother. The supercharger makes pleasant mechanical sounds, and it looks like mechanical sculpture under the hood. Yet one person's sounds are another's noise, and the C230's four-cylinder vibrates more than the V6 both at idle and at high revs. Plus, the four-cylinder engine isn't the best match for an automatic transmission. The automatic zaps much of its zest, and tends to leave only the engine's courser qualities. In other words, the C230 works best with the six-speed manual. 

    The C320 offers a nice balance of ride and handling. The suspension is well damped, giving it a comfortable ride. There's no bouncing after hitting a dip in the road. It most closely replicates the traditional Mercedes ride quality, and it may be our favorite package. It isn't a sports sedan in the classic sense, but it's likely to best suit the tastes of most buyers. It's never stiff, but it won't wilt if you push it. 

    The C230 and C. 

    Summary

    The Mercedes-Benz C-Class offers world-renowned design and engineering for the price of upmarket mid-size sedans. The C320 sedan is smooth, powerful and comfortable, and arguably represents the best of the line, while the C230 coupe delivers a combination of price, safety and utility. 

    Model Lineup

    Mercedes-Benz C230 sport coupe ($26,020); C320 sport coupe ($28,370); C230 sport sedan ($28,170); C240 sedan ($31,280); C320 sport sedan ($35,200); C320 sedan ($37,630); C240 wagon ($33,780); C320 wagon ($39,130); C32 AMG ($51,120). 

    Assembled In

    Bremen, Germany. 

    Options As Tested

    CD changer ($410); metallic paint ($670); Sunroof Package ($1640) includes auto-dimming mirrors, rain sensing wipers, Panorama sunroof, power rear-window shade. 

    Model Tested

    Mercedes-Benz C320 sedan ($37,630). 

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