Friday, March 30, 2012

Mercedes-Benz C350 - Enough "Mercedesness"

One of the issues that the German luxury car companies deal with in America is maintaining their exclusivity while still increasing sales. The guy who buys a 7 Series BMW or a Mercedes-Benz S Class doesn't really want to share the brand with some dude with a four-cylinder hatchback that's wearing the same distinctive emblem on its nose. So, the companies have been reticent to send over their more modest offerings.

That's why the C Class is the smallest Mercedes we've had on these shores, and still is--for now. The C-Class has been a four-door sedan in the U.S. for many years, since the cute little hatchback three-door was marketed here. You still see the hatches on the road.

Now, there's a new C-Class coupe, and it is one handsome piece of work. It wears the latest face of the brand and has a dramatic shape that is not so much "cute" as it is slick and compact -- but not tiny. You take it seriously, and it elicited some nice compliments from passers-by. One guy in front of the Starbucks said to me, "Cool ride, dude!" I told  him I was "just playing with it" and he found that very amusing. Yeah, right.

I spent a too-short week with a Mars Red example and it possessed that quality that keeps buyers coming back for more. Mercedes seems to have figured out that its cars have to have a solid and well wrought quality inside and out to not seem like Hondas, and they do.

The body design is unmistakably Mercedes, with its three-pointed star up front. The interior, though, where drivers spend their time, is especially striking. The surfaces are padded--but not too softly. The seats are firm and gripping. The burl walnut trim is from a real tree--as it should be in a car like this.

The entertainment system gave a fine sound, but I was unable to figure out how to pair my phone with Bluetooth without consulting the instructions. It's easier in a Kia--and still works fine.

My tester was a C350, meaning it had a 3.5-liter V6 putting out 302 horsepower under the shapely hood. It all ran through a seven-speed (!) automatic, which mean no effort to shift it, but no manual--like you can get at the BMW and Audi dealers (in some models). It makes it easy to not miss the self-shifting experience, and its Touch Shift program lets you select gears with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, even if you don't have a clutch to play with.

I got 21 miles per gallon over my week. The EPA says 19 City, 28 Highway, 22 Average, so I was right in there. Not a super economy car, but not a gas guzzler either. The EPA says 6 for Air Pollution and 5 for Greenhouse Gas--mid pack.

You can opt for the 201-horsepower turbo 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder engine in the C250 and have much of the goodness of the C350, but for a whole lot less cash. My tester came to $50,835 when all was said and done and all the packages were added ($42,370 suggested retail). The C250 starts at $37,995 with shipping, which is what cars like this cost these days.

The C-Class Coupe is a subcompact, so it has back seats but is not spacious. It's cozy--and makes you feel good--but it'll cost you. Many people think it's worth it.

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