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2001 Mercedes Benz C320 Road Test

By CharlesOfria

Category: $35,000 to $45,000 Compact Sport Sedan
Who should buy this car: A person looking for a sophisticated European luxury sedan that delivers status without compromise.
Comparable cars in this class: BMW 3 Series,  Audi A4, Lexus IS300
Ah,the "Mercedes Mystique."  It began more than a century ago whenthe founders of Daimler Benz invented the automobile itself in1886.  Since that historical beginning,Mercedes has maintained a well-deserved reputation for building some of the best cars in the world. Overthe years, these prized possessions would actually appreciate in value as theyaged so that owners could sell a 5 or 10 year old Benz for more than they paidfor it.  This"mystique" justified raising the price of admittance on newmodels which, in turn, inspired the less affluent automobile connoisseur to pay morefor a used Benz.  And so, Mercedes appreciated in value, making thesesuperb vehicles sound investments.

By the end of the 80's, while any car sporting the three pointed starmaintained an excellentresale value, they did depreciate.  One reason for this was thatthere was a limit to how much the price for these fine cars could be raised. Another reason was the new influx of excellent luxury offerings from Japan that matched theGerman engineering and quality for thousands less.   This seemed to have caught theGerman automaker by surprise, bringing their annual price increases to a screechinghalt.

During the '90s, Mercedes tried to regain their market share by offering excellent mid-priced cars that did notcompromise their world renowned engineering.  These vehicles were mechanically superb,but their styling and accoutrements left much to be desired, especially whenAmericans compared them with the new Japanese models.

Today, Mercedes seems to have gotten their act together and isfighting back with a vengeance and nothing shows that better than the new 2001 C-class. Drivers no longer have to sacrifice even a modicum of luxury or stylewhen they buy one of these "baby-Benzes".  The beautiful stylingof these new models is complemented by rich looking interiors that are draped in leather andwood . They are loaded with comforts and conveniences formerly reserved for thelarger E and S Class.

The subject of thisreport is the new C320 sedan, a small 4-door withsuperb road manners, smooth quiet ride, and every inch a Mercedes Benz. Thebase price for the C320, $36,950, is on the high side for this class and ourloaded test car rang in at a whopping $44,880 with options. But you canalso get the more affordable C240 sedan which has a smaller V6 and less standardequipment for a starting price of $29,950.

Thestyling of the C-Class is unmistakably Mercedes with the traditional three-pointed star standing proudly on the hood. The unusual headlight treatment has provided a field day for automotive journalists,trying to describe their shape with colorful phrases like "peanut shaped,""guitar shaped," "an amoeba giving birth" or "the way pancakes come out when the griddle is toosmall."  In any case, I rather like them and think that they give this cara unique, happy character.

Whenmy test car was delivered, I ran after the driver to tell her that she had forgotten to give me the key, all I had in my hand was the remote control. It turns out that the "key" for the C-Class is an electronic transmitter called"Smart Key" (pictured onthe left) that has buttons for lock, unlock, trunk and a panic button.  Tostart the car, you insert the narrow plastic end into a similarly shaped slot in the dashand turn it as you would, a normal key. An infra-red conversation thentakes place between the transmitter and the car in order to verify the key'sauthenticity.  There is a real key that is stored insidethe transmitter and is used for emergencies, like when the battery is dead andyou need to unlock the door manually.  This metal key, which is the visible metalpart (lower left)  that is connected to the key ring,  is detachable from the transmitterand used to lock the trunk and glove compartment before handing the transmitterto a parking attendant.  This has the added benefit of avoiding thefingernail breaking task of detaching the ignition key from your key ring beforehanding it over. 

Sitting behind the wheel, I quickly found a comfortable position by adjusting the12-way power seat and power steering column.  Even the centerarmrest had a three-position height adjustment.  I also liked the comfortablefeel of the Mercedes trademark larger-than-expectedsteering wheel.

The gauges (with the exceptionof the tach) are large and easy to read as is the information display in thecenter of the speedometer while the slick automatic shifterhas a simplified pattern of Park, Reverse,Neutral and Drive.  While in Drive, the shifter can be moved right and leftto manually override the automatic and select individual gears.  A small indicatoron the dash shows [D] for drive or displays a  number representing the gearthat is manually selected.

Thebuttons and controls for the various smart features are mostlylabeled with international symbols (hieroglyphics) and are notalways intuitive, but once you learn them, you wouldn't want them any otherway.  You just need to spend some quality reading time with the owner'smanual.  Flipping through the pages, you will find yourself running out to the car several times inorder to trysome newly discovered feature.  

On one of my forays to the garage, I foundthat if I held down the"Smart Key's" Unlock button for more than a second, not only did the doors unlock, but all the windows as well as the sunroofopened in order to vent the car on a hot summer day.  The reverse is alsotrue.  When I locked the car, any open window or the sunroof closed if I continued to press the lock button. I also found the control that works the rear sunshade and learned how to programthe right side mirror so that I could see the curb when I put the car inreverse.

The steering wheel controls on either side of the horn padcould be programmedin various ways. There are four buttons on either side of the wheel.  On the right side, the + and- buttons can control radio volume while the other two buttons answer or hangup the built-in phone.  On the left side, there are two "page select"buttons used to flip through the information display in the center of the speedometerwhile the up and down arrows, dependingon which page you are on,  can change radio stations or select whatinformation should be displayed on the selected pages.  

Unlikesome of the dash controls, the power seat controls for the driver and frontpassenger are a model of simplicity.  These controls, another Mercedestrademark, are shaped like the seat sothat you can move each switch in the direction you want the seat to move. You could also adjust the steering wheel for reach and height with a switch thatresembles the steeringcolumn.  There are memorysettings for up to three people on both the driver and front passenger side. Thedriver side control will "remember" the seat, steering column and mirror positionsand recall them at the touch of a button while the passengers control memorizesthe seat position.

Okay, enough with the toys.  Let's take this happy-eyed puppy out on the road where it was meant to be.  

As I sat behind the wheel, reacquaintingmyself with the unique Mercedes feel, I realized that words alone would beinadequate to describe the experience, so I would have to recommend that any of my readers who havenever driven a Benz, goto a local dealer for a test drive. Driving a Mercedes for yourself is the only way to appreciate thequalities that make this mark a legend in the automotive world.

The C320 had plenty of quiet power for a 0 to 60 time of 6.9 seconds and anelectronically limited top speed of 130 mph. It felt like a jet on its takeoff roll with an invisible hand pressing me backinto the seat while the sound of the engine was somewhere off in the distance.And when I saw myself running out of road,the excellent brakes hauled me back down in short order while the sophisticated suspensionkept the car dead level.  On winding country roads, this cargave such a secure feeling of control that it seemed to be riding on proverbial rails.  While the feelwas not quite as sharp as a BMW 3 Series, it would take a very sensitive touch to tell the difference.

This was aquiet car designed for Autobahn cruising at triple digit speeds with good control of windand road noise; so on US highways, it was hard to tell how fast I was goingwithout looking at the speedometer.  On long turnpike drives, I decided to make use of the cruise control tokeep myself out oftrouble.

Thehi-tech Engine in the C-Class is a marvel of engineering with features not foundanywhere else. These all-aluminum 90 degree V6 engines have an unusualvalve arrangement, 2 intake and 1 exhaust, with 2 sparkplugs per cylinder, eachwith their own coil.  The idea of the single exhaust valve is that theexhaust gas remains hotter, thereby improving emissions especially when theengine is still cold.  A single exhaust valve also allows room for the 2plugs which fire in sequence, first one then the other.  This allows for,among other things,  a much leaner mixture to be used for improved gasmileage and reduced emissions.  After each firing cycle, the order in whichthe two plugs fire is reversed, allowing for a smoother engine withbetter control over engine noise.

The 5-speed automatic transmission seemed to always know the right gear toselect, but in deference to shift smoothness, there was a lag during shiftscausing the car to be less responsive than I would have liked. That is where the Touch Shift came in.  I tapped the shifter left for manual shift control which brought this car to life and made for avery enjoyable afternoon.  On the down side, I found that it was too easy to inadvertentlyknock the shifter into manual mode.  The only way totell that this had happened was to notice the small shift indicator on the dash that read [4] instead of [D].  Since the engine was so quiet, it was hard tohear that it was running faster than it should.

The C-Class comes standard with an automatic stability control system that isdesigned to help a driver maintain control during slippery roadconditions.  The system, called Electronic Stability Program (ESP), works by monitoring the angle of the steeringwheel, along with other sensors in order to determine whether the car isfollowing the path that was intended by the driver.   If the systemdetermines that the car is beginning to skid, it will apply individual brakesand adjust engine power in order to directthe car back onto the chosen path.  For instance, if the car isundersteering (going straight even though the wheels are turned) the system mayapply the inside rear brake and reduce engine power in order to coax the car tofollow the chosen path. 

I sawfor myself just how good the ESP system really was when I took the C-320 onto a race track.  The trickwas to approach a hairpinturn a little faster than I thought I should; then to turn the wheel into thecorner and floor the gas.  The ESP system kept the car just on theedge of skidding out while it negotiated the turn as fast as possible given the road conditions.  A professional race car driver would behard-pressed to give a better performance by shutting the system off and justrelying on his skill alone. The real advantage of this system is not high-speed driving, but driving onrain-soaked, slippery roads where ESP can help the average driver keep out oftrouble.

Mercedes Benz pioneered the ESP system as well as many other safety firsts including:

  • The energy-absorbing car body with front and rear crumple zones (1951)
    ( Mercedes has never enforced their patent on this technology, allowing other manufacturers to take advantage of this life-saving innovation.) 
  • Anti-lock brakes (ABS) (1978)
  • Supplemental Restraint System (SRS) (1983)
  • Brake Assist (1998)

If, despite all the accident avoidance technology, a driver did get into acrash,this car's eight airbags would transform the interior into averitable padded cell.  Ifany airbag did deploy, Tele Aid, Mercedes'emergency call system, would automatically place a call anduse the car's built-in GPS receiver to report its exact location sothat an advisor could summon help if necessary.

While the C-320 is a great driver's car, rear passengers are not quite asenthused.  Up front,there is adequate room with comfortable, highly adjustable buckets, but rear seat space is onthe skimpy side, especially if the front seats are adjusted back. Two people can get comfortable back there as long as they don't need to movearound too much and they keep their legs lined up with the knee-coves that are carvedout of the front seat-backs but three is pushing it unless they're children. Remember, the C-class is a compact sedan, people who buythis type of car are more interested in overall size than rear seat accommodations.  Thefact that the back is as good as it is, given the car's small size, is a testament to thecreative packagingthat went into its design.

Whilewe're talking about the back seat, here are some interesting features.  There are three adjustable headrests, one for each seatingposition, which can be remotely folded downfor better rear visibility with the touch of a button on the dash.  Thereis a compartment on the right side of the package shelf that contains a fully stocked first-aid kit while the opposite side of the shelfhouses theBose woofer.  The rear seat also has a fold-down center armrest withpop-out cup holders.  Thetrunk is well shaped with 12 cubic feet of volume and can be extended with theoptional split fold-down rear seat. Before folding the seatbacks down, youcan lift the lower cushion up and tilt it against the frontseat-backs.  This will allow the rear seat-backs to be folded completelyflat.  Another neat feature is the trunk hingeswhich retract into pockets on the sides of the compartment in order to protect thecontents from being pinched when the lid is closed.

Other storage areas include a large glove compartment that is mostly filledby the six-disk CD changer and a two-level center glove box under the adjustablearmrest.  Just ahead of the center armrest is a sliding door that reveals acute cup holder that could be deployed at the touch of a button and has room for a cupslightly larger than a shot glass.  If you like "Big Gulps",you will have to revert to the pre-cupholder days and balance it on the dash orthe console.

I tried out the rain-sensing wipers during a light sprinkle and found thatthey worked quite well.  When the rain sensor detected waterdroplets on the windshield, it would activate the wipers for a singlesweep,  then check again.  If the sensor "saw" more drops,the wipers took another sweep. In heavy rain, theyswept continuously.

When you drive a Mercedes, even the entry-level C-Class, people treat youdifferently.  I took this car through my local car wash and the attendantlooked at the Benz and immediately asked me ifI wanted them to not use the brushes!?!  I have been using this car wash foryears and they never asked me that before.  Even when I pulled up in a newLexus.

When you pull up in a car that sports a three pointed star on the hood, youare  immediately elevated to the next social level in the eyes of many onlookers, for better or worse.  This isone of the reasons people buy a Mercedesand is also a prime reason why a person would not buy one, even if they couldeasily afford it.

At $44,880 for this C320 including options, do you get your money's worth? A comparably equipped BMW 330i will set you back $42,500,  an Audi A4 comesin at $35,500, while a loaded Lexus IS300 costs $34,000, a full10G's less.  So, why shell out the extra dough?  For theprestige?  The answer is simple.  Whenever I thinkthat the state of the art for automotive engineering can't get any better, alongcomes a car that forces me to reevaluate my standards.  And, more oftenthan not, that car wears a three pointed star on its hood.  

Yes, the Mercedes mystique is alive andflourishing.  If you are intrigued by that intangible quality, don't mindpaying extra for engineering perfection and are not opposedto driving a status symbol, this is your automobile.

Do you have any feedback on the Mercedes C-Class?  Any opinions orexperiences of your own?  We would love to hear from you. 
Clickhere to send us your comments

Clickhere for more pictures of the C320

How would I improve this car?

  • Far be it from me to mess with perfection, but... 
  • There are compact CD changers available that don't have to take up half the glove compartment. 
  • Make mine silver. 

How does the C320 fit yourdriving style? 

Conservative drivers willexperience total control and have afeeling of security that can't be matched by any other small sedan, for anyprice.  You will find yourself making excuses to go out and drivesomewhere.  Perfect car for two people or a family with one or two youngchildren. 

Sporty drivers will love the direct steering and great throttle response. Power is effortless and the brakes are superb, enticing this type of driver totake the back roads whenever possible.  The BMW 3-series may have better road feel, but not by much.

Fast drivers should opt for the C6 Sport Package which includes a tighter suspension, higher performance tires and sport seats.  If money is no object, you should wait for the 349-hp, 3.2-liter supercharged and intercooled V6 Kompressor powered C32 AMG.   I'll be green with envy.


Engine Type 3.2 liter Aluminum 90-degree V6 Engine, Chain-driven single overhead camshaft per cylinder bank, twin sparkplug, three valves per cylinder 
Horsepower 215 @ 5,700 RPM
Torque 221 @ 3,000 - 4,600 RPM
Fuel Recommended Premium 91 Octane Unleaded.
Transmission Five Speed Electronic Automatic with driver-adaptive shift logic & Touch Shift manual control
Tires  205/55R16 H (Sport package: 225/50R16) 
Overall Length 178.3"
Wheelbase 106.9
Width 68.0"
Turning Diameter 35.3 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight 3,439
Fuel Tank 16.2 Gals. with a 2.1 Gallon reserve
Miles Per Gallon EPA city 19, hwy 26. 
Acceleration 0 to 60 6.9 Seconds
Base Sticker Price $36,950 + 645 destination charge

Standard Equipment
Mercedes Benz C-320 Rear Wheel Drive Compact Sport Sedan

  • 3.2 liter Aluminum 90-degree V6 Engine, 215 HP, 221 lb.-ft. of torque
  • Five-speed electronic automatic transmission
  • Dual-zone climate control with rear-seat outlets and activated charcoal filtration
  • Leather Seating Inserts
  • Leather Steering Wheel & Shift Knob
  • Laurel wood trim
  • 12 way power front seats with 3-position memory
  • Power tilt/telescoping steering wheel
  • Bose premium audio system
  • Power Windows with Express Up & Down
  • Automatic headlamps
  • Auto-Dimming Rear & Driver Side Mirrors
  • Integrated Garage Door Opener
  • Trip Computer
  • SOS button for Tele Aid
  • Electronic Stability Program (ESP)
  • Smart Restraint Systems
  • BabySmart automatic child seat recognition system
  • Four (4) door-mounted side airbags
  • curtain side airbags
  • ABS anti-lock braking system with Brake Assist

Major Available Options

  • Sport Package: firmer suspension calibration (springs, shocks), 7x16-inch 5-spoke alloy wheels, 225/50R16 tires, sport leather seats, aluminum interior trim, gray instrument cluster with italic numerals, unique bumpers, rocker panels and front fog lights 
  • GPS Navigation system
  • COMAND: integrates navigation, telephone, audio controls in one control center
  • Xenon headlamps
  • Rear electric Sunshade
  • Heated seats
  • Six-disc CD changer
  • Split fold-down rear seats
  • Fully integrated digital and portable cellular telephone

Our Test Car was equipped with the following options

Obsidian Black Metallic Paint 625.00
Charcoal Perforated Leather Interior 1,375.00
Split Fold Down Rear Seat 500.00
Xenon Headlamps 850.00
Integrated TIMEPORT Phone Package Includes Integrated CD Changer 1,795.00
Rain Sensor Package Includes Glass Sunroof 1,340.00
Headlamp Washing System Includes Heated Front Seats 800.00
Total Sticker Price (Incl. Destination) 44,880,00

For more information on the C-Class, visit

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