Reviews

2001 Mercedes Benz C320 Road Test

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Ah,the “Mercedes Mystique.” It began more than a century ago when the founders of Daimler Benz invented the automobile itself in 1886. Since that historical beginning,Mercedes has maintained a well-deserved reputation for building some of the best cars in the world. Over the years, these prized possessions would actually appreciate in value as they aged so that owners could sell a 5 or 10 year old Benz for more than they paid for it. This”mystique” justified raising the price of admittance on new models which, in turn, inspired the less affluent automobile connoisseur to pay more for a used Benz. And so, Mercedes appreciated in value, making these superb vehicles sound investments.

By the end of the 80’s, while any car sporting the three-pointed star maintained an excellent resale value, they did depreciate. One reason for this was that there 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 the German engineering and quality for thousands less. This seemed to have caught the German automaker by surprise, bringing their annual price increases to a screeching halt.

Source: Car and Driver
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

During the ’90s, Mercedes tried to regain their market share by offering excellent mid-priced cars that did not compromise their world renowned engineering. These vehicles were mechanically superb,but their styling and accoutrements left much to be desired, especially when Americans compared them with the new Japanese models.

Today, Mercedes seems to have gotten their act together and is fighting 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 style when they buy one of these “baby-Benzes”. The beautiful styling of these new models is complemented by rich looking interiors that are draped in leather and wood . They are loaded with comforts and conveniences formerly reserved for the larger E and S Class.

The subject of this report is the new C320 sedan, a small 4-door with superb road manners, smooth quiet ride, and every inch a Mercedes Benz. The base price for the C320, $36,950, is on the high side for this class and our loaded test car rang in at a whopping $44,880 with options. But you can also get the more affordable C240 sedan which has a smaller V6 and less standard equipment for a starting price of $29,950.

The styling 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 too small.” In any case, I rather like them and think that they give this car a unique, happy character.

When my 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 on the left) that has buttons for lock, unlock, trunk and a panic button. To start the car, you insert the narrow plastic end into a similarly shaped slot in the dash and turn it as you would, a normal key. An infra-red conversation then takes place between the transmitter and the car in order to verify the key’s authenticity. There is a real key that is stored inside the transmitter and is used for emergencies, like when the battery is dead and you need to unlock the door manually. This metal key, which is the visible metal part (lower left) that is connected to the key ring, is detachable from the transmitter and used to lock the trunk and glove compartment before handing the transmitter to a parking attendant. This has the added benefit of avoiding the fingernail breaking task of detaching the ignition key from your key ring before handing it over.

Sitting behind the wheel, I quickly found a comfortable position by adjusting the 12-way power seat and power steering column. Even the center armrest had a three-position height adjustment. I also liked the comfortable feel of the Mercedes trademark larger-than-expected steering wheel.

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

The buttons and controls for the various smart features are mostly labeled with international symbols (hieroglyphics) and are not always intuitive, but once you learn them, you wouldn’t want them any other way. You just need to spend some quality reading time with the owner’s manual. Flipping through the pages, you will find yourself running out to the car several times in order to try some newly discovered feature.

On one of my forays to the garage, I found that 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 sunroof opened in order to vent the car on a hot summer day. The reverse is also true. 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 program the right side mirror so that I could see the curb when I put the car in reverse.

The steering wheel controls on either side of the horn pad could be programmed in 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 speedometer while the up and down arrows, depending on which page you are on, can change radio stations or select what information should be displayed on the selected pages.

Unlike some of the dash controls, the power seat controls for the driver and front passenger are a model of simplicity. These controls, another Mercedes trademark, are shaped like the seat so that 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 that resembles the steering column. There are memory settings for up to three people on both the driver and front passenger side. The driver side control will “remember” the seat, steering column and mirror positions and recall them at the touch of a button while the passengers control memorizes the 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, reacquainting myself with the unique Mercedes feel, I realized that words alone would be inadequate to describe the experience, so I would have to recommend that any of my readers who have never driven a Benz, go to a local dealer for a test drive. Driving a Mercedes for yourself is the only way to appreciate the qualities 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 an electronically limited top speed of 130 mph. It felt like a jet on its takeoff roll with an invisible hand pressing me back into 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 suspension kept the car dead level. On winding country roads, this car gave such a secure feeling of control that it seemed to be riding on proverbial rails. While the feel was not quite as sharp as a BMW 3 Series, it would take a very sensitive touch to tell the difference.

This was a quiet car designed for Autobahn cruising at triple digit speeds with good control of wind and road noise; so on US highways, it was hard to tell how fast I was going without looking at the speedometer. On long turnpike drives, I decided to make use of the cruise control to keep myself out of trouble.

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

The 5-speed automatic transmission seemed to always know the right gear to select, but in deference to shift smoothness, there was a lag during shifts causing 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 a very enjoyable afternoon. On the down side, I found that it was too easy to inadvertently knock the shifter into manual mode. The only way to tell 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 to hear that it was running faster than it should.

The C-Class comes standard with an automatic stability control system that is designed to help a driver maintain control during slippery road conditions. The system, called Electronic Stability Program (ESP), works by monitoring the angle of the steering wheel, along with other sensors in order to determine whether the car is following the path that was intended by the driver. If the system determines that the car is beginning to skid, it will apply individual brakes and adjust engine power in order to direct the car back onto the chosen path. For instance, if the car is understeering (going straight even though the wheels are turned) the system may apply the inside rear brake and reduce engine power in order to coax the car to follow the chosen path.

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

If, despite all the accident avoidance technology, a driver did get into a crash,this car’s eight airbags would transform the interior into a veritable padded cell. If any airbag did deploy, Tele Aid, Mercedes’emergency call system, would automatically place a call and use the car’s built-in GPS receiver to report its exact location so that an advisor could summon help if necessary.

While the C-320 is a great driver’s car, rear passengers are not quite as enthused. Up front,there is adequate room with comfortable, highly adjustable buckets, but rear seat space is on the 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 move around too much and they keep their legs lined up with the knee-coves that are carved out of the front seat-backs but three is pushing it unless they’re children. Remember, the C-class is a compact sedan, people who buy this type of car are more interested in overall size than rear seat accommodations. The fact that the back is as good as it is, given the car’s small size, is a testament to the creative packaging that went into its design.

While we’re talking about the back seat, here are some interesting features. There are three adjustable headrests, one for each seating position, which can be remotely folded down for better rear visibility with the touch of a button on the dash. There is a compartment on the right side of the package shelf that contains a fully stocked first-aid kit while the opposite side of the shelf houses the Bose woofer. The rear seat also has a fold-down center armrest with pop-out cup holders. The trunk is well shaped with 12 cubic feet of volume and can be extended with the optional split fold-down rear seat. Before folding the seatbacks down, you can lift the lower cushion up and tilt it against the front seat-backs. This will allow the rear seat-backs to be folded completely flat. Another neat feature is the trunk hinges which retract into pockets on the sides of the compartment in order to protect the contents from being pinched when the lid is closed.

Other storage areas include a large glove compartment that is mostly filled by the six-disk CD changer and a two-level center glove box under the adjustable armrest. 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 cups lightly 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 or the console.

I tried out the rain-sensing wipers during a light sprinkle and found that they worked quite well. When the rain sensor detected water droplets on the windshield, it would activate the wipers for a single sweep, then check again. If the sensor “saw” more drops,the wipers took another sweep. In heavy rain, they swept continuously.

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

When you pull up in a car that sports a three pointed star on the hood, you are immediately elevated to the next social level in the eyes of many onlookers, for better or worse. This is one of the reasons people buy a Mercedes and is also a prime reason why a person would not buy one, even if they could easily 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 comes in at $35,500, while a loaded Lexus IS300 costs $34,000, a full 10G’s less. So, why shell out the extra dough? For the prestige? The answer is simple. Whenever I think that the state of the art for automotive engineering can’t get any better, along comes a car that forces me to reevaluate my standards. And, more often than not, that car wears a three pointed star on its hood.

Yes, the Mercedes mystique is alive and flourishing. If you are intrigued by that intangible quality, don’t mind paying extra for engineering perfection and are not opposed to driving a status symbol, this is your automobile.

How would I improve this car?

How does the C320 fit your driving style?

Conservative drivers will experience total control and have a feeling of security that can’t be matched by any other small sedan, for any price. You will find yourself making excuses to go out and drive somewhere. Perfect car for two people or a family with one or two young children.

Sporty drivers will love the direct steering and great throttle response. Power is effortless and the brakes are superb, enticing this type of driver to take 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.

Specifications

Engine Type3.2 liter Aluminum 90-degree V6 Engine, Chain-driven single overhead camshaft per cylinder bank, twin sparkplug, three valves per cylinder
Horsepower215 @ 5,700 RPM
Torque221 @ 3,000 – 4,600 RPM
Fuel RecommendedPremium 91 Octane Unleaded.
TransmissionFive Speed Electronic Automatic with driver-adaptive shift logic & Touch Shift manual control
Tires205/55R16 H (Sport package: 225/50R16)
Overall Length178.3″
Wheelbase106.9
Width68.0″
Turning Diameter35.3 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight3,439
Fuel Tank16.2 Gals. with a 2.1 Gallon reserve
Miles Per GallonEPA city 19, hwy 26.
Acceleration 0 to 606.9 Seconds
Base Sticker Price$36,950 + 645 destination charge

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

Major Available Options

Our Test Car was equipped with the following options

For more information on the C-Class, visit Mercedes.com.

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Author

Charles Ofria

Automotive Expert

Charles Ofria was an automotive journalist who was active in the automotive industry for over 40 years. During the '70s, he was owner-operator of Ofria Automotive, a thriving auto repair shop in Brooklyn, NY. During that time he became involved with auto mechanic training when he set up courses to help prepare mechanics to take the then new A.S.E. (Automotive Service Excellence) mechanic certification exams.

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