Mercedes-Benz traces its roots back to 1886-the dawn of automotive history. The C Class itself goes back to the 190 series, or "baby Benz," which debuted in the fall of 1982. It remains the entry point to ownership of a piece of history.
Redone for the 2008 model year, the 2009 adds some modest changes but remains a worthy competitor for its German archrivals-the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4.
The 190 was the eighth car I ever tested as a journalist, way back in the middle of 1992. What's remarkable is how similar this new car feels to that one. There's simplicity of shapes in the interior, with a shallow, hooded instrument panel with three chrome-ringed gauges. The solid forms and slightly rounded edges impart solidity and tradition. My tester featured subtle black birdseye maple trim.
The new car's styling, while much more animated than the sedate 1980's car, still has familiar proportions, and, of course, a version of the traditional Mercedes-Benz face.
In an era of long, inclined windshields (think of the Toyota Prius or Honda Civic) the relatively upright shape of the C Class brings back some nostalgia. But there's nothing old fashioned about this new car. My Palladium Silver tester offered 21st century wonders such as Bluetooth cell phone connection and rain-sensing intermittent wipers.
It also sported a killer optional multimedia package with hard drive-based navigation system with seven-inch retractable display and voice control. The car had an iPod integration kit, almost a necessity these days, but unheard of in 1982, or 1992 for that matter.
C Class standard equipment includes a power sunroof, eight-way power front seats with lumbar support, two-zone automatic climate control, 17-inch wheels, and a central controller with a five-inch display screen. This controller, like a mouse, lets you point and click to operate many vehicle features through a series of menus. It's not bad once you get used to it. There's so much to do in cars today.
The optional panorama sunroof ($1,050) gives rear passengers a view of the sky, too. The front part slides open or pops up for extra ventilation.
An ambitious safety program includes a multitude of airbags, crumple zones, active front head restraints and more. Active safety features electronic brake assist, an electronic stability program, and anti-slip regulation-all of which act on their own without driver input-to get you safely on your way.
The easiest C Class to afford is the C300 sedan, which comes in a Luxury or Sport model. Unlike in previous incarnations, you can actually tell which is which now. The Sport models get a bold, three-bar grille with a large Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star mounted front and center, while the luxury series gets the traditional, more delicately defined grille with a stand-up hood ornament. Sport models flaunt AMG lower body panels as well.
The C300 uses Mercedes' 3.0-liter V6, which puts out 228 horsepower and 221 lb.-ft. of torque. A 4Matic four-wheel-drive model is available. This full-time all-wheel-drive system uses the standard front suspension and weighs only 145 pounds more than the standard two-wheel-drive system.
The C350, like my test car, bumps power to 268 horsepower with a 3.5-liter V6 that churns out 258 lb.-ft. of torque through its seven-speed automatic, which it shares with the C300.
If you really want something special, you can opt for the C63 AMG, the latest in the series of specially tuned small Mercedes-Benz models. Its 6.2-liter V8 rates an eye-watering 451 horsepower and 465 lb.-ft. of torque. Whew!
My C350 tester was rated 17 City, 25 Highway for fuel economy by the EPA. It averaged a very good 22.5 mpg over an accumulated 3,446 test miles (lots of journalists-not just me), using premium fuel. The C300's smaller engine gets a one mpg better rating.
The EPA gives the C350 a 7 or a 9.5 for Air Pollution and a 5 for Greenhouse Gas. If you live in California, where the high-rated model is available, definitely get that one.
Prices for the C Class start at $33,775 for the C300 Luxury. My C350 had a base price of $39,875 (including destination charges), but jumped substantially with a range of desirable items, including the aforementioned iPod integration kit, panorama sunroof, and also the TeleAid electronic help system and 18-inch AMG alloy wheels. Then, the Premium II and Multimedia packages supplied a wealth of upgrades, including the navigation system and a power rear-window sunshade. Bottom line? $49,580.
The C Class offers traditional Mercedes-Benz luxury, safety and performance in a well-sized package that is easy to live with day to day. And, with 22.5 miles per gallon, it is surprisingly efficient, too.