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Smallest Mercedes grows a bit for 2008
For 2008, the smallest Mercedes-Benz sold in the United States grows a bit larger, drives better and looks more than ever like a baby version of the larger, more powerful Mercedes S-Class sedan.
But thankfully, the fourth-generation, compact C-Class sedan still carries a starting retail price that's some $55,000 less than that of the full-size S-Class.
This is not to say the C-Class is bargain-priced.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a base, 2008 C300 Sport with manual transmission and nonleather seats is $31,975. And this can easily climb to nearly $38,000 when leather seats, an upgraded audio system and automatic transmission are added, as they were in the test car.
But the overall C-Class pricing, which includes a standard power sunroof, is in line with other entry-level, European luxury sedans.
For example, the 2008 Audi A4 four door with 200-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder and manual transmission starts at $29,675, while the 2008 BMW 328i sedan with 230-horsepower, six-cylinder engine and manual transmission starts at $33,175.
The 2008 C-Class currently is offered only as a sedan in the United States and grew about 4 inches longer overall and 1.7 inches wider.
Height didn't change much, so headroom front and back encompasses about 37 inches, respectively. This can feel a bit tight for tall drivers.
There's no four-cylinder engine, so don't expect exemplary fuel economy from this five-passenger Mercedes.
Indeed, the federal government's rating for a base, C300 with 228-horsepower V-6 and either manual or optional automatic transmission is 18 miles a gallon in the city and 25 or 26 mpg on the highway. And Mercedes recommends premium gasoline for this base, 3-liter, double overhead cam engine.
No wonder Mercedes officials are reportedly looking at installing a more fuel-thrifty diesel engine into the C-Class down the road.
To be sure, the test C-Class with the base V-6 moved readily and pleasurably in and out of traffic and down highways.
I'm not sure most drivers would need much more power, because the 221 foot-pounds of torque start at a welcome 2,700 rpm and continue to 5,000 rpm. This means the power comes on eagerly in most common driving situations, including passing and other acceleration.
But there's another V-6 -- a 3.5-liter capable of generating 268 horses -- available on the C350. This engine and the base 3-liter are largely carryovers from 2007. A high-performance, V-8-powered C63 AMG also is offered with 450 horsepower.
The optional-for-$1,440 automatic transmission on the test C300 is one of the most modern on the market, with seven gears and electronically controlled, smooth shifts.
I also enjoyed shifting from gear to gear myself via the gear shifter in the center console as the C-Class automatic includes a shift-it-yourself-sans-clutch-pedal feature.
The rack-and-pinion steering feels more precise than in the earlier C-Class and directed the test car with little need for adjustments. I just wish I hadn't felt so many road vibrations through the steering wheel.
Much of the suspension and underpinnings were changed for 2008, helping give the rear-wheel-drive C-Class a more satisfying driving experience for people with spirited driving tastes.
But the new suspension doesn't make the ride too harsh for other drivers, though I admit to feeling regular road bumps in the C300 Sport.
I also heard a good deal of road noise -- more than I expected in a Mercedes.
The 2008 C-Class offers more shoulder and elbow room than its predecessor, which was needed. But the car still can feel cramped for heavier American passengers.
For example, the rear seat now offers 33.4 inches of legroom, which is less than what's in the back seat of a Honda Civic.
Trunk space in the C-Class is improved for 2008 to a roomier 12.4 cubic feet.
I am surprised that with the redesign and all the standard safety equipment on the C-Class, including side curtain air bags, electronic stability control, antilock brakes and front-seat side air bags, the car hasn't improved on its crash test ratings from last year.
The C-Class rates only four out of five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in a frontal crash.