We could spend this entire article disputing the merits of the so-called entry-luxury automobile, an automotive category that was effectively created by the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and its predecessor, the 190-series, beginning nearly twenty years ago. We could practically write a doctoral dissertation on Mercedes-Benz’s marketplace role over the past decade, how it has influenced and been influenced by Lexus and other competitors, for better and for worse; how it has traded prestige for profit; and, most important, how the ever-expanding, ever-more-accessible C-class family figures into the company’s newfound role as Everyman’s luxury-car maker. We could even ponder whether the C-class is an entry-luxury automobile, with an as-tested price of $41,000; there’s nothing entry about forty large. But instead, we will tell you that we had a pretty good year with our 2001 C320. Not four scintillating seasons but a rewarding twelve months nonetheless.
The C320 felt like a genuine Mercedes-Benz, or at least how our collective memory told us driving a Mercedes-Benz should feel: The adjective solid appeared often in logbook impressions. Our test car had the $2950 sport package (firmer springs and dampers, bigger anti-roll bars, lower-profile tires) and the optional 215-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6. The chassis is not overtly sporty in the BMW 3-Series idiom, but it adapted easily to driving styles and road conditions. The C320’s steering, braking, and acceleration had the solid, deliberate sense that has long characterized Mercedes, but the car’s overarching attribute was that V-6, which is the top-of-the-line C-class engine excepting the handcrafted, supercharged V-6 in the C32 AMG. (The last-generation entry-level C-class had Mercedes-Benz’s supercharged four, one of the most underwhelming engines of the past decade, but the current C240 sedan gets a 2.6-liter, 168-horsepower V-6.)
Terms of endearment for the 3.2-liter, eighteen-valve, SOHC six filled the logbook:
“The engine is strong and sounds great.”
“Fantastic acceleration and even better sounds from the engine compartment.”
“The engine is lovely.”
“Engine performance is wonderful.”
An engine is only as good as the transmission to which it is mated, and the C320’s standard five-speed manu-matic was up to the task. If we put aside any consideration of paddle shifting, the Mercedes TouchShift gearbox is without doubt the best approach to a manual-shift automatic, because it requires only a sideward flick of the wrist to downshift or upshift, while most other manu-matics make you move the gear lever into a separate gate before changing gears. That might not sound like a big deal, but the extra step matters when you’re trying to drive like David Coulthard. And even if you don’t shift the C320 manually, all you have to do is mash the accelerator pedal, and this powertrain delivers. “The five-speed automatic is exceptionally well suited to the engine,” declared photographer Glenn Paulina after 1000 miles in the C320, a sentiment often echoed.
Opinions differed in regard to the chassis and the suspension, which consists of struts and lower links in front and Mercedes’ traditional multi-link setup in the rear. “The C320’s handling is athletic, and it can dance more like a 3-series than the last-generation, point-and-squirt C-class,” said Paulina. Contributor Kirk Seaman, on a trip to deepest Minnesota for a wedding, praised the “fabulous brakes” and judged the damping to be “great over anything but the most frost-tortured tarmac.” Managing editor Amy Skogstrom, on the other hand, found that the ride wasn’t as “plush” as she’d expected; “rough pavement was very noticeable.” Countered senior editor Joe Lorio: “The ride is more firm and Germanic than plush, but that feels right to me.” Editor emeritus David E. Davis, Jr., sided with Skogstrom, opining that “the ride is rock ‘n’ roll, I suppose because of the sport package. It doesn’t damp out the minor pavement hills and valleys the way a standard C-class might.”
Dynamically speaking, there were few nits to pick about the C320, but sometimes the car seemed too blandly competent. “This is really a splendid car, but it’s hardly a thrilling one,” said senior editor Eddie Alterman. “Give me a Lexus IS300 any day of the week.”Added another editor after spending a long Fourth of July weekend with the C320: “This car feels heavy in a good traditional Mercedes way, but it offers few on-the-surface driving thrills. I drove 700 miles and can’t recall my pulse quickening even once.”
When we turned our attention to the C320’s interior, however, we found plenty to complain about, from the design of the primary gauges and HVAC controls to the seating comfort to the quality of the materials. The C320 might have the gravitas of a Mercedes, but it doesn’t have the interior quality of a Volkswagen. As usual, Lorio minced no words: “The interior is not a thing of beauty. It seems to be assembled from too many pieces, and the sport package’s metallic-look trim is probably not Mercedes-Benz’s best idea.” Seaman found that the HVAC and audio controls too closely resembled each other and wished that he had a dollar for every time his wife turned on the air conditioning when she meant to turn up the radio. The red and blue temperature control buttons looked nice, all flush with the dash in the modern style, but they inconveniently required very deliberate pushes, one for each degree change. Give us a dial to twist or a lever to shove, please.
The seats, usually a Mercedes strength, provoked discord. For every driver or passenger who emerged from the C320 after 600 miles ready to run a 10K, there were two more who cursed the front seats and the mother of the person who designed them. “The seats are hard and flat,” said Skogstrom, “with little lateral support.” “The seats are rather uncomfortable,” agreed copy chief Wendy Keebler, “and by the end of the day, our butts were sore.” “Back pain began to creep in at the 1.5-hour mark,” complained road test coordinator Tony Quiroga, but that didn’t stop him from driving eighteen hours straight from Ann Arbor to Florida. One editor’s sister and brother-in-law, driving the C320 to yet another Minnesota wedding, resorted to stuffing T-shirts and coats behind their backs to ward off lumbar pain.
Our C320 didn’t spend much time in the shop, partly because Mercedes-Benz’s Flexible Service System computer did not direct us to the dealership until 12,547 miles for the first routine oil change. At this juncture, we’d like to share an insight from one of our reader-owners, Robert P. Granger of Sanford, North Carolina, who has had ten Mercedes-Benzes since 1961:”I have driven my C320 4700 miles in the year I’ve owned it. I have had absolutely no service performed on this car, and the instrument panel readout says that service is not needed for another 6300 miles. This concerns me, but the dealer’s service manager assures me this is correct. I find it interesting that my previous Mercedes-Benzes required frequent, and very expensive, service. Now that the service is free for the first 50,000 miles, they don’t seem to need any service.”
Our car didn’t care much for frequent oil changes, but it also didn’t much like opening its doors by means of the key fob, which worked only intermittently. Nothing electronic in nature ever gets fixed on cars anymore, just replaced, so the dealer ordered a new one. Remarkably, it had to come all the way from Germany, but it didn’t work all the time, either. To lock the car, we sometimes had to lock all but the driver’s door manually from inside the car, then lock the driver’s door with the detachable mechanical key from the fob. And if we had to unlock the car manually, the engine would not start without repeated attempts. Nice. Some of our readers reported similar problems.
Two other minor but annoying glitches plagued us. When the front and rear turn-signal indicators stopped working, several bulbs were replaced during several service visits, to no avail. Finally, the dealer traced the problem to a faulty ground wire. Toward the end of the test, the front passenger’s seatbelt locked in the retracted position and was unusable. A Saturday call to Mercedes-Benz’s roadside assistance center led to a quick reply from our local dealership, but the technician, who was all of three miles away, cheerfully informed us that absolutely nothing could be done until Monday. We had three adult passengers to haul around that weekend, so we drove very carefully while reflecting on the fact that we were in a practically new Mercedes-Benz, one of the safest cars in the world, but had no turn signals or front seatbelt. (The dealer replaced an emergency tension retractor a few days later.)
Those episodes soured what was otherwise a trouble-free year with the C320. It offers many of the virtues we expect from a Mercedes, but the 3.2-liter V-6 that makes it so likable bumps up its price to $5300 more than the C240, which actually accounts for the majority of C-class sales. That puts the C320 into a price category with too many other more desirable cars. The wagons that were added last year and this year’s new 4Matic models broaden the C-class’s appeal but, of course, add even more cost. In the end, we liked and respected the C320, but not an eyebrow was raised when its year was up and it left our fleet, which is not a particularly resounding endorsement for an entry-luxury car that’s supposed to provide an entree to a prestige brand.