Welcome to the German autobahn, the first leg of our cross-Europe trek behind the wheel of the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C-class. Two-lane sections can be tricky, since every driver seems to be talking on a cell phone, but the increasingly common three-lane stretches are perfect playgrounds for mile-eaters like our C-class. Although officially limited to 155 mph, the speedometer reads 163 mph when the limiter finally calls time. At this speed, the C350 is totally unperturbed. Expansion joints? No effect, even when you're really flying. Test-of-courage corners? Easy. Turn the wheel, keep your foot down, and marvel. Clueless slower drivers swerving left without so much as a flash of the turn signal? Don't worry, this car has good brakes. Make that very good brakes.
Between 70 and 150 mph, you really appreciate the seven-speed autobox. Seven gears mean more time at the power peak and less time in the engine's soft zone. But to fully explore the stereophonic dialogue between revs and ratios, you'd need to specify the Advanced Agility package (which, unfortunately, won't be available in the States during the 2008 model year). With the Sport button pushed, you can trigger downshifts with a nudge of the right toe--it's that sensitive. Keeping up the momentum makes it much easier to stay in touch with the armada of mid-size turbo-diesels that dominate European fast lanes these days. They not only win nine out of ten torque duels, they also beat you at the pump, where our gasoline-powered C350 averaged 18 mpg. Not exactly frugal, but not totally excessive, either. At this rate, one 17.4-gallon tank is good for slightly more than 300 miles.
Next up is France--Alsace, to be more precise. The French love French cars, but they also have a soft spot for Mercedes-Benzes. In no other country did our white C-class trigger more crazy driving maneuvers, more thumbs up, and more questions at traffic lights and gas stations. And, it must be said, the Sport model's standard body kit makes this four-door sedan even more desirable. The AMG-designed livery includes a meaner front bumper with big air intakes, pleasantly subtle sill extensions, and a contrasting rear apron that emphasizes the twin chrome tailpipes.
It doesn't take a well-fed French patron and his overbearing missus to appreciate the extra inches in the C-class's cabin. A 2.2-inch increase in length and a 1.7-inch gain in width yield more legroom and more room for broad shoulders. The rear seats are still good only for short occupants or for short journeys, but you always travel first class in the front. To keep its passengers safe, the new C-class comes with six air bags and antiwhiplash front head restraints. Drawbacks? The instruments look nice, but the speedometer is hard to read unless you activate the additional digital display, the power-seat controls should be illuminated at night, the tiny horn buttons are a hit-and-miss affair, and the wipers are much too noisy.
For about thirty bucks, the federal authorities in Switzerland kindly let you use their autobahn network, and it doesn't matter whether you use it all year long or only once between two exits. The latest claim to fame of the national highway robbery association is the world's smallest radar trap, which combines a trick camera the size of a Rolex along with a fine big enough to buy one. The clever contraption is integrated in the guardrail where only eagle-eyed drivers will spot it in time. Alternatively, to detect the sneaky lenses, you can purchase special sat-nav-linked software, which is what most Swiss motorists do if their swift rate of progress is anything to go by.
By far the best part of Switzerland is the mountains. After all, Alpine roads are invariably twisty, and in a country as rich as this, they're also meticulously maintained.
Since the C350's stability control cannot be shut off completely, the fighting line through snow-and-ice-covered second-gear corners is more ragged than rhythmic--serious slidemeisters will have to wait for next year's C63 AMG, which will have about 450 hp in its engine bay. The pending agility package also provides a heightened level of sportiness. In dynamic mode, the dampers jump from lenient to rigid, the steering goes from quick to even quicker, and the automatic transmission switches from eco-friendly passive to acceleration-friendly attentive. But the system scores only two out of three points. While the steering and the gearbox are now spot-on, the dampers overdo it by spoiling the ride, especially on bad surfaces.
Wedged between Austria and Switzerland, the tiny principality of Liechtenstein is a famous tax haven known for its extreme banks-per-capita ratio. They speak a funny dialect here that even the locals reportedly struggle to understand, they entertain an amazingly citizen-friendly tax system, and their license plates feature only four or five digits because of the small population. The acreage around the capital of Vaduz is big enough to swing a large cat, but it's not a good place to unleash the 268-hp C350, because by the time you've revved the engine to 7000 rpm in third, chances are that one of the country's three border crossing points will loom large. Although Liechtenstein has only one real through road worth mentioning, those inhabitants who feel a little racy can always thrash from Triesen to Malbun and back down again. Steep and winding, this picturesque, eight-mile mountain climb is little used by cosmopolitan tax evaders or by binocular-wielding visitors to the microscopic empire of Prince Hans-Adam II.
Ten years ago, who would have thought that Italy and discipline could occupy the same sentence? But this is 2007, and the whole nation has stopped smoking virtually overnight, at least in restaurants and aboard public transportation. More amazing yet, the hot-blooded southern Europeans now religiously stick to the 80-mph speed limit, which is being enforced by a slew of smartly dressed Luigis and Giovannis in pale blue Alfa Romeo patrol cars. There are exceptions to this new No More Speeding credo, but to qualify, you must drive a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, or a Maserati, preferably on Prova test plates and ideally at high revs in a low gear. A white C-class just won't do. Scusi signore, mi dispiace. But our C350 did get plenty of bella macchina! compliments, and as we meandered through villages, towns, and cities, countless camera phones flashed left, right, and center.
The 3.5-liter V-6 is not yet the modern direct-injection unit we have been promised for years, but it has enough grunt to propel the 3550-pound C-class from 0 to 62 mph in 6.4 seconds. The maximum torque of 258 lb-ft is available between 2400 and 5000 rpm, so flexibility and revability don't depend on each other. But while the C350 is, performance-wise, about on par with the departed BMW 330i, Mercedes has no suitable weapon, at this point, against the 300-hp 335i and the upcoming 330-hp Audi A4 TFSI. Where the car from Stuttgart scores big brownie points is in space utilization. At 16.8 cubic feet, it has, by far, the biggest trunk of this trio.
Italy still has its charm, but more and more the once-breathtaking landscape is being segmented, sealed, and sold by ruthless property tycoons. Take, for instance, northern provinces such as Lombardy and Veneto, where once beautiful areas have been reduced to small oases for the rich. Instead of traveling through some of Europe's most stunning countryside, you now hop from landmark to landmark, from one two-star ristorante to the next. The three-hour drive from Bergamo to the Slovenian border was the least memorable section of the entire trip: bumper-to-bumper traffic, moist air infused with acid haze, and cancerous business parks mushrooming where rice fields and fruit orchards used to blossom. Enter Trieste, the former home harbor of the Austrian navy. Even more moribund than Venice, this place still exudes so much atmosphere and so much vibrant activity that all you want to do is sit down in a street caf and watch long-legged belle ragazze until the sun sets.
On the first day of 2007, the Slovenian government adopted the euro as its currency in order to cement the country's fast-growing prosperity. The most obvious demonstration of the country's newly found wealth is a comprehensive highway network that connects Slovenia with Italy, Croatia, and Austria. Since the government charges higher toll fees than many motorists can afford, the roads are almost empty. This is an ideal opportunity to check out the latest Comand navigation/phone/radio/CD combination. Equipped with a hard drive for the first time, the in-dash wizard can store up to 1000 songs, calculate routes much faster than the previous DVD-operated generation, and respond to complex voice inputs. The new software understands full sentences, so instead of spelling names and telephone numbers, you simply push a button and say what you want. Entering a destination has never been easier, and the same applies for summoning a given radio station or your favorite piece of music. Plug in your cell phone, and Comand will import the directory. All it takes to phone home is to say "phone home"--piece of cake.
The ghost of communism is alive and kicking on secondary roads, however, which are littered with potholes and other members of the antidestination league. Weaving past horse-drawn carriages, tractors best described as resurrected barn finds, and buses built when Austria and Hungary were still a single empire, we felt shamefully unsocial and emphatically vulnerable. The ride comfort was also rather unremarkable, since the seventeen-inch tires struggled to cope with a crumbling road held together by sharp-edged tarmac islands and an unbroken center line.
The port city of Rijeka, in Croatia, welcomed us with about $1000 worth of damage. First, a truck dropped an egg-sized stone on the Merc's freshly cleaned windshield. Next, a red BMW 5-series left its nasty signature on our rear bumper while scrambling out of a parking lot. But we also have pleasant stories to tell about Croatia. Like the one in which the Mercedes mechanic fixed the disarrayed bumper on Saturday afternoon for a small baksheesh. And the parking garage attendant who let us exit in exchange for a glossy car magazine. Or how about the police officer who kept the entire city panorama clear of people until photographer Tom Salt had the picture in the can? When we were done, the skies opened up and the streets became as slippery as if someone had doused them with liquid soap. We carried the bad weather with us on the road to the top of the mountain range, through puddles and streams that soon turned into torrents and roadside waterfalls. The brakes performed with aplomb in these Armageddon-like conditions--intermittently swiping the discs clean and providing extra boost for last-second deceleration maneuvers.
Day-trippers from Vienna used to cross the Hungarian border so that they could buy half-price salami and cheap apricot brandy. These days, bargain-minded Austrians drive to Hungary in droves to get their teeth fixed, buy a new pair of eyeglasses, or spend the weekend in a plush "wellness hotel." While prospering northern cities such as Gyr and Budapest benefit from the influx of the West, the country's eastern flank continues to struggle to fund the base essentials. Our route clipped only a small corner of Hungary, but it was an exceptionally pretty one: the puszta, a vast and totally flat mix of steppe, swamp, and rich black-soil farmland. On the deserted roads that curl around Lake Neusiedl, we let the C350 off the leash to find out how good the new baby Benz really is when pushed long and hard. Does it fall apart, or does it come within reach of true greatness?
The first convincing item is the steering. It has shed that laziness around the straight-ahead position, and in Sport mode, the speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering responds even more promptly and precisely. The other ingredient that never fails to impress is the chassis's riveting roadholding. Helped by the AMG suspension setup, which lowers the C-class by 0.6 inch and features a tauter spring-and-damper calibration, the car hugs the road like a low-flying magic carpet.
Same roads, different country. We're in Slovakia, shooting past Bratislava into no-man's land, where long straights mix with dogleg corners. Numerous white crosses nailed to trees and chevrons painted on the pavement suggest that not everybody manages to slow down in time. Thankfully, the C-class is very good at predicting what you're up to. Back off the throttle quickly, and the brakes will respond with even more emphatic bite. Increase the pedal pressure, and the power assist grows progressively until the vehicle comes to a standstill. Drop the anchors in an emergency situation, and you get instant maximum deceleration along with flashing brake lights to warn hapless tailgaters. The only downside concerns the foot-operated parking brake, which is notably less elegant than an electromechanical device.
Slovakia is the ninth country out of ten on our itinerary, so we have to memorize the ninth different police car livery--in this case, white with blue lettering. It's worth noting that we weren't stopped by the law one single time. Quite the contrary: occasionally, the authorities gave us a friendly wave or a semiofficial salute. However, the Slovaks' road-building skills aren't worth spending a lot of time talking about.
When we reach Austria, it's time for some Viennese coffee and a warm apple strudel. Time for Jess Lpez-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to intone Anton Bruckner's Symphony Number 8. Time to let the last 1700-plus miles pass in review. It's raining as we leave the Austrian capital and head for Munich. Messrs. Harman and Kardon are doing a fine job sounding almost as good as Bose's best, the navigation system predicts a clear road, and all that's separating us from total bliss are a pair of ventilated massage seats. But we do have Intelligent Light on board, which points around corners, adds a side beam when turning, and offers three different light patterns for autobahn, secondary roads, and foggy weather--it's too bad this lighting system won't be offered on U.S.-market C-classes.
At a list price of 65,000 euros (or $85,000), our fully loaded C-class costs as much as a small castle in Croatia or a nice family home in Slovakia. Of course, you don't really need the big engine, but we'd insist on that nice interior with leather and power everything. The C350 Sport will likely start at just under $40,000 when it reaches American dealers in the next few months.
All in all, the newcomer from Stuttgart has made a big leap ahead in terms of overall ability and appeal. It's arguably the best-looking compact four-door sedan out there, and it's very probably the best balanced all-around. And trust us, you won't need to traverse ten countries to find that out.
But you just might want to.