"I've never really driven on snow before, so this should be interesting." On the list of things you definitely don't want to hear from a driving partner you've just met when climbing into the passenger's seat of a smallish 302-hp coupe in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, this has to rank near the top. The calming news -- and the reason we're here in the first place -- is that the coupe in question, the Mercedes-Benz C350, now has all-wheel drive.
All-wheel drive obviously isn't anything new for Mercedes -- the brand offers its 4Matic system on some twenty other models, including the sedan version of the C-class (albeit with a smaller V-6). This spring it's expanding the option to both the C350 coupe and the E350 coupe. Mercedes invited us to this western ski retreat, where global warming still feels like "just a theory," to see how all-wheel drive transforms the two-door C-class.
Or doesn't change it much at all. Powering four wheels can sometimes soften a car's reflexes, but happily that's not the case here. Mercedes says the 4Matic system, which packages a transfer case into the company's seven-speed automatic, adds only 100 to 150 pounds versus a rear-wheel-drive setup. That's about half the weight difference on many of the C-class's competitors. It also requires no changes to the steering or suspension aside from a slight increase in ride height.
The 4Matic version of the C350 thus remains the rewarding, involving sport coupe we've come to know and love. On a stretch of well-plowed pavement that winds through the Teton Mountains, the C-class's talkative steering and taut body control inspire plenty of confidence. The direct-injected 3.5-liter V-6, which carries over virtually unchanged from the rear-wheel-drive model, never feels burdened by the fact that it's usually sending 45 percent of its torque to the front wheels. High in the rev range, it plays a soundtrack nearly as smooth as that of BMW's in-line six. The torque-converter seven-speed automatic transmission responds crisply to inputs from the steering-wheel paddles, although when left to its own devices it could be more proactive and aggressive. Unlike the dual-clutch transmission on the hotter C63 AMG, this one doesn't seem to downshift under hard braking and doesn't hold gears in corners, even when set in "sport" mode. The seven-speed does help the C350 4Matic achieve a relatively impressive 19/28 mpg in EPA testing -- the same as the rear-wheel-drive model. By comparison, opting for all-wheel drive on the (last-generation) BMW 335i brings a 1- or 2-mpg fuel-economy penalty on the highway.
Of course, we didn't fly all the way to Wyoming in February to drive on thawed pavement or to watch our fuel consumption. Mercedes obliges by taking us to a snow-covered field through which it has carved a tight, winding snow track. This is a blast, naturally, but it does expose some of the 4Matic system's limitations. The all-wheel-drive C-class automatically varies the torque split from front to rear depending on conditions, sending as much as 70 percent of its torque in either direction. Unlike more performance-minded all-wheel-drive setups, though, it doesn't control how much torque goes to each rear wheel. That means the C-class does fine accelerating in the slippery stuff, but wants to plow ahead in tight corners where cars like the Mitsubishi Evolution and the Acura TL SH-AWD would send more torque to their outer rear wheels and almost magically rotate. A brake-based torque-vectoring system similar to what BMW uses on all-wheel-drive variants of the 3-series appears on 4Matic S- and CLS-class models but would be costly to integrate into the cheaper C- and E-class, Mercedes says. The C350's more conventional stability control doesn't like to play along when we try to drift through an ess-curve, intervening early and then limiting acceleration for several seconds.
None of this is likely to matter much to luxury buyers who simply want all-wheel drive so they can get home safely on a snowy night. Which brings us back to my driving partner's first foray into winter driving. The 4Matic system, along with those other modern wonders -- antilock brakes, stability control, and performance winter tires -- make a nonevent of Jackson Hole's snow-packed, steeply graded roads. I calmly check e-mails and fiddle with the Comand infotainment system as my partner peers out into the white abyss ahead. (For the record, he drove smoothly and judiciously). I do no worse during my time behind the wheel: the C-class has no trouble keeping up with a Chevrolet Suburban making its way down a steep, slick incline near our hotel.
So, the C350 coupe 4Matic will not pose a rally racing threat to the likes of a Subaru STI, but it does offer all-wheel-drive traction with little to no dynamic or fuel economy sacrifice compared with the rear-wheel-drive version. Those in northern climates would do well to consider the $1125 option, even if it means saving the money elsewhere (for instance, passing on the $1025 eighteen-inch wheels). In fact, our drive left us wondering why Mercedes doesn't offer it on even more cars, including the four-cylinder-powered C250.
On sale: April
Base price: $44,370
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 302 hp, 273 lb-ft
Fuel economy: 19/28/22 mpg