1999-2005 BMW 330i, 2001-2005 Lexus IS300, and 2001-2005 Mercedes-Benz C320

Greg Jarem
Full Driver Side View

"Task" makes driving sound like work, but in all three of these cars, the left front seat is the place to be. Credit first their six-cylinder engines, which mellifluously emit a sporty snarl or a contented purr as the occasion warrants. BMW and Lexus opt for the classic in-line configuration and 3.0 liters of displacement, while Mercedes uses a V-6 of 3.2 liters. Their outputs are remarkably similar, with the Lexus and Merc making 215 horsepower and the Bimmer 225, all between 5700 and 5900 rpm. Peak torque ranges from a low of 214 pound-feet in the 330i to a high of 221 in the C320 (with all three engines hitting their max between 3000 and 3800 rpm). Aggressive throttle tip-in helps give the IS300 great initial response; it feels lively around town but less so at higher speeds. The 330i feels less sparkling on takeoff, but that's only because it has more linear throttle response. On the highway, the BMW still has deep reserves of power. The C-class snaps off the line and continues to feel strong as speed builds.

Full Driver Side View

Mercedes and Lexus tie their engines to five-speed automatic transmissions, both of which feature manu-matic shifting. The IS300's driver can shift via buttons on the steering wheel and the C320's by slapping the gear lever from side to side. But sorry, guys, it's not the same as driving a true manual. The lack of a manual transmission is particularly off-putting in the IS300, which so obviously desires to be the hard-core sport sedan, the one for the import-tuner guy ready to move up in price and door count. We really don't expect a manual from Mercedes-Benz, but the company does offer one in the C240, and Mercedes' SLK320 combines the 3.2-liter engine and a six-speed, so perhaps a six-speed C320 isn't so far-fetched. The BMW, of course, has a true stick shift, and, as expected, it's a great one. In fact, the 3-series gearbox offers as sublime a gear-shifting experience as can be found in autodom.

Full Driver Side View

The 3-series steering used to be on the same level, but BMW mucked it up recently by increasing the power assist. Now sadly overboosted, the Bimmer had the lightest steering of the bunch, but, to its credit, it retains its precision and some degree of feel. (Whoever it was at BMW who pushed for the lighter steering should be kept away from the 3-series and pointed toward the X5.) The garden-variety C-class has steering that is similarly lite-'n'-easy, but the Sport raises efforts considerably. The IS300's has good weighting and nice progressivity in daily driving, but as you approach the cornering limits, the lack of steering feel becomes an issue.

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