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."