PALMA DE MALLORCA, SPAIN Gradually, the Mercedes-Benz C-class is revealing a more sporting character, for those who care to look. This year, it dumps the 3.2-liter, eighteen-valve V-6 in favor of the company's new 24-valve, 268-hp 3.5-liter. The larger engine can be had with either a seven-speed automatic or a new six-speed manual (the latter also available on the C230 Kompressor). The manual breaks long-standing Mercedes tradition by offering short, positive throws and being fun to use. In the C350, this powertrain increases the sport-sedan quotient appreciably, with 53 more hp and an extra 29 lb-ft of torque versus the old 3.2. Although its sound track is polished rather than aggressive, its thrust is unmistakable, with 62 mph coming up in 6.4 seconds, a full 1.3 second quicker than before. C350s are sold as either Luxury or Sport models-pick the Sport if you want the stick shift. The Sport also has a firmer suspension, seventeen-inch wheels, and AMG-style lower bodywork. Few outside the Mercedes club are likely to notice, however, as it takes more than a little war paint to give the staid C an aggressive look. Still, the C350 Sport's connected, purposeful steering and firm chassis, now backed up by the most powerful six-cylinder engine in its class and a nicely done manual, make this a rewarding car for keen drivers.
Price: $39,500 (est.)
Engine: 3.5L V-6, 268 hp, 258 lb-ft