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.