2008 Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport

Tom Salt

Ten years ago, who would have thought that Italy and discipline could occupy the same sentence? But this is 2007, and the whole nation has stopped smoking virtually overnight, at least in restaurants and aboard public transportation. More amazing yet, the hot-blooded southern Europeans now religiously stick to the 80-mph speed limit, which is being enforced by a slew of smartly dressed Luigis and Giovannis in pale blue Alfa Romeo patrol cars. There are exceptions to this new No More Speeding credo, but to qualify, you must drive a Ferrari, a Lamborghini, or a Maserati, preferably on Prova test plates and ideally at high revs in a low gear. A white C-class just won't do. Scusi signore, mi dispiace. But our C350 did get plenty of bella macchina! compliments, and as we meandered through villages, towns, and cities, countless camera phones flashed left, right, and center.

The 3.5-liter V-6 is not yet the modern direct-injection unit we have been promised for years, but it has enough grunt to propel the 3550-pound C-class from 0 to 62 mph in 6.4 seconds. The maximum torque of 258 lb-ft is available between 2400 and 5000 rpm, so flexibility and revability don't depend on each other. But while the C350 is, performance-wise, about on par with the departed BMW 330i, Mercedes has no suitable weapon, at this point, against the 300-hp 335i and the upcoming 330-hp Audi A4 TFSI. Where the car from Stuttgart scores big brownie points is in space utilization. At 16.8 cubic feet, it has, by far, the biggest trunk of this trio.

Italy still has its charm, but more and more the once-breathtaking landscape is being segmented, sealed, and sold by ruthless property tycoons. Take, for instance, northern provinces such as Lombardy and Veneto, where once beautiful areas have been reduced to small oases for the rich. Instead of traveling through some of Europe's most stunning countryside, you now hop from landmark to landmark, from one two-star ristorante to the next. The three-hour drive from Bergamo to the Slovenian border was the least memorable section of the entire trip: bumper-to-bumper traffic, moist air infused with acid haze, and cancerous business parks mushrooming where rice fields and fruit orchards used to blossom. Enter Trieste, the former home harbor of the Austrian navy. Even more moribund than Venice, this place still exudes so much atmosphere and so much vibrant activity that all you want to do is sit down in a street caf and watch long-legged belle ragazze until the sun sets.

On the first day of 2007, the Slovenian government adopted the euro as its currency in order to cement the country's fast-growing prosperity. The most obvious demonstration of the country's newly found wealth is a comprehensive highway network that connects Slovenia with Italy, Croatia, and Austria. Since the government charges higher toll fees than many motorists can afford, the roads are almost empty. This is an ideal opportunity to check out the latest Comand navigation/phone/radio/CD combination. Equipped with a hard drive for the first time, the in-dash wizard can store up to 1000 songs, calculate routes much faster than the previous DVD-operated generation, and respond to complex voice inputs. The new software understands full sentences, so instead of spelling names and telephone numbers, you simply push a button and say what you want. Entering a destination has never been easier, and the same applies for summoning a given radio station or your favorite piece of music. Plug in your cell phone, and Comand will import the directory. All it takes to phone home is to say "phone home"--piece of cake.

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