Same roads, different country. We're in Slovakia, shooting past Bratislava into no-man's land, where long straights mix with dogleg corners. Numerous white crosses nailed to trees and chevrons painted on the pavement suggest that not everybody manages to slow down in time. Thankfully, the C-class is very good at predicting what you're up to. Back off the throttle quickly, and the brakes will respond with even more emphatic bite. Increase the pedal pressure, and the power assist grows progressively until the vehicle comes to a standstill. Drop the anchors in an emergency situation, and you get instant maximum deceleration along with flashing brake lights to warn hapless tailgaters. The only downside concerns the foot-operated parking brake, which is notably less elegant than an electromechanical device.
Slovakia is the ninth country out of ten on our itinerary, so we have to memorize the ninth different police car livery--in this case, white with blue lettering. It's worth noting that we weren't stopped by the law one single time. Quite the contrary: occasionally, the authorities gave us a friendly wave or a semiofficial salute. However, the Slovaks' road-building skills aren't worth spending a lot of time talking about.
When we reach Austria, it's time for some Viennese coffee and a warm apple strudel. Time for Jess Lpez-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to intone Anton Bruckner's Symphony Number 8. Time to let the last 1700-plus miles pass in review. It's raining as we leave the Austrian capital and head for Munich. Messrs. Harman and Kardon are doing a fine job sounding almost as good as Bose's best, the navigation system predicts a clear road, and all that's separating us from total bliss are a pair of ventilated massage seats. But we do have Intelligent Light on board, which points around corners, adds a side beam when turning, and offers three different light patterns for autobahn, secondary roads, and foggy weather--it's too bad this lighting system won't be offered on U.S.-market C-classes.
At a list price of 65,000 euros (or $85,000), our fully loaded C-class costs as much as a small castle in Croatia or a nice family home in Slovakia. Of course, you don't really need the big engine, but we'd insist on that nice interior with leather and power everything. The C350 Sport will likely start at just under $40,000 when it reaches American dealers in the next few months.
All in all, the newcomer from Stuttgart has made a big leap ahead in terms of overall ability and appeal. It's arguably the best-looking compact four-door sedan out there, and it's very probably the best balanced all-around. And trust us, you won't need to traverse ten countries to find that out.
But you just might want to.