The ghost of communism is alive and kicking on secondary roads, however, which are littered with potholes and other members of the antidestination league. Weaving past horse-drawn carriages, tractors best described as resurrected barn finds, and buses built when Austria and Hungary were still a single empire, we felt shamefully unsocial and emphatically vulnerable. The ride comfort was also rather unremarkable, since the seventeen-inch tires struggled to cope with a crumbling road held together by sharp-edged tarmac islands and an unbroken center line.
The port city of Rijeka, in Croatia, welcomed us with about $1000 worth of damage. First, a truck dropped an egg-sized stone on the Merc's freshly cleaned windshield. Next, a red BMW 5-series left its nasty signature on our rear bumper while scrambling out of a parking lot. But we also have pleasant stories to tell about Croatia. Like the one in which the Mercedes mechanic fixed the disarrayed bumper on Saturday afternoon for a small baksheesh. And the parking garage attendant who let us exit in exchange for a glossy car magazine. Or how about the police officer who kept the entire city panorama clear of people until photographer Tom Salt had the picture in the can? When we were done, the skies opened up and the streets became as slippery as if someone had doused them with liquid soap. We carried the bad weather with us on the road to the top of the mountain range, through puddles and streams that soon turned into torrents and roadside waterfalls. The brakes performed with aplomb in these Armageddon-like conditions--intermittently swiping the discs clean and providing extra boost for last-second deceleration maneuvers.
Day-trippers from Vienna used to cross the Hungarian border so that they could buy half-price salami and cheap apricot brandy. These days, bargain-minded Austrians drive to Hungary in droves to get their teeth fixed, buy a new pair of eyeglasses, or spend the weekend in a plush "wellness hotel." While prospering northern cities such as Gyr and Budapest benefit from the influx of the West, the country's eastern flank continues to struggle to fund the base essentials. Our route clipped only a small corner of Hungary, but it was an exceptionally pretty one: the puszta, a vast and totally flat mix of steppe, swamp, and rich black-soil farmland. On the deserted roads that curl around Lake Neusiedl, we let the C350 off the leash to find out how good the new baby Benz really is when pushed long and hard. Does it fall apart, or does it come within reach of true greatness?
The first convincing item is the steering. It has shed that laziness around the straight-ahead position, and in Sport mode, the speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering responds even more promptly and precisely. The other ingredient that never fails to impress is the chassis's riveting roadholding. Helped by the AMG suspension setup, which lowers the C-class by 0.6 inch and features a tauter spring-and-damper calibration, the car hugs the road like a low-flying magic carpet.