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It's the $14,000 Mercedes Make-Over


In efforts to mop up every last buyer, manufacturers can't seem to leave well enough alone.

So they build limited editions to poke the performance devil and stir the cowboy way lurking in a lot of us. These beefsteak brands cost bigger bucks, most sneer at automatic transmissions, some are inspired by European sedan racers, and all are an absolute hoot.

BMW takes a perfectly satisfying 325i sedan, tightens the suspension, mounts high-speed tires on larger wheels, massages the engine for more horsepower, and whelps a 150 m.p.h. screamer called the M3.

Ford's Special Vehicles Team makes similar magic with the venerable and flexible Mustang. The car's 5.0-liter V-8 is inflated from 215 to 240 horsepower, an air dam and spoiler are added, suspension is lowered, and a reptilian badge in your rearview mirror may be the only warning that you are about to be smoked by a Mustang Cobra.

Volvo is in the field with its 850 T-5R, where T stands for turbocharged and R means racing and the whole is a Scandinavian wolf in family sedan cladding.

Now come Aufrecht, Melcher and Grossapach. Or AMG. Who do for the Mercedes-Benz C-Class what Richard Simmons does for patio potatoes by converting overweight, gentle snoozers into feisty, finely muscled pieces of work.

Aufrecht (engineer Hans-Werner) and Melcher (former partner Erhard) and Grossapach (the German town where Aufrecht was born) start with a bread-and-bratwurst Mercedes-Benz C280.

It's a pleasant enough car for old parsons and new lawyers. But several wild dreams removed from the C280-based sedans AMG prepares for the European Touring Car Championship.

Mercedes-Benz in northern Germany initiates the C36 transmogrification by fitting a stock C280 with several factory improvements borrowed from heftier, more expensive lions in the line.

A beefier differential is bolted aboard to handle the C36's increased engine power. Larger disc brakes are installed to make sure that which goes faster also stops more securely. A more responsive steering box, shorter springs and industrial strength anti-sway bars are added for a stiffer, more positive ride.

The car also is mounted with 17-inch wheels and Bridgestone Expedia tires showing profiles low enough to appease those who cruise Compton in custom pickups.

Then the work-in-progress is trucked from big city Bremen to rural Affalterbach, where AMG's young Frankensteins begin removing and dismantling the engine, transmission and most of the interior.

One man, one engine is the standard as the C280's 2.8-liter in-line six swells into the C36's 3.6-liter power source. Cylinders are bored out and the piston stroke lengthened. Forged aluminum pistons are added.

A new camshaft and crankshaft are installed. Cylinder head exhaust ports are enlarged. Sterner commands are programmed into the Bosch engine-management computer to optimize benefits from the enlarged fuel-air intake and altered valve timing.

And so a 194-horsepower engine good for fast touring through pretty scenery becomes a 268-horsepower street fighter built for ugly times wherever big dogs snarl.

Cosmetologists pick up the C280-to-C36 journey here, adding a deeper, under-bumper front air dam, side skirts and a new rear apron. Also twin rectangular chromed tailpipes and plainer, five-spoke wheels.

AMG and C36 monograms, of course, are Liberace-liberal. On instruments and carpets. On wheels and rear deck. On gearshift knob and wheels. There's also a light gray leather insert on the dark gray, leather-covered steering wheel to remind us this is indeed a kustomwagen.


And so a $36,000 C280 becomes a $50,000 C36.

With a question: A price differential of $14,000 is a pretty obvious difference, but is the C280/C36 performance margin as distinctive?

With an easy answer: Not only is the C36's athleticism immediately noticeable, the car adds a fresh dimension to this business of honing mid-city four-doors into hot rods.

For the pendulum of BMW's M3, Ford's Cobra and Volvo's T-5R swings much closer to performance. Their bare knuckles show. Any display of good manners is strictly a pretense and there is no easy way to leash the beast. Attempt something dramatic and there is noise, heads swivel and frowns accuse you of being the politically incorrect marauder.

But the C36 has a dual personality and it is in perfect balance. Driven mildly it loses none of that integrated feel and solid footing so characteristic of Mercedes; the security of knowing you are safe inside something heavy designed to protect and coddle. Decide to explore the upper reaches of this car, stab the throttle, and driving becomes more a matter of hanging on and enjoying the exhilaration as the C36 growls and exerts its authority.

Yet even at pace, driven to its extremes, the car is far from unruly. Everything is achieved without ruffling nerves and poise of either car or driver. The C36 makes no noisy announcement that it is about to eat everything in sight, and doesn't strut hard in search of praise when victory is done.

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