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Behind the Wheel

Mercedes' Macho C43 Sedan Is Right up Mustang's Alley

April 10, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — Mercedes-Benz presented its C43 AMG sedan here with purple hyperbole as plain as the star on its nose. Plus a dose of political incorrectness guaranteed to have all disciples of green turning purple.

Promotional material spoke of high-performance bellows and rumbles and throaty exhaust burbles. In those precise words. Then burbles become roars, then wails, then "echoes reverberating from yesteryear's dry lake beds to today's road courses."

Said Karen Makris, product manager for this C43 beast in brute's clothing: "A land missile, a factory hot rod. It's for the guy who says he's going to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes and doesn't come back for three days."

Added Michael Bassermann, chairman and CEO of Mercedes-Benz of North America: "Not a rolling showpiece to be admired and garaged, but an everyday supercar. A perfect car for the '90s family."

Pause for chortles.

But not from Bassermann, an automobile senior secure in his subtle observation about this very thoughtful motor car.

Yes, the C43--a minority member of the comparatively calm and inexpensive Mercedes-Benz C-Class--will humiliate just about any four-door in the world because it has a 302-horsepower V-8 stuffed where a 194-horsepower inline six used to be. Play rough and heavy, and it delivers an indecent average of 16 mpg and flirts with 155 mph before an electric governor tugs on the reins. That's enough anger and shoving for the most virile among us.

Yet tread lightly, be a good neighbor, remain considerate of the twins and their grandmother strapped in the back seat, and the C43 trundles along like any other family midsize from Mercedes-Benz: Always a little heavy, but with confidence and elegant deliberation. And with mechanical thoroughness and a depth of luxury and safety achieved only by a car company that has been getting it right for so many decades. Indeed, as performance enhancing partner AMG has been getting it right since 1967, when it first tweaked a Mercedes-Benz bulky S-Class sedan into the almighty AMG Hammer.

Since that baptism, AMG (which stands for founders Aufrecht and Melcher, and Grossapach, the town where Aufrecht was born) has been allowed to meddle with just about any Mercedes ripe for more horsepower. Recent transformations include a team of CLK-GTR race cars that won last year's European GT championship.

It's the same limited production formula BMW follows with its Motorsports Division, designer of the higher performing M Series, and the path Ford has taken with its Special Vehicle Team, creators of the enthusiast's Mustang Cobra and Contour SVT.

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The Mercedes C43 mates much full-race technology with the chassis and shape of the C-Class; a 4.3-liter V-8 engine adapted from the populist E-Class, and a transmission borrowed from the S-Class.

Visually, the C43 is separated at birth from its lesser siblings by stubby-spoked wheels, a resculpted bumper and lower grille, and aerodynamic skirts port and starboard. Plus twin chrome-tipped exhaust pipes and, of course, an AMG cutout on the rear deck.

There's a similar look of powerful luxury to the inside of the car with its burl walnut trim, ivory gauges and two-tone (black with blue, or black with silver) leather upholstery. Presumably from bicolored cows. Plus a fatter steering wheel and high-bolstered seats with pneumatic lumbar and thigh adjustments, ranging from mild foreplay to death grip.

Mechanically, the 24-valve engine is given AMG power and torque through a wider, better breathing intake manifold and hotter camshafts for faster, higher valve lift. A freer-flowing exhaust system makes sure no horsepower is lost to back pressures, while stiffer valve springs handle the heavier workload.

There are wide, low-profile Michelin Pilot tires on 17-inch wheels, plus tauter springs and shocks. Huge, 13.2-inch brake discs up front (11.8 inches at the rear) allow handling and braking qualities several hundred reflexes beyond anybody not on a career path with Michael Schumacher.

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Financial changes are equally striking: Bread-and-bratwurst C280s list for $35,000, but you'll pay $52,750 for its big brother that rumbles. That's a healthy hike for the privilege of getting behind the wheel of a European stock car, particularly when priorities of the motoring majority are aimed squarely at the carriage of groceries, carpoolers and beloved buddies. That could explain why Mercedes-Benz will ship only 1,500 C43s to these shores over the next three years.

All the power in the world, of course, means next to naught if it turns the car into something you might name El Diablo. Hence those big wheels and grabbier rubber, a wider track, a beautifully disciplined multi-link suspension, and ride height lowered by an inch. No matter the pace and drama of the maneuvering, this car responds with remarkable balance and a firm hold on long, high-speed sweepers that suggests each wheel is really an electromagnet.

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