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FIRST DRIVE

C-Class continues strong ride for Mercedes-Benz

The C320 wagon is a good drive even as consumer surveys note a slip in quality.

June 18, 2003|Tom Incantalupo | Newsday

Mercedes-Benz held its own in a weak U.S. car market last year, even picking up half a point of share. The main reason: the C-Class, now the most popular Benz in this country.

Not surprisingly, Mercedes now is trying to capitalize on and broaden the popularity of its price leader by introducing more versions, including the all-wheel-drive wagon.

The C-Class was redesigned for the 2001 model year and consisted then of sedans, with the wagon added for 2002. A coupe followed, also for 2002, with a $25,000 base price that hadn't been seen on a Benz sold in this country in a decade. Mercedes said the C-Class replaced the E-Class as its top-selling line in 2001. Last year, while passenger car sales fell almost 4% from 2001, C-Class sales rose 25%. DaimlerChrysler's designers have done something right.

But maybe not everything. A cautionary note for would-be buyers: Strange things seem to be happening, quality-wise, at Mercedes. Consumer Reports said in its latest auto issue that the C-Class was "well below average" in reliability as reported by owner/subscribers in the magazine's annual survey. (The incredibly expensive S-Class line gets the same crummy rating.)

There's more: Mercedes fell to below average in J.D. Power's last survey of dependability over five years, which was issued in November. The carmaker was below average in customer satisfaction with servicing, according to another Power survey. Mercedes did, however, come in just above average in another more recent Power survey, measuring quality and customer satisfaction in the first three months of ownership. The average number of complaints increased from a year earlier.

Brands scoring higher than Mercedes-Benz included Chevrolet, and given Mercedes' prices, that isn't good.

I asked Mercedes executives to comment.

Spokeswoman Michelle Murad at the company's U.S. headquarters in New Jersey said Consumer Reports' findings contradict its own, which are based on warranty claims. Further, she said, Consumer Reports' customer surveys don't distinguish between big and little problems. "The vast majority of reported problems have no effect on performance or drivability," she said. She had no comment on Powers' findings.

As for my opinion: Consumer Reports said the C-Class' electrical system has been a consistent source of trouble. That's hardly minor. And for comparable prices, Lexus manages to get the big and small stuff right.

For 2003, Mercedes made its 4Matic all-wheel-drive system available in C-Class sedans and wagons and it added another wagon model -- the C240.

The coupe, meanwhile, got a redesigned engine. Its 189 horsepower is about the same as last year's, but the exhaust is cleaner and fuel economy higher.

I logged hundreds of miles during my week driving the 2003 Mercedes C320 4Matic wagon, and the car contributed greatly to making most of them pleasant.

This wagon feels heavy, as Mercedeses often do, and there is some tail-wagging on a twisty road as often is the case in wagons. Overall, though, the C320 wagon's handling inspires confidence. The steering is a mite heavy in parking maneuvers, but offers excellent road feel at highway speeds.

The four-wheel independent suspension delivers a European-firm ride, but it's never punishing.

The only unpleasant features in the test model were the usual nonintuitive controls found in Benzes, particularly for the driving computer. But a careful perusal of the owner's manual or briefing by a knowledgeable salesperson should make it all better.

And lest you think Mercedes is trying to undercut Hyundai, note that my test wagon had a sticker price of just less than $45,000, with freight costs.

The least expensive C-Class sedan, the four-cylinder supercharged 230, begins at $28,710 with freight.

Wagons start at $32,120 for the aforementioned C240, whose 2.6-liter six-cylinder engine delivers 168 horsepower -- not a whole lot for a 3,500-pound car.

That $32,120 base price is for the wagon with a six-speed stick shift. Automatic transmission adds $1,325, and you must buy it if you want the 4Matic all-wheel drive, which costs an additional $1,800.

The test model was the more expensive C320, whose designation indicates the displacement of its 3.2-liter V-6. Its 215 horsepower is sufficient and then some. Mercedes lists its zero to 60 mph acceleration time at 7 seconds, almost two seconds faster than the 240's.

The C320 starts at $37,420 in rear-wheel drive. Besides 4Matic, my tester had a navigation system, sunroof, CD changer in the glove box and heated seats.

The standard equipment list is long and includes a dual zone automatic heater and air conditioner.

Competitors for these C-wagons abound -- including some wagon-like things offered as sport utility vehicles. Among pure wagons, though, few are available with all-wheel drive. Perhaps the most direct competitor from another luxury marque is the BMW 325xiT, which begins at $32,845, with freight and all-wheel drive. It compares most directly with the C240 wagon.

In sum, it's not surprising that sales of C-Class models are up 17% this year through March compared with last year. Despite concerns about quality, this newest wagon joins a very desirable family of cars.

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