With the spectacular new Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart providing a sentimental backdrop, Mercedes-Benz launched its all-new 2008 C-class, its most significant new model launch since the S-class in 2005. While it may not have the same majestic presence as the 500K Special Roadster, the original Silver Arrow or Stirling Moss' legendary 722 Mille-Miglia-winning 300SL, the new C is more important than any car in Germany in regards to the future viability of Mercedes-Benz as a brand. And? Well, based on what we've seen thus far of the new compact luxury sport sedan, the future of the Three-Pointed Star looks shiny indeed. Call it Mercedes' Cash Cow.

The C is Mercedes' best-selling model. And when the 2008 C-class goes on sale this summer in the United States, it will be offered only as a sedan; in most other markets, it will be offered as a wagon and a sport coupe, too, though Mercedes-Benz confirmed that slow sales of the latter two models will keep them from entering our land. Too bad, because although we haven't had a chance to drive the car itself -- at least not in reality (we did play with it in virtual reality, however) -- the all-new C-class promises the kind of refinement, quietness, comfort and performance heretofore unseen in the C-class, and we'd be happy with it in whatever body style we could get it.

Perhaps the Most Researched, Developed and Tested Mercedes-Benz Ever.

According to Mercedes-Benz, no vehicle in the company's 124-year history has undergone such extensive use of Space-Age computer modeling, ride/handling simulators and virtual reality coves as the new C-class. The unprecedented virtual testing of various aspects of the design, in addition to the vehicle hardware itself, helped advance the design to a very mature level long before the first prototype was built. This allowed more time for actual road testing, according to Mercedes-Benz. And from what we saw once the curtain was drawn, it resulted in a car with astounding refinement inside and out.

Two Forks in the Sport Sedan Fire

Significantly, the new C-class expands the previous generation's two-front approach to the entry-lux sedan war, in which luxury models were offered to the more conservative buyer, while "sport" models were dispatched to capture the enthusiast crowd. In the past, however, the C-Class "Sport" and "Luxury" models were only somewhat different, not really different. With the 2008 C-class, they're much more different.

The differences are clearly evident from head on. Luxury models continue Mercedes-Benz' long tradition of offering a multi-slat grille topped by a chrome Three-Pointed Star hood ornament; Sport sedans take on the tradition long held by M-B coupes of integrating the big Star within the grille itself. Front and rear bumper fascias, as well as side moldings and window tints, are distinct, too. Inside, luxury models get a more traditional wood-and-leather interior treatment while the Sport models swap the dead trees for dead metal. All, however, will get an iDrive-like controller for ancillary systems, a la the S-class. Yes, it appears that those loathsome puck-n-screen-based audio/HVAC/nav systems are here to stay -- sigh.

Two V-6 Engines, at First

From a powertrain standpoint, here's how it shakes down for the U.S. market: All 2008 C-class models will be powered by V-6 engines, with Sport Sedan offered with a choice of either a 3.0-liter V-6 (C300 Sport Sedan) that produces 228 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 221 lb-ft of torque at 2500 -- 5000 rpm, or a 3.5-liter V-6 (C350 Sport Sedan) which makes 268 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 258 lb-ft from 2400 -- 5000 rpm. The more comfort-oriented Luxury Sedan will be offered only with the more powerful motor (C350 Luxury Sedan). Mercedes expects that Sport Sedan models will make up two-thirds of its overall C-class sales in the States, with the C300 variant comprising a majority of the mix. All will ride on 17-inch wheels, except for Sport models that were ordered with the optional five-twin-spoke 18s which are included with the AMG Sport package.

Initially, all C-class models will be equipped with rear-wheel drive. Eventually, of course, C-class models will be offered with 4MATIC four-wheel drive, as well as a BlueTec diesel engine (likely the same 3.2-liter found in the E320 Bluetec). C300 Sport Sedans will offer a choice of six-speed manual and seven-speed automatic transmissions, the latter with steering wheel shift buttons (sorry, the C350 Luxury Sedan will only come with the auto, sans steering wheel shifters). Speaking of steering wheels, the Sport models have three-spokers, rotating with a quicker ratio for a sportier feel.

Now, of course, the voracious AMG folks will eventually drop one of their scrumptious V-8s under the C's hood, too, though not until at least early 2008 as an '09 model. It'll ride on 19-inch wheels and, of course, wear much snazzier duds.

Best-Ever "C", but still No "3"

All told, from the looks of things, the new C-class doesn't appear to have the goods to knock the BMW 335i off the sport sedan throne. However, Infiniti, Lexus and Audi may suffer a few headaches among them once the C lands stateside this summer. Of course, we'll reserve our final judgment until we get a chance to compare them all side by side, which should happen shortly afterward.

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