2004 C-Class New Car Test Drive
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class cars offer the Benz experience for the price of a Toyota Camry, which is why they are the company's best-selling line.
The C-Class starts at less than $27,000 for C230 coupe, but the line is perhaps best represented by the C320 sedan ($37,630). It's a pleasure to drive, with its smooth, powerful engine, responsive automatic transmission and classic Mercedes balance of ride quality and handling. Inside, it looks and, for the most part, feels like a Mercedes-Benz, with firm, supportive seats and mostly high-quality materials. Meanwhile, the price-leading C230 sport coupe continues to attract first-time Mercedes buyers with its sportiness, practicality, features and that three-pointed star on the grille. The pinnacle of the C-Class line, at least from a performance standpoint, is the limited-production C32 AMG sedan ($51,200).
For 2004, Mercedes has focused improvements on the sportier models. The sport sedans get a healthy dose of performance and styling updates, including a lower ride height, upgraded brakes, a short-throw shifter and unique interior features to further distinguish them from the standard sedans. The sport coupes benefit from similar interior changes, and now come standard with 17-inch alloy wheels and high-performance tires. On the standard sedans and wagons, the 4MATIC all-wheel-drive has been packaged with heated seats for a savings of $1,250 compared to 2003.
The C-Class has good bones, with exterior styling inspired by the big, luxurious S-Class, technology shared with the E-Class, and an interior design all its own. Every model, starting with the less-expensive coupes, comes standard with a full-complement of airbags and Mercedes' Electronic Stability Program skid-control system.
While this is Mercedes' least expensive line in the United States, you'll still pay a premium for the three-pointed star. Comparably equipped C-Class sedans are priced slightly higher than BMW's 3 Series and substantially higher than Audi's A4 models. If it's a sports sedan you seek, you might still consider Audi or BMW. But if you want Mercedes-Benz engineering, design strengths and mystique in a solid, mainstream sedan, it doesn't get anymore accessible than the C-Class, and the C320 sedan represents the best of this.
At last count, the nine variants that make up the Mercedes C-Class included five four-door sedans, two wagons, and two hatchback coupes. All nine have rear-wheel drive, one of four different engines, and either a standard six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission, depending on the model. All-wheel-drive is optional on two of the sedans and the wagons.
The best-selling C-Class models, and perhaps the most familiar, are the mainstream sedans. The C240 sedan ($32,280) is powered by a 168-horsepower 2.6-liter V6 with three valves per cylinder and a standard five-speed Touch Shift automatic transmission with manual shift mode. C240 is well-equipped, with leather seat inserts, front seats with power height and backrest adjustment, a manual tilt-and-telescope steering column, power windows, cruise control, a seven-speaker audio system with weatherband, laurel-wood trim and 16-inch aluminum wheels with all-season tires.
The C320 sedan ($37,630) is powered by a 215-horsepower 3.2-liter version of the same V6. C320 comes standard a higher level of luxury amenities, including dual-zone automatic climate control, a Bose 10-speaker stereo, reading lamps, 10-way power front seats with memory, and a power-adjustable steering column.
The wagons are identical counterparts to these sedans. The C240 ($33,780) and C320 ($39,130) wagons are the smallest wagons Mercedes has ever imported into the United States, yet they successfully combine sporty styling and good cargo room, perfect for that big dog (though we recommend a dog fence for safety).
The C240 and C320 sedans and wagons are available with optional 4MATIC all-wheel drive ($1200), which includes heated seats. All-wheel drive is a valuable asset for the rainy Pacific Northwest and for the harsh winters of the Midwest and Northeast.
The C-Class sport sedans have firmer suspensions, racy body cladding, 17-inch spoke wheels with high performance tires, the six-speed manual transmission, thickly bolstered front sport seats and aluminum interior trim. The C230 Kompressor sedan ($28,710) is powered by the same supercharged inline-4 as the C230 coupe. The C320 sports sedan ($35,920) uses the 3.2-liter V6. For 2004, the sport sedans get the same interior upgrades as the sport coupes, as well as a couple of significant mechanical upgrades. The front brakes now feature four-piston fixed calipers and cross-drilled rotors, which add more fade-resistant stopping power and visual appeal. Ride height has been lowered one inch and the suspension has been recalibrated to further improve handling. A new leather covered short-throw shifter reduces the space between gear positions for a sportier feel and more precise gear selection.
The least-expensive C-Class models are the sport coupes, which are hatchbacks. The C230 Kompressor ($26,020) is powered by a 1.8-liter dual-overhead-cam 16-valve four-cylinder engine pumped up to 189 horsepower by a supercharger (the Kompressor) and intercooler. The C320 coupe ($28,320) comes with the 3.2-liter V6 and a manual transmission and gets amenity upgrades similar to the C320 sedan. Both coupes have been upgraded for 2004. Standard equipment now includes 17-inch seven-spoke alloy wheels and high-performance 225/45R17 tires, a three-spoke multifunction sport steering wheel with raised thumb-grips, leather-covered sport shift knob, rubber-studded stainless steel pedals, an enlarged chrome exhaust tip, body-colored door handles and aluminum door sills.
The C32 AMG is the hottest hot rod of the C-Class family. Offered only as a sedan, the C32 adds a Lysholm positive-displacement supercharger to the 3.2-liter V6, boosting output to 349 horsepower and 332 pounds-feet of torque. It boasts its own SpeedShift version of the five-speed automatic gearbox, plus unique exterior decor and interior trim, special suspension and brakes, and larger tires and wheels. In fact, the C32 AMG is one of the quickest four-door cars in the world. It is also priced.