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LAKE GENEVA, Wisconsin — In this pastoral countryside that soothes the spirit with gentility and tranquility, the scenery streams by like you were sitting in your easy chair, watching a travel video. The smallest Mercedes sedan cruises effortlessly and silently, with only a muted whine hinting at the supercharged power when the right pedal is depressed hard.
The C-Class sedans are making a strong value statement for Mercedes-Benz. It led the way with entry products such as the SLK, CLK and ML320 that are more affordable yet keep the M-B core values. When the C-Class came on the market, it was priced just below $30,000 and has stayed close to that figure despite many improvements.
This year, the entry-level C230 adds much more power in its transformation into the C230K. In the past, Mercedes created a lot of their mystique using superchargers. During the '30s their SSK models were some of the most admired touring cars, noted for their long hoods and "Kompressor" power. Then they nearly dominated racing during that same period, using the supercharged
W series of racing cars that benefited from the lighter weight of smaller engines, especially with the skinny tires of the time.
The 1999 C-Class has three models: the C230 keeps the somewhat sluggish 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder engine, while a 2.8-liter V-6 engine powers the C280.
Adding 37 horsepower with the well-proven supercharger from the SLK is the C230K. (There’s also the limited-production, AMG-modified, high-performance C43, which uses a special 4.3-liter engine that delivers over 60 percent more power than its mass-market siblings, but it’s available in limited numbers.)
Though the C280 is slightly quicker than the C230K, buyers are going to have a hard choice. The extra four grand may buy a little more room for bragging rights but not much else. On a previous test, we drove a SLK smartly up a steep road to the Kitts Peak observatory overlooking the high southern Arizona desert. In the thin air, the supercharger didn't give up any performance even at the highest altitudes. For those in mountain regions, the choice should be easy.
A big part of the continued success is Mercedes' styling. Despite its advancing age (nearly seven years old), the C-Class has stood the test of time remarkably well, even surviving the need to adopt more aerodynamic shapes. A new C-Class is expected in the next 18 months, but until then — and possibly well beyond —this car will continue to look fresh and contemporary.
The C230 can be equipped with an optional
1999 Mercedes-Benz C230K interior
The C230K gets white faces on its
gauges, ostensibly for better visibility.
Attaboys and quibbles
A four-speed automatic transmission is standard for all C-Class models, and so are dual front airbags and anti-lock brakes. Now all models have side airbags mounted in the doors. Family buyers with multiple children should check out Mercedes' BabySmart child seat detection system that disables the front airbag when a Mercedes child seat is installed in the right front, although infants should be placed in the rear when possible.
While not usually touted as a safety feature, the monoblade windshield wiper does a remarkable job of keeping the visual area clean, thus enabling the driver the chance to avoid blinded motorists in nasty conditions. By using a cam drive that moves the blade up and down during the sweep, the wiper moves in an inverted "W" path rather than an arc, and cleans all but the top corners of the possible sight area. Surely the monoblade wiper is more expensive than a dual-blade, and while many German engineering excesses are questionable, this one is a big plus. It is standard on every C-Class.
Alas, there are a few minor annoyances: the switch configuration that allowed errant purses or briefcases to pop open the trunk if dropped on the console has been changed, but now designers need to pay attention to the mirror adjust knob located in the same area. It has no "off" position, and protrudes enough from the panel that it is easy to displace the mirrors while shuffling the paraphernalia that travels with us.
A final note: the C-Class’s option packages have been reconfigured to offer more value to buyers. All models now come with the Automatic Slip Control (ASR) traction control. The C43 comes equipped with Mercedes' Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and for the C280, it is included in a package that also comes with headlight washers/wipers and heated front seats.
The Mercedes three-pointed star carries a mystique that makes piloting even its entry-level car prestigious. In a growing market of near-luxury cars, the C-Class remains a target that the others all are trying to hit.