“Do not become distracted from traffic by use of COMAND !”
Going simply by these words you see whenever you turn on the ignition, the C320 would be a rather stern, businesslike disciplinarian. But that’s far from the truth: the C320 wagon is more stylish and fun to drive than any other wagon in the automaker’s past.
Although this is the first time a C-Class wagon has been sold in this country, the last generation C wagon was quite popular in Europe. Just like the sedan sold here, it was solid, comfortable, loaded with safety features, and with the right powertrain choice was a very satisfying drive.
The power of aluminum
The C320 is powered by an all-aluminum, 215-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 engine—the same V-6 that’s offered in larger M-B models. While it’s not any more than adequate in the big M-Class SUV, it feels strong and willing to haul the C320 quickly up to triple-digit speeds, whether or not you’re hauling a full load of people or cargo.
Though some drivers will surely miss a manual shift, Mercedes-Benz automatics have an uncanny way of intuiting what gear to be in based on your right foot and previous driving habits. The transmission offers a mode called Touch Shift where you can manually select the gears if the gearbox isn’t quite reading your right foot, but most people will be quite satisfied. It’s a shame that no manual gearbox is available, though. A stick is available on the C240 (2.6-liter V-6) sedan, but the wagon is only available with the 3.2-liter.
The transmission in our test car did, however, shift quite harshly from first to second when first starting out on cold mornings. After a few stop-and-gos, the shifts would be buttery smooth once again under gentle acceleration.
2002 Mercedes-Benz C Class
The $3010 Sport package adds a set of sharp-looking six-spoke wheels and wider tires (though still 16-inchers), firmer shocks and springs, fatter stabilizer bars, and a more aggressive lower-body styling treatment. We recommend this package for nearly everyone because it improves the driving experience. Turn-in is sharper at low speeds, and body control is improved at higher speeds, all without any big sacrifice in ride quality.
Steering is through a precise rack-and-pinion unit, though it does take some getting used to the typical dead-on-center Mercedes-Benz steering feel. In parking lots and city streets it nearly succeeds in replicating that sluggish feeling you get from eating a plate of schnitzel and potato pancakes, but up to speed and in more aggressive driving, you’ll find that it gives a pleasing level of feedback and is much more communicative than the steering gear in the last-generation C.
Strong, silent type
Despite these newfound fun-to-drive characteristics, the hallmark C-Class solidity and big-car poise are all still here. Though the materials aren’t class leading (VW/Audi just do it better), interior fitments are top notch and only reinforce the C320s vault-like construction. In our week with the C, we couldn’t find a creak or rattle in the car, and that’s saying a lot when wagons usually tend to have some piece of plastic that doesn’t quite fit right in the cargo area.
While the C-Class’s super-solid construction definitely gives you a feeling of safety, a quick glance at the safety equipment list will erase any doubt that it’s only an illusion. Side curtain airbags are standard, as well as a progressive ‘smart’ airbag system that can deploy the airbags at two different levels, depending on how severe the impact. Mercedes-Benz’s ESP stability system and the Brake Assist emergency braking aid are also standard.
2002 Mercedes-Benz C Class
In comparing the wagon versus sedan body style of the same model, station wagons are often slightly less refined than identically equipped sedans in the same model family. The reason? The drum-shaped body will tend to turn into, well, a drum, with more resonance, tire thump, and road noise overall transmitted inside. But we were delighted to find this is not true for the C320. The interior is hushed and quiet, even on the extremely coarse road surfaces in northwest Oregon.
The overall comfort level inside is high, thanks to supported, highly adjustable seats with long cushions, good back support, and head support in the right place. These seats aren’t as clinically soothing and supportive as those in Volvos, but they are among the best in the business.
For a company who has kept their gauge layout untouched for years, the reorganized display area, a la S-Class, is a radical change and a sign of the times for M-B. The recessed speedometer, fuel gauge, and tachometer are traditional analog gauges and very easy to read with a quick glance; then lesser gauges are all integrated into the trip computer display and easily accessed through steering wheel buttons. Monitors keep track of fluids and brake wear, and you can even check the oil level on the dash when the engine is off.
The 10-speaker Bose AudioPilot sound system sounds great. The CD slot on the dash is not for audio CDs but rather for navigation data discs, while the actual CD changer is mounted inside the spacious glove box — but the nav DVD unit can also be used for single-play CDs, we found.
More can than Kraftwerk
The C320 wagon’s design might not seem particularly groundbreaking, but from the traditional Mercedes-Benz design aesthetic, the C wagon really pushes the design envelope—and shows off the new C-Class’s smooth lines well. Like the sedan, clean, smooth styling carries through the whole body. Body cladding need not apply—just a thin strip on the side. The swoopy roofline flows smoothly into the rear hatch in one neat brush stroke, and from the front the car looks equally neat. Looking at it from the back at some angles it can appear awkwardly bulbous, but from most angles, the sleek, low-slung profile looks elegant, sporty, maybe a little sexy.
2002 Mercedes-Benz C Class
Yes, sexy. And in just a few years, the focus of Stuttgart’s interiors has changed drastically, too. Interior materials have become a little less ascetic, and the emphasis is on driver-oriented controls, curves, and flowing edges. Still, passengers love to ponder why no-nonsense German engineers continue to insist on creating such bizarre, abominably delicate cupholder mechanisms. This is no exception. Once you slide it out, a touch of a silver button softly unfolds the mechanism. If not so great for Big Gulps, it’s certainly good for entertainment value.
The cargo area is pretty conventional for a wagon. There’s a security cover/shade that, if needed, pulls neatly over valuables, some cargo netting for small items on the side, and also a collapsible storage box that stashes neatly in a space under the flat loading floor. The rear seat is split 60/40, and it folds down quite easily, though the headrests get in the way. A roof rack is standard, too.
COMAND: trance-Europe express?
Now, back to that lecturing computer screen: COMAND, for Cockpit Management and Data System, was first introduced on the current-generation S-Class and now has made its way to the C-Class (as a $2080 option) with most of the same features. It uses a screen-driven interface to control audio, telephone, navigation, and information services functions. Some features of COMAND are figured out quite easily. But then there are others that require perusing the system manual’s 200-plus pages. From just a week with the system, it’s unfair to say whether or not COMAND is actually a better, safer way of accessing all of these features, but we will say that we tended to get distracted from the road just trying to do simple sound-system tasks, like changing between CDs that are already in the changer. Why? Because it requires you to look down at the screen, which is quite low in the line of sight, whereas with the standard sound system you might be able to accomplish such tasks without taking your eyes off the road. Wisely, M-B has chosen to keep the climate controls separate from COMAND.
2002 Mercedes-Benz C Class
M-B’s navigation system, included as part of COMAND, can be quite useful if you’re often on the go in foreign neighborhoods, though it’s not quite as easy to use as systems from Lexus, Infiniti, and Jaguar. The displaying of map data (even though you can get to it quick with a single button) is noticeably weak compared to some other systems, with no labeling of side streets for orientation.
A few years back there weren’t many wagons at any price, but now the market is suddenly flooded with excellent wagon choices—too bad Mercedes-Benz didn’t jump into the U.S. market with the last-generation car. Now in this size-and-price league alone there’s the Lexus IS 300 Sport Cross, the BMW 325iT, the Audi A4 Avant, and Volvo V40. In this crowd, the C320 still feels the most grown-up, but it’s much more sprightly than you might expect.
Frankly, we’re really surprised that this isn’t the most popular C-Class body style. In a way, the wagon body style manages to fit the C’s flowing front-end lines better than the sedan, which says a lot, because it’s difficult for designers to pen attractive wagons that stand out and are swoopy enough and spacious at the same time, but it feels like they found the right formula. At the time of its intro for this model year, M-B USA was only planning to sell about 7500 of these, which seems like an underestimate. M-B’s big move to have a line of more youthful products is paying off, and the C320 wagon fits that new image well.
2002 Mercedes-Benz C320 Wagon
Engine: 3.2-liter V-6, 215 hp
Transmission: five-speed automatic with Touch Shift
Wheelbase: 106.9 in
Length: 178.3 in
Width: 68.0 in
Height: 56.7 in
Curb weight: 3495 lb
Fuel economy: 19/25 city/highway
Safety equipment: Side door airbags, side curtain airbags, ESP stability control system,
TeleAid emergency call system, BabySmart child-seat system, anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist
Major standard features:Power/memory front seats, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, 10-speaker Bose digital sound system, Twilight Sensor headlights, split-fold rear seats, luggage cover, cargo net, and roof rack
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles