On average, the angriest e-mails I get are from former Mercedes-Benz owners on the occasion of my saying something nice about the company's products. I imagine an irate reader pounding away at his keyboard in the wee hours of the morning, with a shiny Lexus in the driveway and a Stuttgart-made knife still quivering in his back.
Allow me to gloss: "I can't believe you raved about the [insert gaudy hunk of German schteel here]. I bought a Mercedes a few years ago and it was a total piece of [insert colorful metaphor here]. I took it back to the dealer [exponential figure times] and finally got sick of them looking at me like I was speaking a foreign language [English?]. So, when did you go on the company payroll, you toadying, Hun-loving shill?"
Dear Mom: Thank you for your recent e-mail. . . .
What energizes these missives is a sense of betrayal, and in a perverse way -- and wholly unwelcome, I'm sure -- the galled, bug-eyed fury of disappointed buyers is a tribute to the expectations attached to the Mercedes-Benz brand. It is also, I believe, a measure of the hollowness of luxury and mass-class branding in general. When the plaid patterns on a Burberry's handbag don't line up; when Coach boots come marching out of Chinese factories; when Breitling, Baume & Mercier, Bulgari and Breguet all sell the same watch losing the same time with Swiss precision, consumers can only hope that Mercedes-Benz -- which can fairly claim to have invented the automobile -- would be a redoubt of quality.
In the last decade, it's been kind of a slum. Last year, Mercedes and Consumer Reports went all pistols-at-dawn when the magazine listed many MB models as least reliable in their respective categories. And the company has fared no better with J.D. Power's pivotal dependability ratings. All of this, I'm sure, has occasioned a calm and orderly procession of engineers and executives off the rooftops at Untertürkheim.
This background is necessary to decode the new and ubiquitous ads for the 2008 C-class. These ads portray the heroic lengths the company has gone to to develop the vehicle: the seven years' worth of road-pounding chassis development, the brakes fit for Autobahn duty, the doors that support the weight of a 200-pound man. Why? "Because we promised you a Mercedes-Benz, that's why," says the earnest spokesman. Just in case you thought you had ordered a BLT.
Of course it's a Mercedes-Benz. But what precisely does that mean? At its best, the brand stands for over-realized, over-engineered, survive-the-apocalypse quality that, to the extent that it conveys luxury, signifies that rich people are also smart. That's the "promise" to which is referred. That is the compact between company and buyer, recently abrogated but now, the company insists, back in force.
So, is the new C-class -- in the deathless prose of the ad -- a Mercedes-Benz? Well, it feels like one. The moment you touch the door handle, you register the lubricated heft, the mantle-of-the-Earth solidity of Mercedes' biggest and best products. Fall into the stiff, low-bolster seats and the familiar comes at you in waves: The optional COMAND nav/audio/vehicle controller interface is the same as in the S-class, only the central rotary knob is a smaller, knurled aluminum wheel. Much of the switchgear is identical to that of the higher-end vehicles. I was fairly unexcited about the C-class interior until I saw it in person; the grade of materials is richer and more appealing than it looks in photos. This is an organized, serious interior with lots of evident deliberation behind it. Sightlines are excellent, and it's especially nice to be able to see the hood stretching out with small audacity like the S-class.
In the U.S., the 2008 C-class comes in three flavors: C300 Sport and C300 Luxury -- both with the 3.0-liter, 228-hp V6 -- and the C350 Sport, powered by holdover 3.5-liter, 268-hp V6 mated to the seven-speed automatic. A six-speed manual is standard in the 300 models, and 4Matic all-wheel-drive is an option in all three cars. I tested the rear-drive C300 Sport with the seven-shifter and -- inspired by the commercials -- abused it about as hard as I could. More about that in a moment.
You can call it lines of force, graviton waves or celestial harmonics, but there is something deeply Benz-like about the C-class' interior ambience. It's not simply the deeply muffled interior and wind noise levels, but the timbre of those sounds. The thing sounds like it should have European air woofling through the air ducts.
It also looks like a Benz. Styling an entry-premium car is one of the trickiest exercises in the business, because the big expressive gestures of a luxury car don't easily translate to a smaller car. The C-class shares the S-class' stiff-necked formality -- the level hood, the upright grille, the classic roof-line arch. All in all, very like an S-class, Sire. But it doesn't look like it's wearing its dad's suit, the Cadillac CTS. The Sport model gets the big, three-bar grille with the three-pointed star in the center. The Luxury model gets a more traditional grille with the three-pointer as a hood ornament.
The new C is capitalized in various dimensions. Compared with the outgoing model, the car is 3.9 inches longer overall (182.3 inches). The wheelbase has gained 1.8 inches (108.7), and front/rear track are up over an inch. The biggest gainer is the trunk, which now measures a competitive 12.4 cubic feet.
The C300 isn't drunk with power, but with 221 pound-feet of torque from 2,700 to 5,000 rpm, and a quick-witted adaptive transmission with seven gears in the transom, the car always seems to be on the right foot. Zero-to-60-mph accel is about seven seconds, and the car's high-speed cruising has a light, effortless Zen to it. I took the car out for a flog up through the hill country to Kern County and came away thinking the larger engine option (and diminished fuel economy) couldn't pay for itself in adrenaline. For those who simply must drive the nail all the way through the 2 by 4, MB will soon offer the C63 -- the same car, plus about 300 more horsepower.
You'll note, I haven't mentioned BMW, the perennial bogie in this segment, pursued by Audi, Lexus and Infiniti like witches during the Inquisition. The C300 has terrific road manners: lots of raw lateral road holding from the 17-inch Continental tires, firm and composed ride with excellent transitions from corner to corner, a comfortable understeer that, with a lift of the throttle, translates to an easily catchable oversteer. This car has no bad dynamic habits. It might not be as much kinky fun with the road-to-neuron connection of a BMW 3-series, but I would be surprised if the Benz can't hang with the Bimmer around a short road course.
Overall, I've got no complaints. In fact, I think this is an excellent automobile and a credit to its breed. The C-class feels precisely like what you would hope, as if Mercedes had invented a shrinking ray and turned it on an S-class.
But then, I don't own one. The question has never been, can Mercedes blow up the skirts of an auto reviewer like me. Obviously, they make savagely cool and desirable cars. But can those cars be trusted? That is the C-class' mission. To paraphrase Poe's raven, Mercedes, take thy knife from out my back.
2008 Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport Base price: $31,910 Price, as tested: $41,085 Powertrain: 3.0-liter DOHC 24-valve V6 with variable-valve timing; seven-speed automatic transmission; rear-wheel drive Horsepower: 228 at 6,000 rpm Torque: 221 pound-feet at 2,700-5,000 rpm Curb weight: 3,527 pounds 0-60 mph: 7 seconds Wheelbase: 108.7 inches Overall length: 182.3 inches EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city, 25 mpg highway Final thoughts: A better class of C