Lifestyle

A Mercedes That Grips the Road


The all-wheel-drive version of the C350 compact luxury four-door offers good value and solid performance in all weather conditions

On dry pavement, the new Mercedes C350 is a quick, nimble compact luxury four-door that performs similarly to BMW's 3-series sedans. In short, it's a lot of fun to drive in the spring, summer, and fall. But for snowbelt denizens like me, the big question this time of year is: How does the all-wheel-drive version of the C350 -- the 4Matic -- do on ice and snow?

To find out, I put a C350 4Matic through some winter driving tests that few owners who had actually paid for the car would risk (sorry, Mercedes). I floored it on ice going up steep hills, then turned around and slammed on the brakes going back down. I veered into snowy parking lots and tried to make the car slide out of control, whipped around icy back-road curves too fast to see if I would wind up in the ditch, and backed down a steep driveway on glare ice to see if the car would get stuck. It didn't.

I had worried that, at very least, the C350's powerful engine -- the 268-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 added this year to give the car BMW-style speediness -- would cause the wheels to slip a lot. However, the C350 4Matic was rock-solid on snow and ice, even during my most reckless maneuvers.

VALUE FOR MONEY.

In fact, if you keep the automatic transmission in the "comfort" mode, in which the car starts off in second gear, it's hard to get into trouble on snow and ice with this car, partly because it comes standard with traction and stability control and excellent, quick-stopping antilock brakes. Unless you really push the envelope, you feel almost as confident as you would driving on dry pavement. My test car was equipped with Continental all-weather tires -- it's amazing the car does so well even without snow tires, which are recommended.

The other good news is that this little sedan offers better value for your money than most Mercedes. The all-wheel-drive version of the C350 starts at $40,725, compared to $38,925 for the rear-drive version. Sure, some shoppers may balk at laying out such a big chunk of change for such a small vehicle. The C350 is 178.4 inches long, same as the BMW 330xi all-wheel drive, but the Mercedes is only 68 inches wide, 3.5 inches narrower than the BMW. Put another way, the C350 has the same width and is 2 inches shorter than a Chevy Cobalt compact, which makes it pretty darn small.

However, unless you regularly travel with several hefty companions or want the prestige of a bigger luxury car, the C350 has the practicality, features, and roominess most owners need 95% of the time. It's a good first car for singles, retirees, or couples who are just starting families, and an excellent second car for just about anyone.

REAR SQUEEZE.

Like other Mercedes, the C350 comes crammed with standard safety features, including dual-stage front airbags, front side airbags, and side curtain airbags, an important safety innovation that protects you head and neck in collisions in small cars. (I would definitely suggest paying an extra $385 to add optional side airbags in the rear seats, too, especially if you have kids.)

The front seats have sufficient head-, shoulder- and leg-room for most people. As in most small cars, the rear seats are a bit tight. I'm 5 ft., 10 in. tall and with the front seat in a comfortable position for me I barely had knee space in the rear seat -- and only because Mercedes' designers cleverly put indentations in the backs of the front seat that add about an inch of knee room.

Otherwise, the C350's interior is plain but comfortable. Leather and wood trim is standard, though full-leather upholstery costs an extra $1,500. Ten-way power adjustable seats are also standard and, as with other Mercedes, the controls are on the doors, which is very handy. The power tilting and telescoping steering wheel makes the driver's compartment seem roomier than it is by making the steering wheel easy to move forward if you temporarily need more space for a rear passenger.

SHIFT CONTROL.

Mercedes designates the C350 and C280 as "luxury" models, which means they don't have the hard suspension and tight handling of true driver's cars, but the C350 is plenty quick. The all-wheel-drive version can jump from 0 to 60 in 6.7 seconds (vs., about 6 seconds without all-wheel drive), and the engine gives a throaty growl when it's pushed.

With all-wheel drive, the car comes with a four-speed automatic transmission. You can't get it with a stick shift or Mercedes' more sophisticated and efficient seven-speed automatic, both of which are available on the "sports" version of the C350 (the seven-speed automatic costs an extra $1,410). Call me a Luddite, but I prefer the four-speed version. It has a manual mode if you want to do the shifting yourself, and I would rather pay more for all-wheel drive than for the fancier transmission.

The C350 4Matic is rated to get 19 miles per gallon in the city, the same as the Audi A4 Quattro and the BMW 330xi all-wheel drive. It's rated to get only 24 mpg on the highway -- worse than the Audi's 26 mpg and the BMW's 28 mpg -- but I got up to 28 mpg on the freeway. The downside is that, like the BMW and Audi, the C350 takes expensive premium gasoline. That gives a big edge to the Infiniti G35, which has a similar performance and mileage rating but uses regular gas.

PLAIN JANE.

Of course, if you want to spend less money on a Mercedes sedan, you can. The C280, which is the same as the C350 except that it has a smaller, 228-horsepower V-6, starts at $35,525 ($1,800 less without all-wheel drive). There are also various "sports" versions of the Mercedes C-class that don't include the all-wheel-drive option, the cheapest of which is the C230, which starts at $29,975 but has only a 201-hp V-6.

Personally, I find a lot to like in the C350, though it has a few downsides. It's a bit pricey, even if it's cheap by Mercedes standards. For instance, the Infiniti G35 starts at $33,750 with all-wheel drive -- and comes with a 3.5 liter, 280-horsepower V-6 with as much oomph as the engine in the Mercedes. Also, the C350's bland styling is probably going to look dated in a year or two. That's because it looks a lot like a scaled-down version of Mercedes big S-Class luxury sedans, which have just gotten a sleek new redesign.

Among smaller Mercedes, the CLS 500 (see BW Online, 12/21/05, "A Mercedes with Sizzle and Pop") and the SLK 280 and 350 roadsters (see BW Online, 11/23/05, "A Mercedes That Speeds the Heart") look a lot sexier than the C350.

Still, I'm anxious to see if all-wheel-drive Audis and BMWs do as well as the Mercedes on snow and ice. I just hope the bad weather holds up so I can test Mercedes' rivals under truly nasty conditions. As the song says: Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!


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