The C-Class hatchback coupes and wagons have been eliminated, and only the sedans remain. No problem here, in our view, because the sedans have always represented the C-Class best. Moreover, the 2006 C-Class is powered by an all-new line of V6 engines, with more horsepower and more advanced technology than before. The luxury models feature a high-tech seven-speed automatic transmission, and the C350 Luxury sedan has the classic Mercedes balance of ride quality and handling. The line also includes sport models for those who want a sportier driving experience, and that's what Mercedes has been emphasizing in its advertising.
Inside, the C-Class cars look and feel like a Mercedes-Benz, with firm, supportive seats and mostly high-quality materials. The C-Class delivers Mercedes engineering and safety technology, with optional all-wheel-drive that will improve traction in wet or wintry conditions.
In short, the C-Class brings the three-pointed Mercedes star to the rest of us, with sedans starting below $30,000, or about the same price as a loaded Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.
New engines for 2006 complement the substantial C-Class updates made just a year ago. Mercedes redesigned the C-Class interior for 2005, freshened the exterior styling and further distinguished the sport models from the standard luxury sedans. A new six-speed manual transmission greatly improved shift action. New paint technology imbeds microscopic ceramic flakes in the clear coat finish, increasing its resistance to chipping and degradation over time.
At the top of the C-Class line, Mercedes introduced the new C55 AMG, an extreme sports sedan that can knock your socks off when you floor the accelerator then pull them back up when you hit the brakes. (Or is it the other way around?)
Mercedes C-Class sales have increased four fold over the past decade, and it doesn't take a degree in marketing to understand why. For those seeking Mercedes-Benz engineering, design strengths and mystique in a mainstream sedan, it doesn't get any easier than the C-Class.
Most of the C-Class is divided into Sport and Luxury models. The Sport models have firmer suspensions, lower ride height and more powerful brakes than the Luxury models. The Sport sedans also have a thick, three-spoke steering wheel, more thickly bolstered front seats and aluminum trim, and are trimmed with aggressive lower body cladding previously reserved for expensive AMG models.
The least-expensive C-Class car is the C230 Sport sedan ($29,200). The C230 is powered by a 2.5-liter version of the new V6, generating 201 horsepower (considerably more than the least powerful C-Class in 2005). It comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission and 17-inch wheels with high-performance tires.
Standard equipment on the C230 Sport sedan includes dual-zone automatic climate control with interior air filtration, leather-faced seats with 10-way power adjustment for driver and front passenger, cruise control, tilt and telescopic steering wheel with redundant audio controls, one-touch power windows and automatic headlamps.
The C280 Luxury sedan ($32,950) comes with the same comfort and convenience items included in the C230. The primary difference is the C280's engine: a 3.0-liter version of the new V6 rated at 228 horsepower. The C280 also comes standard with the industry's first seven-speed automatic transmission, 16-inch wheels and all-season tires, and wood interior trim rather than aluminum.
The C350 Sport sedan ($37,550) and C350 Luxury sedan ($38,150) are both powered by a 3.5-liter V6 generating 268 horsepower. The Sport gets the six-speed manual and larger performance tires; the Luxury version gets the seven-speed automatic and all-season tires. Both add position memory for the seats and mirrors.
Sport models can be equipped with the seven-speed automatic transmission as an option ($1,410). All-wheel drive, which Mercedes calls 4MATIC ($1,800), is available on the C280 and C350 Luxury sedans; 4MATIC comes packaged with heated front seats.
Options for C-Class models include the Sunroof Package ($1,790), which includes a power sunroof, auto-dimming mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, and a universal garage-door. The DVD Navigation system ($2,200) includes a stereo upgrade. Individually priced options include a CD changer ($420), heated front seats ($680), and Tele Aid emergency communications hardware ($820).
The limited-production C55 AMG sedan ($54,450) tops the C-Class line. Powered by a hand-built 5.5-liter V8 rated at 362 horsepower. The C55's Speed Shift five-speed automatic, brakes and suspension are improved to match its prodigious horsepower.
Safety technology is a key component of the Mercedes brand, and every C-Class is equipped with world-class safety features. Among them: Active front head restraints. In the event of a rear collision exceeding the system's deployment threshold, the front head restraints move forward nearly two inches and upward by more than an inch, helping to support the head and reduce whiplash injuries. The C-Class has side-impact airbags for front passengers as well as curtain-style head-protection airbags for front and rear passengers. Rear passenger side-impact airbags ($385) are optional.
Distinguishing between Sport and Luxury versions of the 2006 C-Class is easy. The Sport sedans have a more aggressive looking front air dam and sculpted lower cladding previously used only on Mercedes' exotic AMG models. The Sport sedans are further distinguished by a unique grille with three horizontal bars, darker, blue-tinted glass and larger 17-inch wheels.
The styling for all C-Class models was freshened for 2005. The changes were subtle and we're not sure how many people actually noticed. Revised styling cues included wider set quad-ovoid headlights, more pronounced fender flares and revised taillights.
The C-Class sedans are the same length as the BMW 3 Series cars, but several inches narrower, making it easier to fit them into tight garage spaces.
The C55 AMG is another beast altogether. Its body work from the windshield pillars forward was borrowed from Mercedes' larger CLK coupe in order to widen the front track and make room for a big V8 engine. From the rear, the C55 is dominated by a two pairs of chromed, oversize exhaust tips. Also noticeable from the rear is its extra-wide 18-inch alloy wheels and tires.
Any of the seats are very good: neither so hard that they numb the backside nor so soft that they leave occupants tired or aching. The seats in the standard luxury models are more traditional, perhaps richer in appearance, than those in the sport models. By comparison, the seats in the sport models look stark, but provide significantly more side bolstering for spirited driving. Adjustable lumbar support is now standard, meaning more comfort for the lower back. The C55 AMG has its own special sport seats and premium leather upholstery.
The C-Class got a thorough interior re-do for the 2005 model year so the 2006 models benefit from that. The dashboard, instruments and seats were redesigned, and materials were revised throughout. The instrument cluster now features four gauges, with a chromed-ringed tachometer and speedometer of identical size sitting front and center. To the left and right of these are smaller fuel and temperature gauges. In the middle sits an LCD display with various system and trip functions. Fashioned in the mold of the larger Mercedes E-Class, the instrument cluster is deeply hooded and virtually eliminates glare on the dials. The backlit script is clear and easy to read.
We like the center stack, which looks more modern than before. Audio controls are now located in what we consider the optimal spot: above the climate control switches, which sit at the bottom of the stack. Both audio and climate knobs are large and easy to locate. The lack of some of the complicated systems found on more expensive Mercedes models is, frankly, a welcome relief.
The switchgear is, for the most part, easy to use and understand. The stalk controls have a beefy feel with positive detents. Redundant buttons on the steering wheel let the driver operate the audio and telephone functions without removing a hand from the wheel. The stalk-mounted cruise control continues to be an annoyance, however. It's also easy to engage the cruise control by mistake when trying to use the turn signals, a complaint we have with every modern Mercedes that comes to mind.
Lighting inside is effective, with good illumination for entry in the dark and excellent map lights for reading. The C-Class glovebox is a good size, unless you order the CD changer, in which case you lose most of its storage space. You'll still have the center console and door pockets, but we'd like more places to stash stuff. At least they've added a pop-up cupholder in the center console.
In general, the C-Class sedans are trimmed with good-quality interior materials, but there are some exceptions. Some of the hard plastics don't match Mercedes' best. The sport sedans use aluminum trim throughout the cabin, while the luxury sedans use wood.
The rear seat offers generous space and comfort. It's installed theater style, and sits slightly higher than those in front, giving back-seat passengers a better view forward without significantly compromising head room. Indeed, the spacious rear seats are one of the strengths of the C-Class. The optional power sunshade for the rear glass reinforces the feeling you're in a Benz.
The trunk is a good size for a car this size, offering 12.2 cubic feet of cargo space. An optional split-folding rear seat expands cargo capacity.
The least powerful of the new C-Class engines, the 2.5-liter V6 in the C230 Sport sedan, rated at 201 horsepower, offers more power than the supercharged four-cylinder engine it replaces. As important, it is far smoother at all speeds and generally less course in feel, sound or the amount of vibration it generates.
The 228-hp 3.0-liter V6 in the C280 Luxury sedan is much more powerful and satisfying than the anemic 2.6-liter V6 in the 2005 C240 (previously the best selling C-Class).
Even the biggest V6, which was our favorite engine on the 2005 models, is much better for 2006. The 3.5-liter V6 in the C350 generates 268 horsepower, 20 percent more than the 3.2 in the 2005 C320, which improves acceleration performance considerably. Matched with either the six-speed manual or the high-tech seven-speed automatic, the new engine makes the C350 more responsive than the 2005 C320. The 3.5-liter V6 has fully variable valve timing to deliver an impressive amount of torque from idle all the way to the redline. The C350 responds more immediately than the C320, no matter how fast it's already traveling when the driver presses the accelerator. The new engine is also noticeably smoother, particularly at high rpm. And thanks the seven-speed automatic, the improved performance comes without a corresponding decrease in fuel mileage.
All of the C-Class cars offer nice steering, effective brakes and a good balance between ride and handling. Before choosing between a Luxury or Sport model, C-Class buyers should carefully consider whether a smooth ride or sharper handling is preferred because the trade-off between comfort and response changes with the model. The Sport models are more firmly sprung than the standard Luxury models.
The Luxury models most closely replicate traditional Mercedes ride quality. Their ride is almost cushy, but it's well damped, so there's no floaty, sea-craft feeling over dips in the road. The Luxury models won't wilt if you push them a bit, but they're never stiff. We think the Luxury models best suit the tastes of most buyers and were surprised when a spokesperson for Mercedes told us the Sport models are expected to comprise the larger share of the C-Class volume.
The Sport models are livelier and turn into corners more responsively. The nicely weighted power steering, sports seats and beefy steering wheel all contribute to a feeling of better control. Indeed, if you enjoy spirited driving, the C230 Sport sedan may be the most enjoyable C-Class yet (short of the AMG). It's a bit less nose heavy and bit more spry than the C350 Sport, and its revised six-speed manual transmission contributes considerably to the fun.
All C-Class models are quiet inside, even when blasting along at 80 mph. These sedans are aerodynamically slippery cars, and very little wind noise penetrates the cabin.
As mentioned, the C-Class offers a choice of transmissions. The seven-speed automatic that comes on the C280 and C350 Luxury sedans is superior to five-speed automatics that come on most cars (to say nothing of an old-fashioned four-speed automatic). With more gears, it offers better acceleration performance and responsiveness around town as well as enhanced fuel efficiency. Gear changes are barely noticeable in normal driving, especially in the higher gears. This transmission allows significantly quicker acceleration for highway passing situations, and it doesn't have to go through every gear. Step on the gas and the transmission will skip down to the appropriate gear, switching from seventh to fifth, for example, and from there directly to third, meaning two downshifts instead of four.
As for the manual transmission, Mercedes has lowered the ratio for first gear for quicker acceleration off the line, but kept an overdrive sixth gear for quiet, low-rev highway cruising and better fuel economy. More important, the old cable-operated shift mechanism has been replaced by a solid, direct rod. The result is easier, quicker and more precise shifting, and the improved action contributes greatly to a more rewarding, engaging driving experience. Shift effort is low, and the gears are easier to hit. For manual fans, we can heartily recommend the C230 Sport sedan. If you prefer an automatic but want a Sport model, we encourage you to step up to the C350 Sport sedan with the optional automatic.
The optional 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system delivers power to all four wheels. It's fully automatic and on all the time, so there are no buttons to push and no special knowledge is needed; just drive the car. The system uses electronic traction control to vary torque among each of the four wheels, diverting power to the tires with the best grip. Even if three wheels lose traction, 4MATIC can direct power to the one remaining tire with grip. The result is better stability and improved handling in slippery conditions, with a greatly reduced chance of getting stuck. 4MATIC does dampen engine response and slow acceleration slightly, and lowers fuel mileage a bit. But for those who drive through harsh winters, all-wheel drive is worth it. All-wheel-drive sedans such as the C-Class are proof that you don't need an SUV to confidently handle rough weather. In fact, a car tends to handle better in icy conditions than a truck. We consider all-wheel drive a valuable asset in the rainy Northwest or for the harsh winters of the Midwest and Northeast, and 4MATIC is priced much lower on the C-Class models than it is on other Mercedes models.
Braking is excellent. Every C-Class model has good-sized brake rotors, and the Sport sedans feature cross-drilled rotors in front for better resistance to fade. (Braking effectiveness fades away as brakes get hot from repeated hard use.) All C-Class cars come with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist. EBD can reduce stopping distances and improve stability when braking by distributing brake pressure between the front and rear wheels, giving more to the tires that are gripping best. Brake Assist senses a panic braking situation and helps ensure full braking force even if the driver makes the mistake of relaxing pressure on the brake pedal. The net effect is short, no-fuss stopping. In everyday use, the C-Class brakes are progressive in pedal feel. In more serious situations, the brakes stop the car right now.
The C55 AMG might be the most impressive C-Class yet. It's a sports sedan in the extreme sense, capable of amazing acceleration, and handling and braking on par with exotic sports cars. It's capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in an exotic-grade 4.9 seconds, according to Mercedes. The old C32 was super quick, too, but the C55 is less crude and more refined. Its big V8 engine is smoother, more tractable and less intrusive when a driver is cruising the freeway or just trundling along, and its deep, V8 exhaust note better suits the sportiest C-Class of all.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough reported from Los Angeles, with Jeff Vettraino reporting from Detroit.
Model as tested
Mercedes-Benz C350 Sport sedan ($37,550)
4 years/50,000 miles
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
CD changer ($420); Sunroof Package ($1790) includes auto-dimming mirrors, rain sensing wipers, glass sunroof, power rear-window shade, garage door opener; rear passenger side-impact airbags ($385)
Model Line Overview
Mercedes-Benz C230 Sport sedan ($29,200); C280 Luxury sedan ($32,950); C350 Sport sedan ($37,550); C350 Luxury sedan ($38,150); C55 AMG ($54,450)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual-stage front airbags, front passenger side-impact airbags, full cabin curtain-style head-protection airbags; active headrests; ABS, Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist; Electronic Stability Program
Safety equipment (optional)
3.5-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Specifications as Tested
automatic climate control, cruise control, power windows, power mirrors, power tilt/telescope wheel, 10-speaker Bose stereo with AM/FM/cassette and weatherband, 10-way power leather seats with three-position memory
Engine & Transmission
3.5-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
268 @ 6000
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
P225/45ZR17 front; P245/40ZR17 rear
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear
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