Text: Jude Morte / Photos: Jude Morte | posted November 05, 2008 00:00
"C"econd tier "C"intillating
The first is the C63, an epitome of almighty - and naturally aspirated - grunt modified by (German and Mercedes Benz-in-house tuner) AMG. Sadly, a proposal to test drive the said car was flatly denied since (as of this writing) the unit was already spoken for.
Then there's the C350 Avantgarde. The highest C-Class variant in stock at CATS Motors (official Philippine distributor of Mercedes Benz vehicles) that isn't tuned by AMG, the car has a devil-in-disguise appeal, due to its civilized looks and the powerplant lurking underneath the hood. What does it have that its other "C"iblings doesn't?
Perhaps what's in the cavity in front of the cabin (and covered by a steel bonnet) can give us the answer. The 3.5L V6 is strong, with just a tap on the rightmost pedal giving enough thrust to snap your head back and pop your eyes. No need for forced induction, you get into the bottom end of the powerband quickly at roughly 2750-2900 rpm. The seven-speed slushbox is a good match to the engine, as the steps between gears aren't tall enough for the V6 to fall out of the powerband during upshifts. It's best to use the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters behind the wheel and set up the tranny for "(C)omfort" mode instead of "(S)port" via a button to the left of the a/t stick. The Comfort setup has a fuel economy oriented engine map, while the Sport mode allows for spirited driving. Toss in the aforementioned paddle shifters, and you can get into the powerband quicker and hang with Subaru Impreza WRX STis, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions and even the BMW 320d on standstill acceleration runs. Top speed is a disappointing 240 kph, but it's ECU governed. The 7.62 km/l on four days mixed driving is expected; who gives a damn about fuel consumption if you have the closest C-Class to a C63 AMG?
Take the C350 into the twisties and it remains stable due to the wide 7.5 x 17 (front) and 8.5 x 17 (rear) wheels, plus 225-series tires in front and 245-series rubber in the rear. The Continental SportContact 3s break grip (with the traction control off) at 110-120 kph, and is composed throughout turns. The steering is also a positive, as the light feel and sharp feedback (due to a rigidly mounted aluminum rack-and-pinion unit and an improved steering ratio) combine with the handling to create quick corner transition. However, on mountain passes the steering feedback can be a bit numbing, requiring a bevy of small but secure steering movements. The ride overall is compliant with firm control, as the shocks have multivalve internals that quickly firm up damping rates when a wheel moves beyond the first centimeter of suspension travel.
Going from triple digit speeds (which one is frequently wont to do with this car, given its performance) to naught quickly in short distances is another of the C350's strengths. The brakes and parking brake have STRONG grip. The parking sensors are sensitive at 1.5 feet onwards (making parking in cramped spaces tough), but they can be turned off. The side mirrors have incorporated turn signals, and are easy to see at night. Speaking of night, the Adaptive Lighting system makes driving in the absence of light easier due to the xenon headlamps and LED tailights. The traction control tends to cut in early when the tires have a semblance of digging, but it's a welcome intrusion for those with little performance driving skills. But for those who have put in a lot of time in road racing and/or getting performance driving tutelage, the P 4.48 million C350's traction control can be as intrusive as a relative interrupting a session of horizontal dancing.
The car's interior is more sporty than luxurious, expected of a premium sport compact sedan. The overall ride is comfortable, along with the seats. The interior layout is clean, but sports much attention to ergonomics. The dashboard gauge cluster has aluminum outer arcs and background for a sporty look (with large fonts for easy reading), and a large multifunctional menu screen within the speedometer. There's one touch up/down power assist for all windows, strong and cold airconditioning, power assist for both front seats (with the levers/buttons mounted on the front doors at shoulder level) and a start/stop keyless ignition feature. The COMAND (COckpit MAnagement and Navigational Device) system in this C-Class variant has audio and video (read: DVD-ready) in-car entertainment (ICE), with the Bluetooth-ready Harman Kardon Logic seven-speaker system toting a hidden screen above the middle aircon vents, a simple layout for the steering wheel ICE controls, and clarity that can rival the Bose ICE on the MyGIG-installed Chrysler 300C 3.5L V6. On the other hand it can be hard to operate (frequency tracking mode in particular) using the COMAND system knob but can be done away with familiarization. Whether it's easier to use than BMW's iDrive is entirely up to the fellows in the front seats, but this writer feels that the controls of Audi's Multi Media Interface System (MMIS) is much easier to understand and move at first usage than COMAND or BMW's iDrive.
Despite a claimed wheelbase, length and width increase the cabin feels cramped. Put two six footers in the front and there's comfortable room for just one in the rear. Storage for small items can be a love-hate matter, as the cupholders can only hold a C2 250 ml bottle, yet the glovebox can swallow two Bibles and two 250 ml C2 bottles. Fortunately storage for bigger items is a plus, as the rear backrest can fold flat to swallow two golf bags.
Outside is not much different from the other W204 C-Class models, but this time sports better looking AMG rims, AMG body cladding (including a mesh grille-lined lower front bumper), and a silver, three-horizontal slat grille that highlights the large Mercedes Benz silver star in the middle. Gone too is the trademark Mercedes Benz ornament on the hood, and it's a good thing, because putting the said decoration on a vehicle branded more for sport than for luxury would be contradicting all the car represented.
Although the C350 is a level below its C63 AMG relative, it is no less "C"intillating.