Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008



By Justin Berkowitz

With all this media talk of a gas electric plug-in hybrid clean diesel hydrogen fuel cell future, someone forgot to tell Mercedes that the horsepower war is over. Sure, the new BMW M3 has a 414hp V8, trumped by the Audi RS4’s 420hp eight pot. But who gives a shit? The new automotive arms race: building and selling enough small, high-mileage, low-profit vehicles that various government agencies will let you sell large, low-mileage, high-profit vehicles. Meanwhile, the Mercedes C63 AMG.

Four-hundred fifty-one horses. That’s the headline number produced by the 6.2-liter V8 crammed into the 3993 lbs. C-Class' snout. It sure doesn’t look lunatic. Yes, there are some tacky pieces of body kit, including a gaudy bumper that speaks of Honda Civics down at the 7-11. But the C63 is a butch little bastard whose hunkered stance and müde autoreifen convey more solidity than Brando at the end of Streetcar.

Aside from my test car’s porno-quality cream-colored leather seats and door panels, the C63’s cabin adds nothing to the sense of occasion– which may or may not be the point. A mere three grand buys you hyper-bolstered sport seats, completely unsuitable for anyone who’s ever eaten a deep fried mozzarella stick.

Drive the C63 around town and you'd never know a murderer lives just beyond the firewall. Burbling around the Best Buy parking lot (where DO the ultra rich hang out these days?), the mini-Merc seems like a normal, albeit brisk, shrunken S. In town, the C63’s sublime suspension tackles all; this ain't no hard-edged tooth-chip express.

Toggle the AMG’s transmission from C (for Comfort) to M for (Manubetterbereadyforthis), grind the gas pedal into the carpet and the C63 parachutes into Afghanistan with the Tenth Mountain Division, all guns blazing. As you’d expect from a combat-ready sedan, time suddenly slows down. The C63’s massive meats shriek and hop around as they desperately try to do something, anything with 443 ft.-lbs. of torque (torque is more modest 369 lb ft from 2000-6250 rpm). You can hear the V8 nuking gasoline; the mega-motor is screaming like a pissed off bear with a megaphone. HOLY SHIT!

Time resumes its normal pace. It has been exactly one second since mashing the gas. The tach needle rockets around. The LCD in the center of the speedo flashes "UP! 2" Pull the damn shift paddle! Second gear is gone before it arrives. The engine is doing a passable imitation of a jet exhaust. At 4.3 seconds, we’re passing sixty. I need to upshift again. Third gear at 5000 pm and the deep, throaty roar indicates V3. I’m mainlining sex, and power, and drugs into my arms. And I like it.

After 9.2 seconds, we're in triple digits. The C63 crests 100 miles per hour on its way to Mach 2. And get this: it was totally an accident. I just was just trying to ingest a little more of that engine bellow, the closest approximation to crack/cocaine money can buy, and probably a lot more dangerous. But it's not my fault.

There's so much power lingering about, it's a wonder the C63 AMG doesn't simply implode when you nail the throttle. The only problem: trying to power out of corners in third or fourth gear. With the torque closer to its peak, the wheels can't deal with all the activity. Yes, we're going sideways– in spite of an optional $4k limited slip differential lock. Lift a little off the gas and everything is jake again. You can absolutely massacre corners at arbitrarily chosen speeds.

The suspension is miraculous. If every car was like this, we'd never bother to fix potholes. I swear you cannot feel them, in spite of the low profile tires and 18" wheels. And the huge brakes scrub off enormous speed in less time than it takes to yell “radar!” And thank God for that.

The C63 AMG is not cheap. The $54,565 sticker competes squarely with the legendary BMW M3, not to mention a regular E350. Oh, did I mention my tester punched out at $70k? And the C63 won't get any love from the Prius people, what with single-digit mileage. But this, my chain saw-wielding, carbon positive friends, is a bargain.

The biggest problem with the C63 AMG: many of the C63's virtues are available in, gulp, a regular C-Class. I'm not saying buy a C300 instead. I'm saying you the C63 AMG needs a lot of lebensraum. Otherwise, you’ll spend your life in that special place called “time exposed to danger,” blasting past the guy in a Lexus RX350 who's blocking "the windy road" to work (at 60 mph). But if you can afford the C63 and all the depreciation that AMG implies, and you have the context in which to drive it, the C63 proves that all's fair in love and war.


2008 Mercedes-Benz GL 320 CDI

By Jay Shoemaker

I flew into Los Angeles with aspirations of driving something powerful; I had visions of some mighty motor displacing six liters or more. Anything with the letters AMG on the back would have suited me just fine. Instead I was staring at a gigantic Mercedes GL 320 CDI. That's CDI as in "diesel." I reckoned it was going to be a long drive to San Diego. I reckoned wrong.

Walking around the Mercedes GL class, I struggled to find inspiration. The SUV's descending belt line and downwards sloping swage lines create a forward facing arrow-like shape– which does an excellent job of hiding the GL's massive bulk. It's a Midwest corn silo SUV; the closer you get, the more amazed you are at its size. But the overall effect is squared off and blunt, even workmanlike. The GL's snout– complete with bootylicious big Benz badge– rescues the beast from invisibility on both the brand and design level.

I climbed up the side of the beast, planted myself behind the wheel and began looking for the CB radio, finding only the usual Mercedes COMAND stack. The view from the driver's throne is certainly commanding– as long as your viewing angle doesn't dip lower than 30 degrees below the horizon. Beneath that, all things are invisible– small children, motorcycles, Toyotas.

The GL320's materials quality isn't up to Range Rover's "tough luxury," but the assembly is outstanding. The ‘Bama-built Benz looks and feels built to last (as in longevity, not relative traffic position). Less enjoyably, the not-so-cheap tester's range of adjustments and toys were quite limited, and the sound system's quality and functionality had me searching for my IPod. On the positive side, the GL's interior space utilization and practicality– multiple seat flips, cupholders, cubbies, etc.– is ideal for a large family with a gaggle of messy tikes.

Including the conjunction, the big Benz' driving experience can be summed up in three words: imperious and impervious. Straight line driving is dreamy and plush, with no vibrations to speak of. Other than that… the GL 320's limited visibility rules-out quick and aggressive lane changes; every move requires careful planning. Fortunately, I was only required to turn twice in 100 miles, so I didn't have much opportunity to experience the pleasures of helming the leaning tower of Benz.

The GL 320 CDI's steering was a tad vague at the straight ahead and the brakes oddly squishy, but the dynamics were wholly appropriate with the rest of the driving experience. I wasn't bothered about testing the stoppers' performance in a panic stop; I felt I could pretty much run over or through anything that crossed my path without noticing (save in a legal and moral sense). Cruising along serenely, captain of a dreadnought class vehicle, I instantly understood why these giant SUV populate the American interstates.

And if perchance I ventured to Big Bear, I felt confident the GL 320 could handle anything nature threw my way. Like most Mercedes owners/drivers, I've seen the commercials. What more do you want? One button off-road handling and traction gizmo recalibration? Done. Seventy-five hundred pounds of towing capacity? Riva owners of the world rejoice!

The GL 320 CDI's diesel engine's performance is extremely well suited to the vehicle's mellow mission. Although the GL CDI's 3.0-liter turbocharged V6 powerplant produces "only" 215hp, the oil-burning SUV drives like a tsunami. It accumulates speed relentlessly, surfing on a never-ending wave of torque (398 lb-ft @ 1,600 - 2,800 rpm). The truck had enough power to indulge every passing whim with calm assurance, while tree stumps quivered in fear.

Given the GL's 5313 pound curb weight and the aforementioned braking pillow-cum-pedal, I had to temper my accelerative enthusiasm, lest I evoke runaway train metaphors. Pricing for this leviathan starts in the mid $50k's, but quickly makes its way into the $70k's.

And speaking of money– or at least political correctness– anyone who purchases a giant SUV must, at some point, face the mileage issue. The BlueTec diesel powering the GL 320 CDI offers a great salve to the well-heeled, environmentally-conscience SUV driver. I managed 23 mpg at a steady state 80mph. In EPA terms, the GL320 CDI represents a 30 percent improvement over its gas-equivalent.

At last, the best of the German-engineered modern diesel engines are making their way to the US of A, erasing all memories of the Detroit's abortive efforts in the 1970s. These next gen diesels offer significant fuel saving, cleanliness and outstanding drivability. And now that we're finally getting great diesels, the price of the fuel has rendered mileage gains moot, and obviated rational contemplation of the diesel engine's price premium.

But don't let this hinder your consideration of a diesel-powered truck or car. If you appreciate torquey smooth performance, the GL320 CDI's diesel is the next best thing to a powerful, thirsty, expensive, CO2-belching V12.


2009 Mercedes-Benz AMG SL63

By Jay Shoemaker

I made my first pilgrimage to AMG in 2001. Arriving unannounced, I was relegated to longing stares through a chain link fence at rows of serious looking automobiles. I eventually bought an SL55 AMG. I loved its ability to terrify unsuspecting passengers. But it always struck me as an engine in search of a chassis. And better steering. And brakes. In fact, it was a steroid injected boulevardier. And now, the SL63 AMG.

After six years, Mercedes has contemporized the SL's look. The effect is jarring and far less graceful than its forbearer. The SL63's "designers" have tacked-on tasteless plastic bits onto tasteless plastic bits– from the V-shaped plastic front spoiler lip to the garish AMG badge on the side, to the unspeakably awful rear diffuser. The new look AMG brings to mind the English expression "mutton dressed as lamb."

Or a wolf in bling wolf's clothing. Fire-up the the 6.2-liter AMG engine– good for 525 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque– and both tach and speedo needles peg their respective gauges and draw your attention to the words 6.3-liter AMG engraved on the dash. The car literally shakes with an enthusiastic, deeply sonorous exhaust rumble, exhorting its driver to find someone to race and I mean now.

New for this model: "Race Start." So I found an empty parking lot, warned my wife to put a cap on her juice bottle and start pushing all the new buttons, waiting for a breakthrough. When none occurred, I place a call to my favorite AMG advisor in Germany. He instructed me to push the button marked AMG, turn off the traction control, twiddle the transmission dial (more on this later), stand on the brake, pull the right paddle towards me and await confirmation.

Affalterbach, ve haff a problem. My wife actually nodded off while I was trying to figure this all out. So I just floored it and let the electronics do the rest. There may be owners of the SL55 thinking that their supercharged powerplant has greater thrust off the line, but the gearing of the SL63 offsets any theoretical advantage. And no one buying the SL63 will be embarrassed at the stop lights; it baritones from rest to 60 in 4.2 seconds.

Mercedes finally ditched the electronic brakes from its SL line; I was expecting easier modulation. Alas, such is not the case; the stoppers still feel grabby and remote. The new squared-off steering wheel looked like another affectation but turned out to be surprisingly comfortable to hold, aside from the rhomboidal plastic thing at the bottom. Other revisions to the interior are modest. There is still far too much plastic for a car in this price range.

The decidedly uncomfortable Airscarf system incorporated into the headrests looks unattractive in a robotic sort of way. The SL's COMAND system has been updated and seems to possess capabilities on par with the more modern S-Class. Without the controller knob, who knows? My Garmin Nuvi is easier to use than the SL63 AMG's electronics. On the positive side, the larger gear-revealing numerals on the center gauges were extremely… helpful.

The SL63's new transmission is AMG's answer to the dual clutch automated manuals found in Volskies and Ferraris' F1-style paddle shift. The SL63's SPEEDSHIFT MCT 7 knob (next to the transmission) rotates between two automatic and two manual modes. The box compromises smooth operation in the automatic mode, particularly at slower speeds, where it unceremoniously clunks between gears. Strangely enough, the smoothest shifts occur in the fastest manual mode; boulevardier, no longer.

A button to toggle between sport and comfort suspension settings lies just beneath this "multi-clutch technology" knob. Next door: another button labeled AMG, which pre-selects sport settings for the transmission and suspension. The comfort settings yield a highly compliant ride and the sport position is highly livable.

In either mode, the initial cornering attitude is Kansas flat. The active body control settings have been revised for greater confidence and you're riding on 19's, but you're still talking 4300 lbs. worth of German two-seater. Toss this heffalump into a tight corner and, as usual, understeer rears its ugly head. A built in race timer? A Boxster driver would just laugh.

The SL55 had a cobbled together feel. The SL63 feels more thoroughly considered and engineered. The uber-SL is more Affalterbach than Stuttgart now, more competitive with BMW and Porsche as a driver's machine.

Still $150k buys you a lot of sports car elsewhere (not to mention AMG's mythic depreciation). And the SL63 isn't even the top of the SL tree; $187k SL65 AMG anyone? One wonders if the SL63's a bit… pedestrian at the price. No wonder AMG is hard at work on a Black Series SL with even more power and less weight.


Comparison Test: 2007 BMW 335i vs. 2008 Mercedes-Benz C350

By Justin Berkowitz

The previous gen C-Class was not Mercedes’ finest hour. Chief amongst its non-virtues: base engines that offered little in the way of functional power, refinement, fuel efficiency or brand faithful character (e.g. the 1.8-liter blown four). The fourth gen C300 (W204) put paid to that– and how. In fact, the new C may have finally have broken the bigger-is-always-better mold that the German carmaker has deployed to lure Benz buyers up the ownership ladder. Ah, but does that mean that the new, more highly-horsed C350 is so superior to the C300 as to steal stars– and sales– from its cheaper stablemate?

The C300 Sport and C350 Sport are sheetmetal doppelgangers. From their AMG-designed grill– whose oversized three-pointed star seems specifically designed for fans of Mr. T– to their tightly tailored tushes, there’s nothing save rim design between them. For C300 Sport buyers, that’s no bad thing. In all its iterations, the new C is a profoundly attractive car; it’s perfect in proportion and elegant in effect. For owners of the more expensive car, well, price confers no honors.

Inside, same deal. Although we understand why Mercedes reserves its engine-size-related interior mods to their AMG variants (money), how much would it cost to give a C350 driver some indication that he’s got a hotter shoe than a C300 Sport driver? Anyway, the basics are [still] brilliant. The cabin is well assembled. The solid feel of the door and dash switchgear imparts the old-school Mercedes Benz attitude. It’s stoic, it’s stolid, it’s German, and it’s going to look the same when it’s thirty years old.

In my test car, it was all about the black, with predictably monotonous results. The brushed aluminum trim adorning the gear lever provides the only aesthetic relief from the Goth gestalt. One detail from the C350’s interior merits special attention: the tilt and telescope steering wheel. While many people will consider its manual operation a bit cheap at this price point, it’s a hopeful sign that the C-Class may be built (however inadvertently) for longevity.

Obviously, the engine underhood is the principal difference between the C300 and C350. Whereas the C300 has a 3.0-liter V6 making 228 horsepower, the C350’s [unchanged for ‘08] 3.5-liter six pot brings 268 horses and 258 ft.-lbs to the party. Accelerating from rest to sixty mph takes only a shade over six seconds; that’s a full second faster than the not-entirely-slow C300 Sport. As you’d hope.

Even better, C350 offers aural pleasures you’d never, ever expect in anything other than an AMG-fettled Merc. Once the V6 winds to the sweet spot, around 3000 rpm, the damn thing begins to growl. And it’s not the usual Mercedes “wall of sound” aggression, where you’d swear you were piloting an industrial strength vacuum cleaner. It’s a genuine gathering of sonic fury. And yet the C350’s engine’s smoother than the Pickup Artist and at least as refined as Nissan’s lauded VQ engines.

The new C350’s suspension remains more or less unchanged. In this case, less is more. Riding on firmer bushings, new subframes, revised geometry and a slightly lowered chassis, the C350 is a capable corner carver. Body lean is perfectly controlled, and the chassis responds instantly (if excessively) to inputs from the new, more tactile power-assisted tiller.

While a determined C350 driver could give a BMW 328i pilot a genuine run for the money down a twisting road, the C ain’t no 3. Like the interior, the C350 goes about the business of changing direction in a dour, cheerless sort of way. It’s as safe as houses [used to be], with easy-to-find limits and completely predictable responses at all times. But it’s just not what I’d call fun.

Compared to its real competition– the C300– the C350 asks you to give up a great deal for those 40 extra ponies and suspension tweaks. For starters, there’s the small matter (to some) of $5300. You also have to surrender the possibility of all-wheel drive and “Luxury” trim. Worst of all, the six-speed manual transmission is only available on the lower-priced C300 and its Sport derivative. Even if you forgive this omission, the C350’s seven-speed autobox is dim-witted when you need it most: downshifting for power. For a sports-minded vehicle, that’s an unforgivable sin.

In sum, it’s hard to understand why a “real” enthusiast would choose the Mercedes C350 Sport over a more genuinely sporting alternative (or the monster C63 AMG version). It’s also hard to fathom the C350 Sport's advantages over a C300. The “entry level” C-Class is a back-to-basics car that does what you want a Mercedes to do– better than the C350 does what you wish it could do. In that sense, the C350 reverses the curse, and puts sensible Mercedes owners in a happier place than those who continue to believe that bigger is always better.


Fifth Gear : Mercedes CLK 63 AMG Black Series

By Jay Shoemaker

My co-pilot sat motionless, stupefied from the previous night's revelry. Strangely, this poor fellow thought I could be trusted not to challenge Alka-Seltzer's restorative powers. I allowed him the luxury of this delusion all the way from the hotel to the highway. And then I floored it. The CLK Black Series' engine bellowed WAKE UP FOOL! The uber-bad Benz' back end quivered from side to side. The traction control light sent a steady stream of Morse code through first, second and third gear. The ten second wake-up call placed us well north of 100 mph. The jobbing journo groaned his disapproval. God I love this work!

Of course, any pistonhead who's ever inhaled the smell of burning brakes in the morning and identified it as "victory" knows that AMG on a Benz' butt guarantees straight-line firepower. To that end, the CLK Black Series boasts a near-as-dammit 6.3-liter V8, modded to produce 500 horsepower and 465 ft.-lbs. of torque. But this time, the boys from Affalterbach have wrought something a little different: "a track car adapted for use over the road." Stimmt?

Stimmt. The carbon-covered cabin's cornering bias is immediately identifiable by its miniaturized seats, steering wheel and transmission stalk. Despite its diminutive diameter, the leather-clad, square-bottomed helm is a superb addition to the AMG canon (cannon?). The CLK BS' racing-derived chairs are less successful. Even this 140-pound test pilot found the hard shell seat incredibly confining; the side bolsters are ended right around my armpit, resulting in non-stop elbows akimbo. My 200-pound compadre moaned about his back throughout our journey.

Those of you who say shaddup– adding lightness is the best way to get a sedan to sprint from rest to sixty in 4.1 seconds– don't speak AMG. Yes, AMG's Black arts artists fitted lightweight forged alloy wheels, removed the back seat and carbon-fibered the brake cooling ducts, rear spoiler and rear apron. But the CLK BS is 228 lbs. heavier than a CLK500.

All that extra heft is deployed in pursuit of handling. We're spreching three transverse chassis reinforcements and a new multi-plate limited slip differential. There's also a trick adjustable suspension that allows changes to the CLK's ride height, camber, toe-in and shock dampers' compression and rebound. Provided you're a mechanic in a tuning shop, AMG says "you" can transform the CLK AMG 63 Black Series from a road-compliant commuter to a track-ready monster in an hour or less.

The out-of-the-box, on-the-road solution is insane. Anyone who wants, needs or thinks he could use more lateral grip on a public road should have their license revoked on general principle. The steering is a shout-out to Porsche: "we could match your helm feel on all our cars; we simply choose not to." And the brakes– including 360mm ceramic front discs with six-piston calipers– could stop an evangelical preacher mid-syllable.

I saved my comments about the tranny for last because I liked it the least. No doubt the 7G-Tronic's stubby lever looks cool, but since it is made of aluminum, looks can be deceiving, especially on a hot day. Worse, it feels flimsy. The first time I waggled it sideways to shift the gears, it felt like I was giving the car a prostate exam. Fortunately, the paddles behind the steering wheel are beefy and loads of fun to press. The seven-speed even blips the throttle for downshifts, DSG-style.

Driving the CLK Black Series over serpentine mountain back roads near Half Moon Bay, I hereby solemnly swear that Mercedes can build a car that is not solemn and will make you swear. If nothing else, the CLK BS sounds like the unholy off-spring of a Mercedes - NASCAR union, complete with popping backfires during engine braking. But there's plenty else, and all of it makes this car weapons-grade ammunition for drivers determined to murder corners and terminate straights (with extreme prejudice).

In fact, the CLK Black Series is a slap in the face of BMW's new M3– albeit at a daunting price.

Yes, there is that. At $130k, the CLK Black Series asks for a 150 percent premium over the CLK 350, and demands $40k more of your hard-earned money than the CLK 63 Cabriolet, which packs a "detuned" version of the same engine. Mercedes has sold all 350 U.S.-bound CLK BS– ensuring that your "investment" will seem cheap compared to the resale market. But the onset of AMG's traditional cliff-face depreciation curve can not be forever delayed.

There are now 15 models in the AMG line. Die-hards (literally) will be glad to hear that more Black Series AMG cars are on their way. While the CLK 63 AMG Black Series is a very special car, it's worth waiting for these details to be applied to a more interesting chassis, like the SL-class, before making the jump to hyperspace.


By Samir Syed

I sat anxiously in a showroom Mercedes CLS while the salesman processed my paperwork for a test drive. Even in repose, the CLS is a magnificent machine. Soaking in that heady blend of luxury and gravitas, I wondered if my spin in the B200 (available in Canada and Europe) would capture any of that Mercedes quintessence. Sometimes, brand extension works (Bentley Continental GT) and sometimes, it doesn't (VW Phaeton). So does the B 200 fit in Herr Doktor Daimler's pantheon of pomp and circumstance?

The B 200's rakish styling is a farrago of Mercedes' styling cues. The diminutive people mover's front sports the familiar three-bar grill with a giant Merc badge (Yo! Yo!). The B's rear echoes the C-class and M-class, while the side profile offers up the same rakish swoops as a CLS– squashed between two Mack trucks. On a tall glass of water like the B 200, the coupe-style lines are distinctly Picasso-esque.

The B 200's interior has less Mercedes-ness than a Ford F-150. The Benz' seats are as firm as an old German frau, fabricated from a fabric that's coarser than her husband's three-day beard. The center armrest is made of an odd rubbery plastic carefully designed to remind Gen X of their childhood Ninja Turtle action figures. To make room for the e-brake, the armrest is truncated on its right side– exactly where my elbow sought relaxation. German engineering has apparently overlooked the fact that I'm not apt to use the e-brake whilst driving.

On the positive side, the B 200's controls operate with silky-smooth precision. And the radio delivers wikkid beats, with the added satisfaction of one button per function ergonomics. Beyond that, Mercitude is strictly (and expensively) a la carte. Heated seats, Bluetooth adapter, Bi-Xenon headlights with "active curve illumination," sunroof, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel; it's all gonna cost ya. Bottom line: even a fully-loaded B doesn't have enough luxury to earn the right to wear the Mercedes moniker.

Thanks to B 200's "sandwich concept," there's plenty of room for four real adults. Like Ye Olde VW van and Toyota Previa minivan, the B 200's engine sits under the floor, beneath the passenger cell, inclined downwards. The arrangement frees up space for passengers. More importantly, it provides more snout for crash deformation and helps in lateral collisions (occupants are seated above the impact zone). It also raises passengers up, in accord with the mini minivan gestalt.

Once underway, the B 200's family DNA finally asserts itself. Though the petite four-door isn't even on speaking terms with the word "fast," it goes about its business in the traditional stately Mercedes fashion. Bizarrely enough, most of the credit's due to the mini-Merc's Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT or "rubber band job"). Hooked-up to a 143hp in-line four (a 193hp turbo is… more money), the tag team motivate the 2900-lbs. car with genuine grace.

The CVT seamlessly serves-up the optimal gearing ratio as the situation demands. Accelerate slowly and the CVT keeps the mini mill at the ideal torque point. Floor it, and the CVT seamlessly gets taller while the engine revs get wilder. Depress the Sport button beside the shifter and seven virtual gears keep performance on the enthusiast's preferred side of the oomph / fuel economy trade-off.

Like Mercedes' A-Class models, B 200 is a front wheel-drive machine. And a damn fine one it is too. The electromechanical power steering is sharp and direct, on the same level as an Audi A3. The B 200's handling is a delight. Throw the lightweight into the twisties and it's equal to the task, easily dispatching turns, on-ramps and curves without a squeal. All hail the B's low slung engine and suspension, blessed with a new parabolic rear axle in back and McPherson struts and wishbones up front (both with twin-tube gas-pressure shock absorbers, coil springs, and torsion bars).

The ride quality is excellent. The B 200 exhibits zen-like calm as it glides over most of the road's imperfections, transmitting very little of the commotion to its blissful passengers.

So what we have here is a de-contented Germanic budget luxury car with snobby aspirations. I'm not sure if it works. Everyone knows the B 200 is a Merc, but it's not a "real" Merc– which is the only fathomable reason someone might pay $32k for the non-turbo stripper. Seriously, in the same price point you have similar Eurosnob value and better handling in a BMW MINI or a Golf GTI– neither of which would dare insult you with such low-tech seating and unacceptably rubbery, plasticky interiors.

That said, the B 200 is a capable, pleasant, fine-riding small automobile. It brings no dishonor to the Mercedes brand. But in a field crowded with credible competitors, it's simply too expensive for a relatively clunky-looking machine with a pedestrian interior.


By Justin Berkowitz

Mercedes currently offers American consumers a choice of thirteen different model lines. What a difference from the Mercedes Benz of 1987, when only four U.S.-legal models wore the three pointed star. Back then, the Mercedes brand was renowned for fastidious, brick-shit-house over-engineering. Today, Benzes are known for many things, but mechanical robustness and reliability ain’t two of them. If anything, Mercedes has earned itself a reputation for persistent electrical gremlins and multitudinous mechanical misfires. Fresh from its divorce from Chrysler, Mercedes would like us to believe that the new C-Class represents a return to form. When you wish upon a star…

Looking at the new C, especially when positioned next to the outgoing blob, you can almost hear the new sheriff’s spurs clank as he strolls into town. Whereas the last C was flabby and farcical, Mercedes’ refreshed entry level model possesses unmistakably muscularity. And purpose. From the swage line slicing across the C’s side panels towards its snout, to the minuscule front overhangs, to the slight bulge in the front wheel arches, this is a car that’s not shy about going forward.

The new C300 (not to be confused with the 300C) comes in Luxury and Sport derivations. In Sport trim, the C-Class sho’ ‘nuff comes complete with hood strakes, an aggressive front air dam and an elephantine three pointed star, sitting dead center. If it makes stealth-oriented pistonheads feel any better, the over-sized, retro-blingy logo is historically justifiable: sportier versions of Ye Olde 560 SEC wore a similar statement of in yer face heritage (not to mention Ye Olde Aftermarket 190Es). Luxury- trimmed versions get the proper chrome grill with the Old School erect hood ornament.

The C-Class’ cabin continues the exterior’s overall theme of restrained modernism. Instead of the former model’s litany of obsequious features and capricious buttonology, Mercedes engineers have finally [re]placed function over form. The switchgear is now exactly where it belongs, doing exactly what it should be doing. The decapitated Pokemon steering wheel is a particular delight; the thick-rimmed tiller provides unfettered visual access to clear, elegant gages.

Giant slabs of brushed aluminum– not Lexus-style silver plastic– grace the baby Merc’s doors and dash. The headlamp knob is made of wonderfully tactile material, a package that has no business in a car this cheap. Throw in build quality we haven’t seen in the C-Class, er, ever, and you have an interior whose beauty looks set to age as gracefully as a medium-priced bottle of Chateau Margaux.

The previous generation C-Class had all the on-road prowess of a toaster. I had such a rotten time driving it I had to stop and to see if the wheels had been replaced with those chocolate cupcakes with the squiggle icing on the top. The engineers responsible for the old model’s so-not-luxurious-it-literally-hurt suspension and endlessly endless turning circle have been permanently reassigned to the Chrysler section of Mercedes’ historical archives.

The C300’s drive train is shocking. I remember this engine from the C280. Paired with a five-speed auto, it was wretchedly pedestrian. Sampling this new application is like finding a Franklin in a jacket pocket. Hooked-up to Benz’s seven-speed cog-swapper, the mill churns out a modest (by today’s standards) 230 horses. But the V6’ in-gear acceleration is such that it made me doubt the necessity of the 270 horsepower C350. With a zero-to-60mph sprint time in the low seven second range, the C300 reeks of expectation exceeding.

There is a caveat. Acceding to the temper of the times, Mercedes has tuned C300’s seven-speed cog-swapper for maximum mpg. It wants to hand you a higher gear as eagerly as a Jehovah’s Witness wants to give you a copy of the Watchtower. The go-pedal sinks some distance towards the carpet before summoning more power. In the process, it occasionally kicks down a cog too far.

Both C-Class models suppress road nuisances like a dictator dealing with democracy. And yet, miracle of miracles, the C’s ride isn’t Cadillac mushy. In fact, the sedan’s ride is classic old-school Mercedes-Benz: firm yet compliant.

Although the C300 is an ante-penultimate driving machine, it acquits itself in the corners with honest, admirable aplomb. Although there’s a not inconsiderable amount of initial body roll, the C300’s responses are so predictable– and discernible– you can push it far further than you would if you had any common sense.

The new C-Class gives U.S. consumers a reason not to buy a 3-Series or G35. Not because it’s the sportier choice (get real). The C300's appeal lies in the fact that it’s an old school cruiser, gliding through life in a once-upon-a- time-in-a-Mercedes kinda way. The new Mercedes C300 is the best non-AMG Mercedes since the 1991to 1998 monster S-Class. With this new model, Mercedes is finally bringing the sexy back.


By Jay Shoemaker

Mass, what mass? As I hurled 4500 lbs. of rippled and flared German steel through a long, sweeping, belt-cinching corner, I felt like I was playing a driving simulation. Thanks to its improved active body controls, the Mercedes Benz CL63 AMG remained absurdly unaffected by the enormous lateral g-forces generated by its gyrations. Lacking suitable anti-gravity aids, my passenger and I were thrown towards the outer radius of the turn, welded to the CL63’s seat bolsters. Now that’s what I call fun.

The CL63 reminds me of the rockets I designed as a kid; the Merc's a massive, sleek shape punctuated by slits and evil looking slashes. Whereas the chop top CLS-Class seems more than a little forced, the CL63 makes perfect sense. Its athletic stance, gigantic wheel arches and aggressive surface effects combine to create a coupe that looks like it eats continents— and Porsches— for breakfast.

The CL63’s rear is especially effective. Framed by a Batmobile-esque rippled valence, its quad pipes give the car’s rear the kind of purposefulness denied BMW’s overwrought 6-Series. While both cars have so much “flame surfacing” they could put Burger King out of business, it’s the big Merc that let’s me have it my way.

The CL63’s interior is a bit too staid for my taste/money. That said, Affalterbach’s artisans add the requisite luxury touches, including rich, soft and dense leather and a sweet smelling Alcantara roof lining. The aforementioned seat bolsters provide an unwelcome awakening for first time users, before they learn to guide their bottom’s trajectory with appropriate care and precision.

Mercedes’ COMAND system remains the most intuitive of Germany’s multi-media controllers— which is a bit like saying Rocky III isn’t quite as terrible as Rocky V. Tweaking the seat massage functions and adjusting the air flow from the HVAC from diffuse to focused is no great challenge. Not so the eight window controls; choosing the correct button to raise or lower one of the four windows is an ergonomic lottery.

I’m no great fan of the massive pods enclosing the CL63’s speedometer and navigation systems. While I appreciate the aeronautic theme, there’s too much dash for those of us who prefer visual flight rules. AMG’s 200 mph speedometer is a suitably wicked touch (that violates the spirit of Germany’s “gentlemen’s agreements”), but I find it hard to read. And despite exalted specifications, the CL63’s stereo sounds disappointing flat and dull.

The AMG steering wheel is neither. Its organic shape immediately attracts your hands to the correct 10 and 2 positions. The perforated leather’s a bit hard to the touch, and I wish the wheel itself would adjust lower (my elbows couldn’t find a suitable perch). But the obligatory paddles, crafted from thick lumps of aluminum, tell you the tiller’s hooked-up to some serious stones. Yes indeed.

Igniting the CL63’s 6.2-liter, 518 horsepower, hand built AMG engine is an orgasmic experience. The four pipes spit out a guttural roar that vibrates your soul, resonating flesh and bone like the deep registers of gigantic church organ. Revving the CL63’s engine nearly breaks the sound barrier, sending children and small dogs scurrying in terror, and condemning BMW’s “bag of bolts” V10-powered M5 to eternal sonic shame.

AMG has installed this remarkable engine across virtually the entire Mercedes line. While it has transformed every chassis it has touched, it has transmogrified only two. The E63 is remarkable for its balance and, dare I say it, affordability. In the CL63, the mega-V8’s acceleration turns a boulevardier into a stealth fighter, capable of cruising serenely at speeds that other vehicles struggle to achieve.

More to the point, the CL63’s acceleration is exactly as you’d imagine: endlessly effortless and totally telepathic. Accompanied by a Wagnerian soundtrack, the naturally aspirated powerplant does a damn fine imitation of a big-bore V12– only without the hushed progress and nose-heavy nature. In fact, at speed, I’d swear the CL63 AMG was no bigger than a 911.

The CL63’s steering is firm but fair, communicating just enough surface information to make cornering worthwhile. The brakes are slightly stiff but unflappable, lending confidence to aggressive driving. The CL63’s ride quality is firm (there’s that word again) yet compliant. Road imperfections intrude very little on the luxury experience, despite standard 20” five-spoke AMG wheels.

In short, I’d trade my left arm for a Mercedes Benz CL63 AMG. Trouble is, the German automaker wants an arm AND a leg. The price of admission to AMG’s leather-lined roller coaster ride: 140 large. The monthly lease cost exceeds $3k. Even in California, a mortgage payment of this magnitude still affords a pretty nice house.

Still, it’s only money. If you ever wanted to fire-up a Merc that sounds like a muscle car, if you fancy leaping entire Western states in a single bound, there’s nothing to touch the CL63 for class, comfort, pace and grace.


By Jay Shoemaker

A few years ago, I found myself comfortably ensconced in the back seat of a German taxicab. I was luxuriating in what I thought was leather (it was MB Tex, the convincing faux hide) when the driver cranked-up the engine. Smoke and stench poured from the Mercedes’ diesel engine. I scoffed– until the driver blew straight through 180kph on the autobahn to Munich. Even from the passenger seat, the torque was more intoxicating than the exhaust wafting in through the window. I was hooked.

In 2005, dodging the arcane emissions rules of my home state of California, I became the fortunate owner of a used Mercedes E320 CDI (as they were then known). I loved the linearity of the sedan’s acceleration; it was as though the electronic throttle was hardwired to my brain. In 22k miles of ownership, I averaged 34 miles per gallon and enjoyed a nearly 700 mile range per tank. When I sold my Merc, it retained 85% of its value. I went from hooked to smitten.

Alas, my fellow Americans don’t share my enthusiasm for automotive oil burners. Perhaps they can’t shake the memories of being stuck behind a sloth-like diesel Caddy during the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, inhaling clouds of noxious particulates, listening to an endless mechanical clatter. To combat PDESD (Post Diesel Eldorado Stress Disorder), the clever folks at Mercedes have finally imported a quiet, clean-burning, California-compliant diesel engine that will increase American automotive fuel efficiency AND torque the torque.

Get this: it’s not a diesel. It’s a BlueTec! Yes, all the new Mercedes engine needs is a cute little blue logo to confuse consumers into thinking that their vehicle is motivated by some new hybrid-like technology– rather than a 100 year plus diesel design. Meanwhile, you can bet that Mercedes is in touch with Blue Man Productions for some incredibly clever ad campaign. The fact that Mercedes, VW and Audi will all use the same BlueTec branding simply seals the deal. Anyway…

Installed in the E320, Ye Olde BlueTec converts up to 80 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions into nitrogen and water. When juiced with ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, the BlueTec produces 97 percent lower emissions than the last generation CDI diesel engine. Needless to say, this isn’t clean enough for California’s tailpipe police. For these low CARB policy makers, Mercedes has developed an additional, urea-based exhaust treatment system, set for launch in March of 2007.

When you fire up the new Blue (sans glow plug), its bucket of bolts soundtrack certainly won’t be mistaken for a purring HEMI. Standing behind the E320 BlueTec as it revved, the sound didn’t touch the parts of my brain labeled AMG. But there was no noticeable diesel odor. One casual observer claimed she actually enjoyed eau de BlueTec; but then I’ve seen people snorting hi-test down at my local Shell station.

Once underway, the E320 BlueTec pleases everyman and enthusiast alike. The turbocharged BlueTec powerplant is a typical oil burner: short on horses (208hp @ 3800rpm) but big on twist (388ft.-lbs. of torque @ 1600rpm). That’s fifty percent more torque than the gas-powered E350 or, more interestingly, roughly the same torque as an E550– delivered nearly 1000rpm lower in the rev range. No surprise then that the E320B pulls to 60mph in a completely satisfying 6.6 seconds AND provides far more on-demand driving pleasure than its petrol-powered cousin.

The switch to Merc’s silken seven-speed transmission helps make the E320B an oxymoronic wunderkind: an economy-minded bahnstormer. I hit 120mph without any undue stress. At the same time, due to the low axle ratio, I cruised at 80mph with just 2100rpmon the clock. And the winner is… 34mpg in mixed use. A hybrid gets better mileage, but what pistonhead wouldn’t trade a handful of efficiency for massive thrust?

What’s more, Mercedes has improved the previous oil burning E’s brake feel and added a quicker steering ratio. Unfortunately, while you can add satellite radio, keyless-go and a digital surround-sound music system, you can’t order an E320 BlueTec with Airmatic suspension or proper wheels/tires/brakes. In fact, the E320B sits on the same steely suspension, 16” wheels and all-season rubber as its German taxi counterpart. The hard-riding E320 BlueTec doesn’t feel comfortable during enthusiastic maneuvers. Turn-in is sloppy, grip is iffy and mid-corner bumps are deeply unsettling.

It’s an unconscionable compromise. To gain widespread domestic acceptance, diesel cars need to capture the hearts of America’s automotive alphas. Pistonheads will not be well pleased with the $52k E320 BlueTec’s handling– unless Mercedes develops a proper sport package. If they do, this could be the breakout vehicle that opens the floodgates for The Next Big Thing. If not that, then maybe it’ll be the ML320 BlueTec, the GL320 BlueTec or (if Mercedes realizes that sharing is caring) the Jeep Grand Cherokee BlueTec. Or… a taxi.