Maybe this would have been a good weekend to test a Land Rover. I’m staring at a grille-high wall of snow, plowed overnight across the end of the icy Adirondack driveway. On the other side is a snowy country lane, and maybe oncoming traffic—I can only see straight ahead because of the mountainous snowdrifts piled on all sides. I’m pretty sure the locals are breaking out the snowmobiles today. I try the safe, slow approach and end up stuck atop an icy little barrier. Fortunately, this 2008 Mercedes C300 sport sedan, which I’m driving for my weekend in the country, crawls out easily in reverse. After confirming that I can ram out into the road without hitting anything, I get a running start, plow through the snowdrift, turn hard to the left and brake, skidding onto the road; I can feel the gentle percussion of the antilock brakes as we glide to a soft, abrupt stop.
This wasn’t exactly a rally car maneuver, and in this corner of upstate New York I’m more likely to hit an artisanal-cheese producing goat than another motorized vehicle. But this mildly tricky ski-country obstacle is to the Mercedes C-Class what a muddy logging road is to any serious SUV or pickup truck: About the most formidable stuff it’s likely to ever encounter. And I’m happy to report that the 2008 Mercedes C-Class, equipped with the 4matic all-wheel-drive system, was unshakeable.
On dry pavement, the C300, outfitted with the sport suspension and braking system, is a surprisingly nimble city car and a pleasant highway cruiser. Its 3.0-liter DOHC V-6, mated to a seven-speed automatic, is plenty powerful on the highway, if a little slow off the line. (I suspect the six-speed manual transmission, available on the sport sedan, solves the acceleration issue.)
In the plush, roomy cockpit, made far sunnier than my apartment by the optional panorama sunroof, the four-hour drive to upstate New York felt like a joyride. Visibility is excellent all around—a key virtue for dealing with the New York City traffic that hit us in the beginning of this trip. And the optional front seat heaters proved a lifesaver during the brutal late-February cold snap.
There are quirks. Windshield wiper controls are in the same place as the turn signal, so several times I accidentally triggered a single wipe of the windshield when signaling. While I like the sleek, dynamic AMG-inspired exterior styling, some people hate the Mercedes star embedded in the grille. But these are minor complaints.
For its class, the C300’s tech quotient is high. One particular highlight is the C300’s vivid seven-inch retractable color dashboard display. It’s one of the sharpest and most readable displays I’ve seen. With Mercedes’s COMAND system [above], audio, navigation, system settings, and the like are controlled using a console-mounted dial that shouldn’t be too tricky for anyone comfortable with using a computer mouse. The navigation system, which includes a 30-gig hard drive, is easy to understand and never once led us astray.
The sound system is less impressive. With the multimedia package ($2,950), you get a 6-disc CD/DVD changer and a harman/kardon LOGIC7 discrete multi-channel surround system. Great on paper but, sad to say, it simply doesn’t sound as rich or full as what you’ll find in, competitors such as, say, the Cadillac CTS. Another gripe: The iPod integration kit (not found on our test vehicle) is a $375 individual option not included in the already pricey multimedia package. Why iPod integration isn’t a standard feature on every Mercedes—actually, on every new car other than maybe the Tata Nano—boggles my mind.
The Car: 2008 Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport Sedan
Price: $34,840 base; $44,565 as tested
The Good: The sharp, vivid 7-inch retractable color display. Sufficiently powerful, if not whiplash-inducing, 228 hp V6. Comfortable, well-appointed interior. Excellent traction control even in a ton of snow.
The Bad: The sound system as tested is unimpressive. Seven-speed automatic transmission is geared for cruising, not darting into freeway traffic from a blind stop. Some people are put off by the giant Benz star in the grille. Why isn’t iPod connectivity a default feature by now?
Verdict: The new C300, which Mercedes says they spent seven years perfecting, is both luxurious and—important for a car you’re thinking of spending almost 50 grand on—fun to drive. And when faced with minor snow berms, at least, unstoppable.