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Time was when Mercedes-Benz cars ruled the world’s roads. Occasionally gorgeous, always dignified and imposing, these stolid sedans were the last word in rock-solid construction and a certain austere German luxury. But in the ’90s, the boys from Stuttgart stumbled. First, the bug-eyed 1996 E-Class made its debut with a litany of problems unheard of for a Benz. Then, the Alabama-built 1999 M-Class sport utility vehicle introduced a whole new gaudy page to the Mercedes lexicon. More recently, however, Mercedes has been on a roll. The 1998 SLK convertible was cute and clever, and its folding hardtop roof was technologically cutting-edge. And the S-Class, with its stunning looks and supremely capable dynamics, put Mercedes back on top of the executive luxury car heap. Looking for a threepeat, Mercedes is now rolling out its new C-Class. The C-Class is Mercedes’ smallest entry-level sedan, the third-generation “Baby Benz.” It enters a field brimming with competition such as archrival BMW’s 3 series and Lexus’ spunky new IS 300. Viewed from front angles, the car has a sophisticated look, with its sculpted headlights neatly buttressing the grille. Viewed from rear angles, however, it could easily be mistaken for a Honda Accord. As a whole, the car is modern and attractive, but it also verges on the banal. The interior is more successful. In contrast to the rival Lexus IS 300, the Mercedes interior sports high-quality leathers and plastics throughout. And the silvery, patterned aluminum trim used on the dashboard and doors serves as a nice techno-cool alternative to the cliched burled wood of many luxury cars. As for the car’s dynamics, Mercedes puts the C-Class’ emphasis on luxury, not on sportiness. Noise is minimal, and when you throw in the large, supportive seats and a supple ride, the result is a veritable luxury cruiser. It’s only when you ask the car to do more than cruise that its luster dims. The test car was the bottom-of-the-line C240 with a manual 6-speed transmission. While power is usually adequate, the engine has to be revved hard for strong acceleration. But at the upper limits of the rev range, the V-6 engine emits a noticeably coarser timbre than the straight sixes from BMW and Lexus. The larger C320 engine is probably worth the extra few thousand dollars. As for handling, the Mercedes is capable if uncommunicative. It takes fast curves with aplomb, but leaves the driver in the dark about where the car’s ultimate limits actually are. Still, for all but the hardest-charging situations, the C-Class’ handling is above reproach. As is the entire car. The new C-Class delivers exactly what it promises: sober, tasteful luxury, just like the Mercedes of yesteryear. M.S.R.P. — $29,950, basic model Mileage — 20 city/26 highway, automatic drive; 18 city/27 highway, manual drive

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