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Reader test: Mercedes C320 CDI

2009-02-11 14:46

Chris Rodgers

If a fortune teller had told me 10 years ago that I’d be driving a diesel-powered car in 2008, I’d definitely have thought, “I’m going farming.”

I remember driving a BMW 325 TDS in the late 90s and was impressed with the torque, but the short rev range and the clatter from the engine was very unappealing. More recently, I replaced our “holiday vehicle” - a previous generation ML500 - with a 128-kW VW Caravelle T5 TDi. What a fantastic long distance traveller with 400 Nm of torque; you seldom have to leave sixth gear.

Thus, when it came to buying a new sedan, the new Mercedes C-Class appealed to my eye and the fuel consumption of the 320 diesel versus the 350 petrol was also very attractive. I ordered the car with the AMG option pack, which is primarily cosmetic, save for the paddle shift and the improved handling from the lower profile rubber.

The pleasure

With 510 Nm of torque, the C320 CDi is right up there with the likes of the BMW M5, unfortunately that’s where the performance comparison ends as it has less than half of the kilowatts and equally less in the rev range. So, it’s not an M5, however it will take you to the national speed limit in around 7.5 seconds and overtaking is a breeze.

The gearbox is absolutely sublime, and with the short rev range it’s akin to riding a motocross bike with very close ratios. The paddle shift is of little use other than to change down to try and keep the turbo spinning when playing boy racer.

Driven sedately, the car is incredibly smooth and quiet and the controls give feedback that is usually the domain of BMW. No more of the old Mercedes languid, battleship feel, this car likes to be driven and sticks like the proverbial to an army blanket.

Fuel consumption is a binary selection; if you drive like Hakkinen, figure on 10.5 l/100 km, however, if you realise that you can actually save hundreds of rands per tank by moderating the right foot, you’ll get about 7.5 l/100 km. Not to mention the rear rubber you’ll save.

The pain

The most annoying aspect of the new C-Class is the limited provision for “stuff” that modern people carry with them. The centre console is virtually unusable with the idiotic way it opens with two flip up lids that also make up the armrest. The small drawer aft of the gear lever is just about big enough to hold one remote and half a pencil. Similarly, the door pockets are just about wide enough to slide an access card into. Mercedes really got this wrong in my opinion.

Almost as annoying is the seat-belt alarm. I live in an estate with the local shops only hundreds of meters away, so putting on a seatbelt (yes, I know it’s the law) seems idiotic. But the seatbelt alarm reaches a crescendo that makes me wish there was an ejection seat, so I resignedly belt up for the 800 metre, 30 km/h trip from one parking lot to another. The dealer has advised that this cannot be disconnected so it is another annoyance that one has to live with. I know someone whose father burnt to death in a car accident because he could not release the seatbelt. This person never wears a seatbelt. Although I have argued the merits on a statistical basis, I guess this is not the car for him.

Overall though, the C320 is a great car with excellent performance, safety features and fuel economy. Would I like a C63? Who wouldn’t, but then there is the fuel economy, cost of rubber, speeding tickets and, not to mention, the extra 300 grand.   


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