Around the Bend 

Mercedes-Benz broadens prestige and appeal with two revamped models

Mercedes-Benz broadens prestige and appeal with two revamped models

For most folks, Mercedes-Benz automobiles represent the hallmark of prestige. Enthusiasts aren't always so easily impressed, however. Where genuine performance and luxury are concerned, a lofty image can be as much a liability as an inducement.

And so it seems that, just in the nick of time, Mercedes has buffed the image of two important models in its lineup of cars—the SLK-Class roadster and the C-Class sedans/coupes. Both were getting long in the tooth; and rivals found it increasingly easy to poach their respective turfs. For 2005 M-B has retaken the initiative with makeover models meant to restore Mercedes' reputation for style and sport—this time at the affordable end of the pricing spectrum.

2005 Mercedes-Benz SLK350

Affordability is relative, of course; but at a base price of $45,500, the SLK roadster remains Mercedes' so-called entry-level sports car. This is the model, remember, that wowed the world in 1997 with an origami-folding roof that transformed a hardtop coupe into a topless roadster with a whiz and a whir.

Alas, the novelty eventually wore off to reveal a very tiny two-seater with only moderate performance credentials. What's more, among the testosterone set, the original 2.3-liter supercharged four-banger simply wasn't a match for the likes of Porsche's Boxster or BMW's Z3/Z4 roadsters. To the everlasting chagrin of M-B partisans, the first-generation SLK devolved into what became commonly—if a bit unfairly—known as a "girlie car."

No longer. The new SLK350 both looks and feels like a stunner. Borrowing in equal parts from the atmospherically priced SL-Class roadster and the insanely priced world of Formula 1 racing, SLK's styling is pointedly aggressive. A sinister slope of the hood scarcely masks a shark-like personality, whereas underhood resides Mercedes' first-ever application of a dual-overhead-cam valvetrain for its V6 engine. Variable valve timing, moreover, ices the cake.

The result is impressive output of 268 horsepower and 258 foot-pounds of torque—the latter peaking for a wide swath of the powerband from 2,400 rpm to 5,000 rpm. That's a lip-smacking gob of power for a 3,200-pound go-getter. Accordingly, SLK sprints zero-to-60 in well under six seconds.

It does so in unmatched style. First, there's the fully independent suspension with stability control that nurtures confidence with its precision and responsiveness. Then, there's a choice between the hot-dog six-speed manual transmission or an unmatched optional seven-speed automatic with dual overdrives. These credentials restore SLK's reputation for engineering sophistication. Compared to rivals from Porsche, BMW and Infiniti, SLK now carries itself like an overlord among whippersnappers.

The flip-fold hardtop remains, of course; only now it furls and unfurls faster. The interior remains small, but it's no longer cramped; and trunk space of almost 10 cubic feet is generous in the category.

The most clever interior feature by far is Mercedes' new AirScarf scheme for directing warm air to the necks of driver and passenger via ducts in the headrests. AirScarf even adapts automatically to changes of vehicle speed and outdoor temperature. When all those topless SLKs start sun-worshipping in January and February, you can bet it's because their drivers have traded Burberry plaids for SLK AirScarves.

2005 Mercedes-Benz C230 Kompressor

Wouldn't you know: Just when the roadster ditches its supercharged four-cylinder, Mercedes discovers an ideal way to reassign it. By installing its 1.8-liter "Kompressor" motor into the C-Class sedan, Mercedes has come up with an entry-level four-door for a base price under $30,000—for $29,250, to be exact.

Sales of the C-Class are on a roll lately, after years of languishing as a virtual stepchild in the Mercedes line-up. Performance aficionados may still prefer such rivals as BMW's 3-Series or Audi's A4, but because of two significant adjustments to the C-Class persona, Mercedes is back in the hunt with a viable "near-luxury" sedan.

In the first instance is the C230 Kompressor's aforementioned affordability. For an as-tested price of $36,550—which includes sunroof, bi-Xenon headlamps and DVD-based satellite navigation—the C230 Kompressor hits a pricing bull's-eye. Even Acura's fabled TL sedan is hard-pressed to beat it; and even though the TL boasts more power, the Mercedes retains traditionally sporty rear-wheel-drive.

Then, there's Mercedes' shrewd restyling of the C-Class that welcomes this Baby Benz back into the family fold. Status is largely psychological when it comes to auto styling. Now, the prestige that accrues to "real" Mercedes like the E-Class and S-Class sedans is evident within the contours and sculptings of the C-Class exterior as well.

Inside, Mercedes' trademark approach to upholstery and switchgear reinforces the impression of genuine luxury. There's adequate, if not abundant, seating for five. With the addition of optional split-folding rear seatbacks, there's versatility as well, since the rear seating area can now open up into the 12-cubic-foot trunk space for toting large items.

Nominally, the power of this C230's supercharged four-cylinder motor is a potential weak spot. It produces but 189 hp and 192 foot-pounds. Yet this five-seater sedan weighs virtually the same as the two-seater SLK350 — 3,240 pounds. As a result, zero-to-60 times are perfectly acceptable in the mid-seven-second range. Handling, moreover, is spirited; and with the combination of a six-speed manual transmission and rear-wheel-drive, the tools are certainly there for exhilarating barnstorming runs along the backroads. The optional five-speed automatic is arguably just as fun to drive, particularly in TouchShift mode.

Best of all, this small-displacement motor enjoys fuel mileage ratings of 23 miles-per-gallon/city, 32 miles-per-gallon/highway. These are not only commendable for a sedan with luxury pretensions, they further emphasize the fact that prestige and cost-consciousness need not mutually exclude one another.

Sales of the C-Class are on a roll lately, after years of languishing as a virtual stepchild in the Mercedes line-up. Performance aficionados may still prefer such rivals as BMW's 3-Series or Audi's A4, but because of two significant adjustments to the C-Class persona, Mercedes is back in the hunt with a viable "near-luxury" sedan.

In the first instance is the C230 Kompressor's aforementioned affordability. For an as-tested price of $36,550—which includes sunroof, bi-Xenon headlamps and DVD-based satellite navigation—the C230 Kompressor hits a pricing bull's-eye. Even Acura's fabled TL sedan is hard-pressed to beat it; and even though the TL boasts more power, the Mercedes retains traditionally sporty rear-wheel-drive.

Then, there's Mercedes' shrewd restyling of the C-Class that welcomes this Baby Benz back into the family fold. Status is largely psychological when it comes to auto styling. Now, the prestige that accrues to "real" Mercedes like the E-Class and S-Class sedans is evident within the contours and sculptings of the C-Class exterior as well.

Inside, Mercedes' trademark approach to upholstery and switchgear reinforces the impression of genuine luxury. There's adequate, if not abundant, seating for five. With the addition of optional split-folding rear seatbacks, there's versatility as well, since the rear seating area can now open up into the 12-cubic-foot trunk space for toting large items.

Nominally, the power of this C230's supercharged four-cylinder motor is a potential weak spot. It produces but 189 hp and 192 foot-pounds. Yet this five-seater sedan weighs virtually the same as the two-seater SLK350 — 3,240 pounds. As a result, zero-to-60 times are perfectly acceptable in the mid-seven-second range. Handling, moreover, is spirited; and with the combination of a six-speed manual transmission and rear-wheel-drive, the tools are certainly there for exhilarating barnstorming runs along the backroads. The optional five-speed automatic is arguably just as fun to drive, particularly in TouchShift mode.

Best of all, this small-displacement motor enjoys fuel mileage ratings of 23 miles-per-gallon/city, 32 miles-per-gallon/highway. These are not only commendable for a sedan with luxury pretensions, they further emphasize the fact that prestige and cost-consciousness need not mutually exclude one another.

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