Mercedes will inevitably bend to tougher economics, making smaller and more pragmatic cars. But the legend of the three- pointed star will continue as long as the company remembers one thing - never to compromise on the standards that make everything click, spin, whirr and softly thud as if all the bits were engaged in some silent and ghostly formation dance.
The C class, which is becoming the company's entry-level model, isn't quite as refined as some of the Mercs that you can buy for the price of a small flat; the engine is surprisingly noticeable if you're in a hurry. But it's still way ahead of the game for subtlety - from the way the remote key makes the locks whisper into place, to the featherbed clop of a closing door. It's meant to replace the 190, the 'small Mercedes' that has held the mid-range fort so confidently for years.
In common with most contemporary designs, the C class is now lower at the nose and higher in the boot, to gain aerodynamic contour and rear space. Its beautifully fitted interior (leather seats an optional extra) flatters the ego and, for a change, suits taller rear-seat passengers. A big priority in the C class's 10-year development was to make it more spacious, and it's certainly pipped its rival BMW on that score. The car is also somewhat reserved in its application of power, designed to be driven at a stately swish in towns and needing a determined kick of the right foot to get it to shake off its unhurried poise.
It is, however, one of the most exquisitely balanced cars on the road, the result of technology borrowed from the limo- league S series. Though the ride is soft (other C models are tougher), it hardly rolls and it absorbs anything from potholes to motorway ridges with barely a murmur. The four-cylinder engine lets the side down a little, and the shape will still be too conservative for many. But I haven't given anybody a lift in this car who hasn't coveted it. I feel pretty much that way myself.
GOING PLACES: New four-cylinder 2.2-litre engine is the car's only weak point - all but inaudible on idle, but a little harsh on hard acceleration. The figures are OK, if not sensational, at 9.5 secs for 0-60mph and 30-70mph overtaking. Usual sleek Mercedes automatic gearbox with that slick gate-located shift system.
STAYING ALIVE: Very flat and stable handling, even under pressure. Ride a brilliant compromise between pothole-deadening and cornering flatness. Front wishbone set-up derived from all-
conquering S class, a threat even to BMW. High crash resistance and passive safety standards. Driver's airbag fitted, passenger's optional. Good visibility, anti-lock brakes and four-wheel discs also.
CREATURE COMFORTS: Supportive and comfortable seating, if a little firm. Luxurious carpeting, polished wood trim around facia; very quiet operation. Driver's seat adjustable, though no steering-rake adjustment. Rear legroom improved over 190, boot space OK, interior storage space limited. Blaupunkt stereo with removable keycard for security.
BANGS PER BUCK: Not many, this is a Merc. But you do get electric windows, mirrors and sunroof, central locking and anti-lock brakes. Resale value holds up better than almost anybody's. Not bad fuel economy, at 25mpg in urban use, 35mpg at sustained motorway speeds. Price: pounds 23,800.
STAR QUALITY: Mercedes build quality, refinement, safety and silent operation making driving a pleasure again.
TURKEY QUOTIENT: Price for what you get on the standard model, and an uncharacteristically intrusive engine note.
AND ON MY RIGHT: BMW 320i ( pounds 19,750): prettier, more of a driver's car, better engine, more for the money but not so classy. Audi 80 2.6 ( pounds 20,739): terrific V6 engine, roomy, dull chassis. Rover 623 ( pounds 22,000): as classy as a Merc inside, and almost as well-built. Less character, too much money.
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