MOTORING / Road Test: C-class gets a B-plus: John Simister drives the new Mercedes C220 and finds the baby Benz to be a sizeable improvement on the 190 that it replaces

Millions of years from now, archaeologists will delve through the strata and come to a layer from about the end of the 20th century. If they find a three-pointed star motif in the rock, doubts about the date will evaporate: 'This must be 1993, Professor, the year Mercedes-Benz launched the C-class compact saloon]' An all-new Mercedes is a notable and rare event.

Out, then, goes the 10-year-old 190, which was thoroughly likeable except for one snag: tall parents had to trade it in for a bigger Benz once the children left primary school, as there was so little room in the back.

In its place comes the C-class (C for compact), aimed at holding buyers' interest into the next century. It is bigger, especially in the passenger compartment. An average-sized adult can sit behind another with room to spare. It is safer, too - an advertising copywriter would say 'even safer', since the 190 was hardly dangerous. But now there are seatbelt tensioners, side-impact bars and a driver's airbag.

And it is, of course, more modern. Not that there was much wrong with the 190, space apart. Its taut, trim lines never dated, and dynamically it remained right up there with the best. The only parts to show their years were the engines.

So, while fixing the space shortage was easy for Mercedes (lengthen the wheelbase and shrink the rear suspension), improvements elsewhere are subtle. But the styling does continue the old car's delicacy of line, keeping the smallest Mercedes saloon a much more handsome car than the dowdy E-class or the obese S-class. It is hardly trend-setting, but it won't date.

What is new is the wide range of C-class models. The 190's single trim level and hefty options list are replaced by a choice of five all-new engines and four trim levels.

The trim hierarchy goes like this: Classic (normal), Esprit (for youthful buyers who like lurid trim colours and slightly firmer suspension), Elegance (soft springing, lots of luxury) and Sport (taut handling, business-like trim treatment). Engines are a 1.8-litre four-cylinder, 2.0- and 2.2-litre versions of the same unit, a 2.8-litre six-cylinder (available next spring), and a five-

cylinder, 2.5-litre diesel. All of these engines, diesel included, have four valves per cylinder and plentiful power outputs.

If we take one from the middle of the range, the C220, we find a healthy 150bhp that exactly matches the power of BMW's rival (and cheaper) 320i. But what the Mercedes lacks are the six cylinders that make the BMW so smooth. The C220 is a refined car most of the time, especially at motorway speeds; but the engine becomes rowdier when worked hard.

It pulls well from low speeds, though, which is just as well because the optional automatic transmission, likely to be specified by most buyers, is reluctant to shift down a gear when you want to accelerate at a moment's notice. And this, I am pleased to say, is where gripes end and praise begins.

The C220 holds the road with exactly the sort of iron security you need for complete confidence. In Sport guise it steers crisply, too, and the firmish suspension keeps unwanted body movement firmly under control over humps and bumps. The only trade-off for this solid contact with the road is that the wheels can thump and jar a little over broken road surfaces.

Inside the cabin you will find a quality of design and assembly virtually on a par with that of bigger Benzes, give or take the occasional, and surprising, hard plastic moulding. And the dashboard architecture, with its logical switchgear and clear instruments, will make any existing Mercedes owner feel right at home. Buyers of the Sport, incidentally, are treated to inlays of pretend carbon fibre where the luxury versions give you wood.

If you are moving into a C-class from a 190, though, you will experience one serious shock. Instead of one electric door mirror, on the passenger's side, the C-class gives you two. A marketing-led Mercedes, indeed. This is a historic development, but perhaps not one for the archaeologists.

SPECIFICATIONS

Mercedes-Benz C220 Sport, pounds 24,640. Engine: 2,199cc, four cylinders, 150bhp at 5,500rpm. Five-speed manual, four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive. Top speed 129mph, 0-60mph in 9.4 seconds (figures for automatic). Fuel: 27-32mpg unleaded.

(Photograph omitted)

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