The Independent Road Test: Brief fling with a small executive: Roger Bell finds the Mercedes C280 a solid performer, but one that takes time to appreciate

Whether Rover uses Honda, BMW or in-house engines, its bid to produce class-leading luxury compacts is likely to be thwarted by Mercedes- Benz. There is nothing revolutionary about the latest C-class cars from Mercedes; on the contrary, they are ultra- conservative saloons compared with the new mini-Mercedes to be launched in 1997. Nevertheless, the German company continues to be the benchmark in the small-executive sector.

The C-class cars are not cheap: even the base model, the C180 Classic, costs pounds 17,600. The new flagship C280 Elegance (there are Esprit and Sport trim/

equipment packages, too) starts at pounds 27,400, rising to pounds 37,400 with all the extras, such as powered seats, passenger's airbag, automatic transmission (who buys a 280 manual?), air-conditioning and leather upholstery, etc. It is possible, though pretty silly, to spend more than pounds 48,000.

Even by conventional compact standards, the C280 is not especially spacious, though it is roomier than the 190 model it replaces. It does offer more space in the back than BMW's arch-rival 3-series, but not as much as, say, the Saab 9000, which benefits from efficient front-wheel-drive packaging.

None the less, Mercedes' E-class cars, one size up from the C-class, look vulnerable to its new range. Anyone thinking of trading down a size would be tempted by the smaller, newer car.

The great virtues of the C280 are solidity, integrity and finish. These are the qualities, traditionally reflected in low depreciation, which make the compact Mercedes less expensive to run in the long term than many cheaper rivals.

For the driver, the C280 offers a solid, serene performance, but it does not excel. Its beautiful engine - a straight-six, 24-valve twin-cam - is smooth and punchy. Only when extended does its muted hum give way to a discreet wail. The automatic transmission changes gear almost imperceptibly. However, the switch from 'economy' to 'sport' mode is also almost imperceptible. And the accelerator is tiringly heavy.

Though not the quietest car in its class (that is Mazda's new Xedos 9), the C280 is certainly very refined. Wind whoosh and tyre roar, once the bane of most Mercedes, are well subdued.

I have sat in more comfortable seats - Mercedes favours uncompromisingly firm squabs - and I have ridden on more supple suspension. But the C280's advanced chassis strikes a fine balance between sharp handling, terrific grip and controlled ride.

It is hard to imagine a four-door, five-seater that corners with greater composure or safety.

It is not so much what the C280 does that commands respect, as the great sense of confidence and wellbeing it imparts. Cars do not come better made, or safer. Anti-lock brakes, pre-tensioned seatbelts and a driver's airbag are standard.

The strength of the hefty bodyshell does no favours for performance or economy, but it does give occupants outstanding crash protection.

Reservations? Of course. Though the wood-veneered dash exudes quality, some of the controls are irritating: to switch on the wipers, for instance, you have to take your hand off the steering wheel rather than just flick a finger. And the steering is heavy when parking, despite power assistance.

The C280, however, is a lively, accomplished car, which seems to get better the farther you drive it. Owners who say you must live with a Mercedes fully to appreciate it know what they are talking about. A short test drive hardly does justice to it.

COMPARISONS

Audi 80 2.6E quattro, pounds 23,038

Smooth V6 engine gives strong, refined performance. Not available with auto gearbox (but front-wheel- drive 2.6E is). Terrific grip and traction. Stylish, solid car with modest, sombre accommodation.

BMW 325iSE, from pounds 23,750

Benchmark luxury compact. Less roomy in the back than the C280, but faster and more entertaining to drive. More economical, too. Five-speed manual version more fun than four-speed auto.

Jaguar XJ6 3.2, pounds 26,950

(auto option, pounds 800). Cheapest Jaguar, roomier and more imposing than C280. Performance not so good, fuel consumption worse. Heavy depreciation and running costs.

Mazda Xedos 9, pounds 24,399

Bigger version of pretty Xedos 6, powered by smooth V6 engine. Lacks excitement, performance and charisma but beautifully made and impeccably finished.

Saab 900 2.5SR auto, pounds 23,145

Lively performance from V6 engine, but too many rough edges to mix it convincingly with C280.

SPECIFICATIONS

Mercedes-Benz C280 auto, pounds 27,400

( pounds 37,688 with extras as tested). Engine: 2799cc, six-cylinder, 24-valve twin-cam. Transmission: four-speed, two-programme ('sport' or 'economy' mode) automatic, rear-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 8.0 seconds, top speed 140mph. Fuel consumption: 23- 31mpg unleaded.

(Photograph omitted)

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