For a remarkably affordable price, the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport model gives you better cabin tech than we've seen in Mercedes-Benz models costing more than $100,000. To be fair, the C300 is a 2008 model, and we've only seen 2007 models so far (of the more-upscale models). But the way cabin tech upgrades go, it might be a couple of model years before we see these tech upgrades in something like the CL550.
Mercedes-Benz seriously updated its C-class for 2008, and now offers the C300 Sport, the C300 Luxury, and the C350 Sport, all in sedan form. For stylistic differentiation, the Sport model gets a three-bar grille with a big Mercedes-Benz badge in the middle, while the Luxury trim gets the badge as a hood ornament. We were very impressed with the C300 Sport we tested, which sits at the bottom of Mercedes-Benz's U.S. lineup. Along with its new cabin tech features, it drives very well, presenting some serious competition, both in performance and price, to Infiniti's G series.
Test the tech: Voice versus buttons
When we got the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C300, we noticed that its voice command system worked very well, offering a lot of intuitive commands to control the navigation, audio, and phone systems. And we also took note of the updated COMAND system, a knob on the console that mimics the interface in the S550 and CL550. To test out both systems, we selected a guinea pig from the office here, one of our colleagues who was unfamiliar with both interfaces. We wanted to compare the interfaces and also see how a novice handled them.
Jasmine France looks at her options on the C300's LCD.
Jasmine France, editor of MP3 player reviews for CNET, agreed to be timed while performing three basic tasks, once with the COMAND interface and once with voice command. For the first task, we asked her to use the navigation system to find a place to eat. Using manual control, she tried to enter the names of a couple of restaurants, but none of them showed up. Finally she resorted to drilling down through the restaurant category to Italian cuisine and selecting a nearby restaurant. Counting her frustrated attempts to find a specific restaurant, her total time was 3 minutes, 59 seconds. Using voice command, she hit another dead end, getting stuck in the address entry rather than restaurant points of interest (POI). Eventually she found the right commands and set a destination for the same restaurant she found with the manual controls, all in 5 minutes, 28 seconds. That's one point for COMAND over voice.
Her next task was finding a music station she liked on Sirius Satellite Radio. Using the dial and buttons of the COMAND system, she quickly found the audio selection menu, moved to the Electronic channels category, and selected Area 33, taking only 26 seconds. Using voice command she was helped along by screen prompts showing available commands, but instead of dialing right to her station, she used the Next Station and Previous Station commands to find Area 33, taking 1 minute, 20 seconds. She could have saved some time by issuing the command "Station Area 33," which this voice command system understands. That's two points for COMAND over voice.
The COMAND knob is fairly simple, but it lets you access all the car's cabin tech functions.
Her final task was to dial a number using the C300's hands-free Bluetooth system. Using COMAND, she quickly found the phone menu, then input each number. From start to the sound of the phone ringing took 27 seconds, another quick time. Using voice command, she performed the same task. Again, she got to the phone menu right away and started dialing the number. But this process took more time--1 minute, 22 seconds--because she entered each number of the 10-digit phone number one at a time. She could have saved time by speaking the entire number string, but the system prompted her fairly quickly when she started entering the number, making her think it wanted the numbers one at a time. Final score: COMAND 3, voice 0.
In the cabin
The cabin of the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C300 uses a lot of cool, new features. We're very pleased that Mercedes-Benz updated the COMAND interface, improving the switchgear and the software interface over what's found in other lower-end Mercedes-Benz models. We've too often seen the faded blue maps and fiddly plastic joysticks in cars sporting the tri-star. The updated system uses better-looking maps, a more refined audio and phone interface, and the console-mounted knob and back button.
And, as a step up from more expensive models, the C300 gets a hard drive-based navigation system. This means faster response times and no extra slot for a map DVD. Although we think the look of the maps is definitely improved, we are a little annoyed that you have to put the map view on maximum zoom to see all street names. Fortunately, a mere twist of the COMAND knob zooms the map in all the way. Generally we found entering destinations easy, although, as illustrated above, just entering in the name of a particular POI didn't produce results. We're also surprised that, with all the space afforded on a har-ddrive system, it doesn't include POIs for most retail stores. Instead, it just gives you a category named "Shopping Centers."
We liked the system's route guidance. For one test, we drove the car down the coast, on Highway 1, then set a destination using the map. We were easily able to move the map around, picking a spot on a particular road. With the destination set, the system quickly computed a route, highlighting it in blue. The system also let us browse through a few alternative routes. Once begun, the system's female voice gave us ample warning of upcoming turns. However, it doesn't have text-to-speech, so it wouldn't try to pronounce the names of streets.
You can rip CDs to the C300's internal hard drive.
An additional benefit of the hard drive-based navigation system is that 4GB of space are left over for music storage. We would have liked a bit more space, but as it was, the 10 albums we had stored only took up half a gigabyte of space. Under the interface, that storage space is named "Music Register." You can fill it up by putting standard CDs into the six-disc changer and selecting Copy. The system has the Gracenote database and will correctly label most tracks. It files them by artist name then album name, making it easy to navigate directories.
We also really like the interface for satellite and broadcast radio, done up with a graphic treatment that looks like an old-style horizontal tuner. The six-disc changer reads MP3 and WMA CDs as well as video and audio DVDs. The interface for CDs is easy to use, showing encoded track information, and the DVD capability was a nice surprise. You can watch a movie in the car while it's in park. An iPod interface is an option that we didn't have available on our car, but we assume it's much better than what we saw on the ML550. One strange addition is a PC Card slot just below the disc slot. You can use this with a PC Card adapter to plug in SD cards and CompactFlash, to round out your digital-music options.
The disc changer plays DVD video on the car's LCD.
DVD audio capability worked well with our car's Harmon Kardon Logic7 stereo system, a premium upgrade. This audio system sounds excellent, delivering nice, rich highs and very strong bass. Although tuning is limited to the standard bass, treble, fader, and balance controls, we were able to get the sound just where we wanted it. The premium system uses 12 speakers, which include two surround speakers, a subwoofer, and a 450-watt amp. We enjoyed the audio from this system immensely, our only criticism being that it lacked as much separation as we would like at the high end.
The last major feature in the cabin is Bluetooth cell phone support. This feature has been missing from previous Mercedes-Benz models we've seen, so we were very happy to come across it. We paired up a couple of Samsung phones to the system with no problem. The system lets you enter a custom four-digit PIN, for security. Although it shows recent calls made on the system and has its own phone book, it doesn't access your cell phone's phone book, which is inconvenient.
Under the hood
One area where the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C300 really succeeds is drivability. Its 3-liter V-6, producing 228 horsepower, isn't a rocket, but it gets the C300 moving quickly and without complaint. When really pressed, it makes a nice growl. Mercedes-Benz claims the C300 Sport gets to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds, a reasonable number given the engine size.
The 3-liter engine is relatively small, compared to other luxury sedans, but it's adequate for the C300.
Putting a strong foot down on the gas pedal from a stop, we saw the tachometer climb above 5,000 before the car really took off. This minor delay we attribute to the automatic transmission and the traction control system. Although the C300 Sport can be optioned up to a seven-speed automatic, its standard transmission is a six-speed automatic. When manually shifting it or just stepping hard on the gas, we noticed a slight delay before the gear took hold. On the plus side, as we braked going into corners, the transmission got into the right gear to take us out the other side. It also held low gears well under acceleration.
As for the traction control, we found it very enjoyable to make its indicator light come on as we took the car around corners in the Santa Cruz mountains. Coming up on a corner, we braked then hit the gas as we dove through, making the tires sing and seeing how long we could keep the traction control light on. During these exercises, we never felt like the car was close to losing its grip. Its steering is very responsive, with minimal understeer. In fact, the only thing that kept it from being truly fun in the corners is that it handled them so sedately.
The C300's gauges are tastefully done, and we like how the traction control light turns on during hard cornering.
For fuel economy, the EPA rates the C300 Sport at 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. With the seven-speed transmission you get an extra mile per gallon on the highway, pushing it up to 26. During our driving, we never broke 20 mpg, averaging out at 19.2 mpg for combined city and freeway. We would expect a little better from an engine of this size, but with a lighter foot on the gas, better mileage could be achieved. As of this review, emissions ratings haven't been published for the C300.
Our test car was the 2008 Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport, which bases at $31,975. Metallic paint added $710, while the Multimedia package added another $2,950, the only two options on our car. The Multimedia package is a particularly good deal, as it includes the hard drive-based navigation system, voice command, and the Harmon Kardon Logic7 stereo. Given our choice, we would also add iPod integration, which costs $375. The total for our C300 comes out to $35,635.
We were very happy with the cabin tech options and how well the C300 drove. The stereo sounded fantastic and allowed a good number of audio sources. The interface for the cabin tech was particularly good, using the COMAND interface or voice command. The C300 covers the basics very well, but it doesn't stretch too far beyond car technology standards. The navigation system looks good, but doesn't have complete POIs or any interesting add-ons, such as traffic reporting. Its phone system is very good, but not great. We enjoyed driving the C300, but it handles so evenly that it's a little hard to get excited about. We found the comparably priced BMW 328xi to be a more engaging driver.