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Cars: Affordable Luxury

Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Rudy Giuliani, Nov/Dec 01

(continued from page 1)

BMW may believe in evolution, rather than revolution, but there've still been plenty of changes. Over the past 30 years, the 3 Series has become larger, sleeker and more sophisticated. It has been given better, more powerful engines -- including the newest addition, a 3.0-liter inline-6. And a variety of body styles are now available: the original sedan, a coupe, a convertible and the 325xi sport wagon. The wagon, as well as the 325xi sedan, offers all-wheel-drive. Even more variants are in the works, BMW insiders hint. An X3 is under development, a downsized version of the X5 sport-activity vehicle that launched in late 1999. "Evolving the product," says Jacobs, "is what gives you a youthfulness, not how fast your cars can go."

No matter how fast its products, BMW is looking over its corporate shoulder these days. Its success has inspired an expanding procession of competitors, like the X-Type, all aimed at youthful and often first-time buyers whom manufacturers hope will eventually move up to their more expensive products.

Mercedes introduced the original C-Class only reluctantly in the face of the last oil crisis. But over the last 20 years, the "Baby Benz" has become one of the Stuttgart automaker's biggest sellers, both in America and abroad, making Mercedes the second-largest player in the affordable luxury segment. Long seen as staid and stolid, Mercedes has been desperate to drive passion into its products with models like the new C-Class Sports Coupé.

To find out how well the automaker is succeeding, we took the challenging assignment of driving the coupe along the coast of the French Riviera. With an un-Mercedes price tag starting at around $25,000, we admit to having had jaded expectations as we set off along the Côte d'Azure, a squad of hang gliders circling over our heads, catching the offshore breezes.

From first glance, the car is not your typical Mercedes-Benz. To start with, it shares no common sheet metal with the C-Class sedan. The look is what you'd call familial. The "organic" dual headlamps framing the crossbar grille speak pure Mercedes. But the overall look is more aggressive. The coupe appears to stand higher on its haunches, as if waiting to launch into motion. The rear end is the car's most controversial, and least Mercedes-like, feature. If anything, it has an almost Japanese look, as if borrowed from the Asian member of the DaimlerChrysler family, Mitsubishi.

But appearances only carry you so far, especially when you're attempting to enter a sporty, performance-oriented segment long dominated by Mercedes' Teutonic rival, BMW.

Climbing into the hills from the coast city of Nice, the roads twist and turn madly, as if dribbled onto the landscape by a paver's Jackson Pollock. The C-Class coupe's suspension proved unexpectedly taut, much stiffer than the traditional Mercedes, but not at all harsh. The coupe can handle corners without jarring your fillings loose. Steering is precise and predictable, though a little bit lighter than a comparable BMW. One could almost describe the coupe's road manners as BMW-Light, balancing its performance feel with a level of comfort and refinement that clearly maintains the Mercedes-Benz brand character.

Mercedes has announced that the C-Class CoupÈ will carry a sticker price of $24,950.

A decade ago, most analysts were ready to write off another German brand. The unsubstantiated and eventually disproven "un-intended acceleration" flap had all but crushed Volkswagen's Audi division. By 1992, sales had fallen 80 percent from a peak of 76,000, and "we were very seriously considering leaving the market," admits Gerd Klaus, the ever-ebullient executive rushed to North America to try to turn the brand around. His strategy could be dubbed the "3 Ps." Audi slashed prices, improved performance and launched an array of new products, starting with the compact A4 sedan. The reception was cool at first, but slowly the automaker began winning over converts.

In the decade since, Audi's lineup has been fleshed out with an assortment of models, ranging from the ultraluxurious, aluminum- bodied A8 to the new Allroad crossover vehicle. Yet the A4 remains the heart and soul of Audi's American offerings. The sixth-generation model hits showrooms in October and should prove a surprise to longtime fans. Like its predecessor, the 2002 A4 is one of the most stylish offerings in the affordable luxury segment, but with better ride quality and more interior space. The new A4 also introduces the first CVT, or continuously variable transmission, offered by a luxury automaker.


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