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Until the appearance of the W204 generation last year, it was more or less accepted wisdom that if you fancied yourself behind the wheel then Stuggart's C car couldn't trouble Munich's 3 car in the gratification stakes.
It could well be that the latter would still outshine the former on the skidpan or in the moose test. In the real world the C-Class has forged ahead. If a large chunk of the difference is attributable to the singular unsuitability of BMW's rigid run-flat tyres to the wretched roads of the so-called Premier State, the dynamic poise and competence of the Merc cannot be underestimated.
And if the lesser C-Classes equal or shade the comparable 3 Series in most respects — not least in sheer daily liveability — the C320 CDI beats 'em hollow. The economy and general eco-niceness of the best turbo diesels ought not come as hot news. What might raise eyebrows — what indeed had mine vainly searching for a hairline — is that this turbo diesel is a fine sporting sedan, one that does what it does in a manner that's more or less peerless.
Into a C-Class that's already a dynamic leap over the previous generation has been placed a V6 turbo diesel found elsewhere in a two-tonne SUV, imbuing this 1700kg sedan with torque not far short of a Holden V8.
The zero to 100km/h run-time is listed at 7.7 seconds — half a second slower than the V6 petrol C280 — but this barely hints at the impact of the diesel's mid-range punch.
A sublime freeway cruiser (of course), on regional roads the Merc is majestic. Such is the extent of the C320's ability to carry speed into and through corners; that a glance at the speedometer can be disconcerting.
Like the brilliantly sorted device it is, it seldom feels to be travelling at the rate indicated. The very same mid-corner bumps that have undone European cars of a sporting bent see the Mercedes roll on as though it were a native son. Direct and sniper-accurate steering is to some extent belied by the lightness of feel, but there's neither the sometimes tiresome heaviness of the 3 Series at low speed or the vagueness of an Audi.
That characteristic hesitancy of diesels when getting off the line is less pronounced in the Merc than in any of the dozens of oilers we've sampled. Stomping the accelerator on a loose surface prompts the deftest electronic intervention; the ESP is as confidence enhancing, in its way as the brakes. When the ABS threshold is breached in a simulated emergency at 110km/h, the Merc stops with exceptional adroitness.
Mercedes's 7G-Tronic automatic transmission marries blissfully to this powertrain. Seldom will you feel the need to engage the gearshift's manual mode. Low-rev diesel rattle aside, the running is as silent as you've every right to expect from this marque.
Indeed, when the diesel is audible its note is, if anything, preferable to the uninspiring monotone of its petrol V6 sibling. That's just one respect in which the diesel is superior; economy is, naturally, the foremost. And this need not be sacrificed at the altar of enjoyment; even with a prolonged period of pushing on, the official figure for combined cycle consumption was exceeded by the narrowest of margins over the entire journey.
In the struggle to find substantive criticism, we're pretty much confined to repeating those made previously; that the cabin doesn't seem near $100,000 worth; that $100,000 is the least you'll pay once you touch the options list; $100,000 is just too expensive. And, for a sedan — albeit one of compact dimensions — rear seat accommodation is not generous.
The exterior look is either the more traditional Elegance (the fabled tristar sits atop the bonnet lip) or Avantgarde (it's plastered over the grille a la the SLK). The latter is meant to be the “sportier” and in this iteration of C-Class, it does not flatter to deceive.
A caveat comes from a colleague who would be hard put to justify the massive premium over the lesser C220 CDI ($60,300). Another is adamant that the ultimate C-Class oiler is not the equal of BMW's 335d twin-turbo diesel.
But the latter isn't available here, and surely wouldn't be bought at the C 320's price, and — on the basis of its otherwise excellent petrol sibling — just couldn't deal with the same stretches of pitted and pockmarked bitumen that the Merc consumes with an inspired combination of compliance and aggression.
Hence the list of ostensible rivals presented page right is fairly flattering to them. The Audi, whose fine drivetrain and class-leading interior makes it the most convincing of the current A4 range, is due for imminent replacement and in any case cannot approach the dynamics of the rear-wheel-drive Mercedes. It's difficult to see how the new versions, due from April, will drastically change that.
The Chrysler runs a version of the Merc's engine, but its visual statement and one-dimensional drive character belong to boulevard cruising. And despite its own beaut engine, this holds true for the outgoing S-Type.
The bottom line
If the C320 isn't perfect, it is peerless.
Mercedes-Benz C320 CDI
engine: 3L/V6 turbo diesel; 165kW/510Nm
transmission: 7-speed auto; RWD
Audi A4 3.0 TDI QUATTRO
engine: 3L/V6 turbo diesel; 171kW/450Nm
transmission: 6-speed auto; AWD
Chrysler 300C CRD
engine: 3L/V6 turbo diesel; 160kW/510Nm
transmission: 5-speed auto; RWD
Jaguar S-TYPE 2.7 DIESEL
engine: 2.7L/V6 turbo diesel; 152kW/435Nm
transmission: 6-speed auto; RWD