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Rumble Seat 

Information does not necessarily beget understanding. Go to Microsoft's CarPoint.com, or to Edmunds.com, or to a half-dozen other heavy-hitting Web sites, and you can summon vast tables of data that compare, point by arcane point, the Mercedes C-Class with its competitors: the BMW 3-Series, the Audi A4, the Acura 3.2 TL, and the Lexus IS 300. By the numbers, you might conclude that they are all similar.

Wrong. The only car the 2001 C-Class really resembles is its much larger and considerably more expensive sibling, the S-Class luxury sedan. Like the S-Class--indeed, in almost precisely the same measure--the C exudes such richness of materials and refinement of construction that to drive one is to become suddenly and hopelessly smitten. (You won't find an "infatuation index" among the numbers crunched by Web sites for car shoppers.)

It is not simply that Mercedes transferred, by dint of economies of scale, so much high-end hardware into the smaller car. (I am talking here of the voice-activated telephone and stereo system, the five-speed AutoTouch transmission, the climate controls and multifunction steering wheel, among other items.) It is that the rear-drive C-Class has the same preternatural grace and serenity of the larger car.

These sensations are the cumulative effect of many engineering details. Predictably, the car's chassis is quite a bit stiffer than that of the previous C-Class, which did all right anyhow, with more than 1.6 million sold worldwide in the last seven years. It suffices to say that the new C feels as sturdy as a decompression chamber.

Also, Mercedes engineers have done a superb job of shushing their Baby Benz. Wind noise is extremely slight, even at racetrack speeds, thanks to the car's computer-contoured windshield pillars, side-mirror housings, wiper blades and sunroof. Over all, the coupelike shape--practically a miniature of the sculptural and athletic S-Class--cheats the wind to the tune of a drag coefficient of just 0.27, making this one of the most aerodynamic cars on the street.

Noise that makes it past the sound barriers is muted by the Bose Audiopilot sound system, which uses electronic trickery to cancel out ambient noise with an audio signal of its own. The effect is a Zen-like quiet.

Under the category of "no detail too small," Mercedes has developed a new method of molding the polyurethane that covers the dashboard and door surfaces with a super-dense, pliant skin. The boot around the polished wood shifter is kid-glove soft. The steering wheel feels as thick and sturdy as the handle of a cricket bat. It all conveys the sense of heft and quality that you get from investment-quality clothes or Roux-Marquiand silverware.

Of course, Lexus uses good stuff in its IS 300, but falters, I think, in matters of taste: the Ferrari-like chrome ball shifter, the drilled aluminum thresholds and pedals, the overwrought chronograph dials. The IS 300 seems to be straining to make a point--to be seen as a sport sedan worthy of challenging the BMW 330i. The C-Class, with its lapidary elegance, seems to ignore the presence of BMW's benchmark altogether. In this way, the Mercedes has a certain hauteur that I like quite a lot.

Considering all the features packed into the cabin, the cockpit environment is commendably clean and uncluttered. Most telephone, trip computer and audio commands can be executed through simple toggles built into the steering wheel. The data appears on a liquid-crystal display nested in the black-faced instrument panel. Overhead is a button for the TeleAid system that summons help in the event of an accident or emergency. There is a one-touch button to raise all the windows and close the sunroof.

The armrest console holds the optional ($1,795) cellular phone, so it's good that the glovebox is oversized. There are some ergonomic peculiarities: The rear climate vents, situated at the back of the center armrest, can chill the driver's elbow pretty quickly when the air-conditioning is going. The steering wheel's tilt-and-telescope controls are built into the door panel with the seat adjusters, and it took me a while to find them. And after years of driving a Mercedes with window switches on the console, I had to reeducate myself to find them on the door, where they really do belong.

For now, only two engines--both 18-valve V-6s--will be offered in cars bound for the United States. The first, in the C240, is a 2.6-liter mill that cranks out 168 horsepower. The 3.2-liter V-6 in the C320 produces 215 horsepower and can be paired only with the five-speed TouchShift automatic. While this is a very competent automatic gearbox, allowing the car to sprint to 60 mph in about seven seconds, it is no substitute for a six-speed manual.

The C-Class's underpinnings have been updated with a new strut-based front suspension, offering a ride that is lively and alert along with good road feel. Body control is excellent, even in high-speed cornering. As for handling, the car is surprisingly confident and grippy, and if a loss of control seems imminent, the Electronic Stability Program steps in to make corrections.

The car's brakes have received a commensurate upgrade. Even the C240 wears oversized 11-inch discs at all four corners, abetted by antilock sensors. Other safety measures include five three-point harnesses and eight air bags: two up front, four in the doors and two inflatable curtains that cover the side windows. The front passenger's two bags will not deploy if the seat is unoccupied, to save on repair costs, or if a BabySmart child seat is in position.

Again, by the numbers--acceleration times, headroom, horsepower--most of the cars in this category are close to one another. With the exception, perhaps, of price: My two test cars were a C240 costing $36,870, compared with a base price of $30,595, and a very well-equipped C320 at $42,515, up from $37,595. Those are steep tariffs in the "entry luxury" segment, and by-the-numbers shoppers might not test-drive the C-Class, thinking it short on value.

That would be a mistake. If Americans have learned anything from the recent electoral adventures in Florida, it is that the numbers tell only part of the story.

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