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On The Road

Power isn't everything in a mid-luxury car: Mercedes C55 AMG fulfills a need for speed, but

Courtesy of Mercedes-benz
The new Mercedes-Benz C55 AMG Sports Sedan features a 362-horsepower engine with 376 pound-feet of torque. Selling for around $60,000, it can go from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds.

The old saying "Be careful what you wish for" often applies to motoring enthusiasts who sometimes get carried away wishing for more power, more performance, more zip and zing.

To satisfy those of us with this need for speed, AMG - the high-performance arm of Mercedes-Benz - created a hot version of the compact Mercedes C-class sedan, the C55 AMG Sports Sedan.

As coincidence would have it, the same week we tested the C55, we also were driving Audi's brand-new A6 4.2 quattro, which made for an interesting comparison. Our conclusion at the end of the week was that high performance sometimes might not be all that it's cracked up to be. Comfort is definitely worth something, too.

The C55 we tested sells for $60,525 including options and dealer prep. The A6 with similar options sells for $56,270. So price-wise, the monthly payments would be very similar.

In many respects, the cars are very similar as well.

Both are four-door sedans with a reasonable amount of room for four or five passengers. Their exterior lines are pleasing, combining timeless proportions with some new-wave style.

Similarly, the interiors are neatly dressed in leather and wool, with just a touch of wood and brushed aluminum that says luxury without needless bling.

Well, perhaps the 18-inch alloy wheels with low-profile tires and the nicely bolstered sport seats, which are standard on both cars, might be on the edge of excess, but certainly there's nothing about these cars that would make the owner feel self-conscious.

As you would expect of any Mercedes displaying the AMG letters on the back, performance is the distinguishing feature of the C55. According to the literature, the engines are hand-assembled in the AMG workshops, fitted together and balanced to produce a solid 362 horsepower and 376 pound-feet of torque.

This power reaches the wheels through an AMG "Speedshift" five-speed automatic transmission that can be manually shifted with steering wheel buttons or the shift lever.

In addition, AMG fits the C-class sedan with sport-tuned suspension components and large-rotor Brembo brakes so that it will handle and stop as fast as it goes.

The complete list of vehicle stability programs that assure acceleration, braking, and turning without skidding or spinning is a valued complement to the performance this car delivers.

And make no mistake; it will go very fast, very quickly. Performance is rated at under five seconds zero to 60, and top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph.

We discovered these weren't just idle claims when we merged onto Interstate 5 in the Central Valley on a clear day with no traffic in sight. Pushing the accelerator to the floor, we were at autobahn speeds in considerably less than 10 seconds.

Fortunately the brakes were up to the task of bringing us back down to legal limits before a black-and-white on the next on ramp might have put us in jeopardy of jail time.

Handling, as one might expect from the AMG sport suspension, is also more than up to the task of managing the power and weight of the car. The car turns in readily, with very little lean. Steering is nearly neutral, with no indication of plowing understeer or tail-happy oversteer.

This test car included xenon headlamps, a rain sensor that automatically switches the wipers on when necessary, a six-disc CD changer in the glove compartment to go with the 12-speaker sound system, and a DVD-based navigation system, all of which adds $4,600 to the base price.

With mileage rated at only 16 city and 22 highway, owners also have to pay $1600 for the gas guzzler tax as well as $720 in destination charges.

There is no question that if you want unmistakably significant performance and the satisfaction that comes with owning an AMG Mercedes, this C55 is the ticket ... umm, perhaps that's a bad choice of words. Make that, a desirable car.

But there is a downside to all this performance.

Your first impression of the C55 is likely to be negative as you find the heavy steering provides a workout for your biceps just to get the car out of a parking place and into traffic.

Similarly, a few blocks up the washboard pavement of San Antonio Road or a few miles jouncing over the expansion joints of Interstate 280 past Sand Hill Road will be enough to make you wonder if the handling is really worth putting up with the rock-hard suspension. And there is a fair amount of road noise to be heard when this car is under way.

These negatives were made much more apparent as we interspersed drives in the Audi A6 with those in the Mercedes C55.

The first impression of driving the Audi is pleasant. The speed-variable power steering offers greater assist when parallel parking or maneuvering out of tight spaces. As you approach highway speeds the steering tightens up so that little effort is required to keep the car in a straight line, and direction changes are crisp and responsive.

Similarly, the Audi provides a smoother ride than the Mercedes, while sacrificing little in the handling department. With the quattro all-wheel drive system, which Audi has been continuously testing and improving for several decades now, the car is exceptionally sure-footed under all driving conditions.

The Audi also has a very quiet cabin.

Sure, the C55 will beat the Audi 4.2 off the mark, but the Audi's sub-six-second zero to 60 time still beats all but a few other manufacturers' performance models. The new 4.2-liter engine puts out 300 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, which is more than sufficient to move this car through traffic with ease.

A six-speed automatic transmission with manual control transfers that power to the four wheels with almost no hint of gear change.

The Audi is also 15 inches longer than the compact Mercedes. That translates into a rear seat that is actually comfortable for passengers, and a much larger trunk, as well.

Our Audi test car came equipped with a navigation system, and a six-disc changer for the Bose sound system. All of this is controlled with a new central knob system that Audi calls the Multi-Media Interface (MMI) system.

"Shades of BMW's complicated I-Drive," we thought when we first saw it, but the MMI turned out to be easy to use without even checking the owner's manual.

The navigation system is clear, comprehensive, and easy to read with the turn cues displayed directly in front of the driver. It proved its worth when we got lost in the middle of downtown Oakland on our way to Chabot Observatory on a Saturday evening.

Following the instructions from the observatory's Web site, we had taken a wrong turn at a five-way intersection. Quickly keying in the address of the observatory, we were directed to make three turns inside of six blocks, which put us on exactly the right road to head up the hill to the observatory.

Incidentally, Chabot Observatory is well worth the trip on a clear evening. We had the chance to see Saturn through the big telescope, and then back in the planetarium a rare opportunity to see pictures of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The images were transmitted to Earth just that day from the NASA probe that recently landed there.

Bottom line: If we felt the need for locker room or chat room gearhead bragging rights, the C55 AMG would be our choice among cars in the $50,000-$60,000 class.

On the other hand, if we were buying a car in that price range that we could live with under all road conditions, and still enjoy driving for fun, we would opt for the Audi.

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