Four years and $1.3 billion later, DaimlerChrysler AG's new Mercedes-Benz C-Class hits European dealerships in May and the U.S. in September.

Mercedes is betting on the new C-Class to make up some of the lost sales ground it has given up in recent years to the more popular BMW 3-series sedan. U.S. sales of the 3-series were up 34% in 1999, while C-Class sales declined 13.7%.

Mercedes delayed the debut of the C-Class several times last year because of development and production problems, analysts say. DC officials, however, won't comment.

The sleek new '01 C-Class, unveiled last month at Mercedes-Benz's Sindelfingen, Germany, plant, is more rounded and aerodynamic than its predecessor, but retains the familiar Mercedes elliptical headlights.

Mercedes says the C-Class is packed with industry-leading safety features, including dual-force front air bags, curtain and side air bags and sensors that can detect when a specially equipped Mercedes baby seat is in the passenger seat.

U.S versions of the C-Class will be powered by two V-6 engines, a 2.6L and a 3.2L. The C320 will have a 5-speed automatic transmission, while the C240 will be available with a 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission.

Mercedes, which built 1.6 million copies of the previous generation C-Class, says competitors for the new C-Class include the BMW 3-series, Audi A4, Lexus ES300 and Volvo S70.