Is the C-Class Mercedes-Benz a woman's car?

Well, not entirely. But half the C-Class buyers are affluent women. So, Mercedes-Benz USA plans to target women in its marketing of the redone 2001 model.

"It's not about `pink' marketing; I don't want to feminize the vehicle," says Karen Makris, C-Class product manager. "But we'll be stressing things that women are interested in such as safety, security and fuel economy, and we'll be out there at events focusing on women."

Plus, she adds, women, not just men, want a car that's sporty and fun to drive.

Marketing for the new C-Class - including ads on TV and in national magazines and newspapers - will also target minorities, particularly African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, she says. That's because 20% of C-Class buyers are non-Caucasian.

The redone C240 and C320 hit dealerships in mid-September. Mercedes hopes to sell about 40,000 of them annually, representing about 15% of worldwide volume, says Ken Enders, MBUSA marketing vice president.

It's part of a push for greater market share in the entry-level luxury car segment, representing the greatest portion of the total luxury segment in the U.S., at over 70%.

That represents about 900,000 vehicle sales a year. Mercedes' slice of that is 3.5%. The company expects to hit 7% with the new C-Class, says Mr. Enders.

"This thing will grow and grow, and we're going to double our entry-level market share," he says.

Although there are grander and costlier Mercedes-Benz models - such as the all-luxury S-Class - the near-luxury C-Class holds a special place in the heart of Mercedes executives in this country.

The C-Class debuted in the 1994 model year, marking the start of a new value pricing strategy for Mercedes-Benz, which had been in a serious sales slump because its products were considered staid and overpriced.

"We learned in the late 1980s and early 1990s that if you take your eye off the ball, the results can be devastating," Mr. Enders says of those dark days. "We'll never, never do that again."

The newly introduced C-Class quickly caught on with a younger, less affluent audience. In total, 1.6 million C-Classes have been built over the car's worldwide seven-year run. The 2001 C-Class, the first significant redesign since the 1994 debut, took four years and $1.3 billion to develop.

Part of that pot went towards a sleek redesign. For instance, there's a new take on the theme of Mercedes' familiar elliptical headlight design. On the C-Class, it resembles overlapping ovals with a figure-eight outline.

Women in particular liked that look when shown it during consumer feedback sessions, says a MBUSA spokesperson.

Other "youthful" visual cues include a coupe-like profile, a sculpted hood, curvaceous C-pillars, triangular taillights and what Mercedes folks call "a trim waistline."

V6 engines exclusively power the C240 and C320 in the U.S.

The C240's engine is a 2.6L with 168 horsepower and 177 lbs.-ft. of torque. It hits 60 mph in 8.2 seconds.

The C320's 3.2L engine goes from 0-60 mph in 6.9 seconds, thanks to 215 horsepower and 221 lbs.-ft. of torque from 3,000-4,600 rpm.

The '01 C-Class is the first from the prestige car maker to come without dip sticks. Other Mercedes-Benz models will follow suit.

"The new oil level sensor and all associated hardware provide accurate electronic information about oil level and quality," says MBUSA spokesman Fred Heiler. "So, the dip stick in many cars will go the way of ignition points."

Competitors of the new C-Class include the BMW 3 series, Audi A4, Lexus ES300 and the Volvo S70.

The C240 is priced at about $30,000, the C320 at about $36,000.

Customers can expect to be put on a waiting list at dealerships. But the wait won't be interminable, says Mr. Enders.

He explains, "There's always a fine line between one too many and one not enough. We like having one not enough. But you can stretch that so the wait is too long.

"Our strategy is that the demand exceed supply, but within limits. A 30-45 day wait for delivery of a car is acceptable, but that's about the limit before you start seeing disgruntled customers going to the competition."