PORTLAND, OR – Mercedes-Benz USA says its ’08 C-Class sedan will serve as a “gateway” into the brand when it hits dealerships in August.

The fourth generation of the venerable C-Class boasts plenty of improvements, many designed to keep pace with BMW AG’s 3-Series – although MBUSA officials are hesitant to admit it.

MBUSA is hoping its new model will help close the gap in the U.S. entry-level luxury segment, which represents the largest portion of the total luxury-vehicle market. Through May, BMW of North America LLC sold 60,263 3-Series cars, a 21.0% improvement vs. year-ago, according to Ward’s data. In comparison, MBUSA moved 22,552 C-Class units, a 22.9% increase over like-2006.

For ’08, the C-Class comes in two distinct versions, Sport and Luxury, and three models – the C350 Sport, C300 Luxury and C300 Sport.

The Sport models are aimed at younger, mostly male driving enthusiasts and are targeted most directly against the 3-Series, MBUSA says. Currently, the average C-Class buyer is 52 years old.

The Luxury C-Class was added for traditional Mercedes customers, who prefer to be coddled.

Two engine choices are available for ’08 – a 3.0L V-6 that produces 228 hp and 221 lb.-ft. (300 Nm) of torque, and a 3.5L V-6 that ratchets up the power to 268 hp and 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm).

The take rate for the 3.0L is forecast at about 80%, Bernie Glaser, MBUSA general manager-product management, says at a media event here. A diesel option for the C-Class is not in the works, but the auto maker would consider one if demand warrants, he adds.

All 3.0L versions will be able to run on E85, an 85:15 ethanol/gasoline mix.

Both engines boast four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing, which is automatically adjusted within a range of 40 degrees using electro-hydraulic vane-type adjusters, MBUSA says. The setup allows the valve timing adjuster, at part throttle, to keep the exhaust valves open as the intake valves are opening.

This valve overlap creates internal exhaust gas recirculation, which reduces exhaust emissions and improves fuel economy. MBUSA officials decline to reveal official fuel economy figures, saying that testing remains under way.

A 6-speed manual transmission will be available on the C300 Sport, while the C350 Sport and C300 Luxury both come standard with a 7-speed automatic. The take rate on the manual is expected to be about 10%-15%, Glaser says.

Mercedes went the extra mile in differentiating the exteriors of the Sport and Luxury models in an attempt to attract two distinct buyers.

The Sport model’s outward appearance is “very sporty and aggressive,” Glaser says.

“If you watch the segment competitors, you’ll see that a lot of the entry models are already sport-oriented,” he says. “So to compete better and have more conquest (buyers) we created the Sport sedan.”

To differentiate the two models, the Sport gets:

“For us, the BMW (3-Series) is the main competition,” Glaser says. “I think we have an outstanding product now to be very aggressive and a conquest to the BMW.

“If you look at the Sport sedan especially, it just screams conquest,” he adds.

  • Coupe-style grille with integrated Mercedes tri-star emblem.
  • AMG-designed body cladding.
  • 17-in. staggered-width alloy wheels (225 in front, 245 in rear).
  • Lowered sport suspension.
  • Sport braking system.
  • Dual exhaust.

Other C-Class competitors include the Cadillac CTS, Audi A4, Acura TL, Infiniti G35 and Lexus IS.

For the aristocratic set, the Luxury model features:

  • Traditional Mercedes grille with raised hood ornament.
  • 17-in. 5-spoke wheels with all season tires
  • Exclusive paint colors, such as sand beige metallic.

The interiors of the Sport and Luxury models also are different, with the former done in darker colors and featuring a generous use of aluminum and the latter available in cashmere beige and accented with burl walnut wood trim.

The ’08 C-Class rides on a new platform, which helps increase torsional rigidity some 13% vs. its predecessor and adds 4-ins. (10 cm) in overall length.

The extra inches translate into more shoulder, hip and leg room in the rear and additional cargo capacity, Glaser says.

The C-Class also gets Mercedes’ new 4-Matic all-wheel-drive system, which will be available on the C300 Luxury and Sport models. The take rate is expected to be about 35%-40%, depending on the region of the country, Glaser says.

MBUSA officials decline to reveal annual volume projections, but they do point out that every generation of the C-Class has outsold its predecessor. Last year, Mercedes sold 50,187 C-Class cars in the U.S.

Official pricing is expected to be announced within two weeks, although Glaser says a base model will start at about $30,000.

The C-Class will hit U.S. dealerships Aug. 7, but 4-Matic models won’t be available until Sept. 5.

The dual design approach has dealers eagerly awaiting the C-Class’ arrival, Glaser says.

“This is an opportunity for dealers to reach a larger audience,” he says. “So far dealers love the Sport and Luxury strategy. Most buyers walk into a dealership already knowing if they’re a Sport buyer or Luxury buyer.

“We believe Mercedes-Benz, with the fourth-generation C-Class, has raised the bar for the competition,” Glaser says. “It offers more value and is more dynamic (than its predecessor).”

The auto maker used the same approach when it introduced the new E-Class last year.

bpope@wardsauto.com