You know, many people dream about seeing a full-size mega-luxury car parked in their driveway someday. But it’s the compact luxury-sport sedans like this 2001 Mercedes-Benz C- Class, that actually allow most buyers to join the serious luxury car league. But as more and more affluent young buyers enter the market, the competition is really heating up. This year, the all-new C-Class must contend with competition from BMW’s impressive 3-series, as well as an upstart IS300 from Lexus. So let’s see what each of these formidable young sedan competitors has to offer.

Well, right up front, without getting into the details just yet, we can tell you that as a group these cars are built to deliver hours of unadulterated driving pleasure. And they succeed mightily!

First introduced in 1975, the BMW 3 series sedans quickly set the standard for what driver oriented four-door transportation could be. And the new 330i shows the original intent of the 3 series still holds sway.

While it was the Mercedes-Benz C-Class that pioneered the entry-level luxury-sport segment when it was first introduced in 1983. And the complete redesign has given the new C a look that favors the Benz S- and CL-Class flagships, but with a younger and more entertaining character.

The newest entry into this highly competitive segment is the Lexus IS 300. Introduced last year as an early 2001 model, the IS 300 offers customizer details that appeal to the more youthful buyers in the segment.

When it comes to powertrains, these three thoroughbreds are pretty equally matched.

The Mercedes C320 relies on a proven 3.2 liter, SOHC, 18-valve V-6 that also powers the ML 320 and CLK 320. Output is 215 horsepower and its delivery of 221 pound-feet of torque is the highest of the three. The sole transmission available on the C320 is a smooth, driver-adaptive, 5-speed “Touchshift” automatic. That combination is good for a dash to 60 in 7.2 seconds and a quarter mile pass in 15.5 seconds at 91 mph. We’ve always liked the 3.2’s strong low end punch and broad mid-range powerband, and that hasn’t changed!

Like the C320, the Lexus IS 300 also delivers 215 horsepower, but a slightly lower 218 pound-feet of torque. But Lexus extracts that performance from a smooth 3.0 liter, DOHC, 24- valve, I-6, with VVTi variable valve timing. This engine is matched with a 5-speed adaptive automatic with Formula One-style “E- Shift” controls mounted on the steering wheel. A manual is in the works for later this year. But the current set up is plenty capable. Sprinting to 60 in 7.3 seconds and through the quarter mile in 15.4 seconds at 91 mph. Our testers liked the IS 300’s punchy launch, but the car seems to falter somewhat in the mid-range before regaining momentum.

The BMW 330i also uses a 3.0 liter, DOHC, 24-valve I-6, with Double VANOS variable valve timing, for motivation. The new 3.0 liter engine supplants the previous 2.8 engine. And although its 225 horsepower gives it the top rating of the three, its 214 pound-feet of torque is also the weakest. But in this case, the heavy horses are enough to make up for it. As the 330i shoots to 60 in 6.8 seconds and through the quarter mile trap in 15.1 seconds at 96 mph. While the bottom end is a little weak, power hits hard around 3,200 rpm and pulls strongly to the redline. Our 330i came with BMW’s 5-speed “Steptronic” adaptive automatic transmission. But a ZF 5-speed manual is available, too.

When it comes to braking, ABS and electronic proportioning are standard on the BMW. And the 330i notched a test best stop from 60 in 105 feet. But, there’s lots of ABS noise and pedal feedback. However, stability is first rate and brake fade nonexistent.

The IS 300 posted the next shortest stopping distance by coming to a halt in 113 feet. Stops are straight and stable, although nose dive is more prominent than expected, and pedal feel a tad soft. Like the Bimmer, ABS and Electronic Brake Distribution are standard.

With stops from 60 in 130 feet, the C320 posted the longest distance of our trio, but our drivers like the C320’s solid, positive pedal feel the best and the way the Benz feels like it crouches rather than dives under hard braking. ABS and Brake Assist are standard items.

Of course, every good braking system relies largely on the competence of the car’s suspension for stability. And under the front of the C320 is a new three link setup that uses two lower links rather than one. In the back, the multi-link’s subframe, track link, and hub carriers have all been redesigned. The result is the plushest riding C class ever, and the C320 has the most refined ride in its class. That refinement extracted a slight penalty in our low speed slalom however, as the C320’s standard Electronic Stability Program and traction control worked overtime to keep the exercise undramatic. A sport suspension is optional, and we recommend it.

The 330i uses a strut-type front, multi-link rear suspension with anti-roll bars. And when it comes to straight-out-of-the box handling prowess, it doesn’t get any better than this. As the 330i exhibits very little roll when slicing through the cones. Unfortunately, the 330i’s steering is so over-boosted, it’s almost devoid of any feeling. However, like the Benz, BMW’s Dynamic Stability Program and All Season Traction control are standard. A Sport suspension is available here, too.

The IS 300 uses a double wishbone suspension at the front and rear. Like the BMW, the IS 300 displays nearly flat handling behavior when working the low speed slalom. And its steering feel and feedback are the best of the three. But while there is standard traction control and an available limited-slip rear differential, there’s no stability program or separate sport-tuned suspension package.

Now, while these cars are pretty well matched when it comes to mechanicals and performance, the interior layouts and appointments are far more expressive of each car’s personality.

The IS 300, for instance, offers a trendy, industrial feeling environment. Our tester came with the available and very supportive heated, 8-way power adjusted suede-trimmed buckets for both driver and passenger. Seat bolsters house the standard side impact airbags. The driver faces a compact gauge package that features a set of chronograph-styled analog gauges. In the rear, the IS 300 provides tight seating for two adults, as leg room is only 30.2 inches, the least of the group. And trunk space is just 10.1 cubic feet, also the trio’s smallest.

The BMW 330i takes a more serious approach to its cabin environment. Its standard 6- way power buckets are covered in leatherette. Like the IS, full leather upholstery and seat heat are optional. Occupant safety is well served with front door-mounted side impact air bags, and a side- curtain airbag head protection system for both front and rear passengers. In the rear seats, the 330i’s 34.6 inches of leg room was tops in our test. Cargo volume, however, is not much better than the Lexus with only 10.7 cubic feet.

The Mercedes-Benz C320 offers by far the most elegant interior of the three, as much of the same S-Series influence that shaped the exterior found its way inside too. Driver and front seat passenger are treated to standard 12-way power adjustable leather-trimmed bucket seats. Heat is optional. And the C320 is the only car of the three to offer automatic dual zone climate controls. And you’re surrounded by 8 airbags, including a head protection curtain, all standard. Rear seat leg room is an even 33 inches, and the C320’s trunk capacity is the largest with 12.2 cubic feet of cargo room.

With its long list of standards, the Mercedes also bears the largest price tag of the three. Base for the 2001 C320 is $37,595. The BMW 330i falls next in line, with the 2001 330i starting at $34,560. The young upstart Lexus lowballs the group, with the IS 300 leaving the lot for just $30,995.

So now you’re faced with a decision. Which one of these fine entry-level luxury-sport sedans is for you? For us, it boiled down to personality. The more mature members of the staff were attracted to the C320’s elegance and style. The performance purists among us tended to gravitate towards the 330i. While younger drivers leaned towards the upstart IS 300 and its boy racer attitude.

But no matter which of these cars fits your personality, you won’t go wrong with any of them. And were this a perfect world, we’d gladly find garage space for one of each.


  • Mercedes C320:
  • Lexus IS 300:
  • BMW 330i: