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Well-built and enduring cars are the ultimate in recycling. Cars that can step outside the revolving door of planned obsolescence and the trapdoor of senescence, cars that last for a decade or two or three, cars that offer faithful service while their peers pile up in rusting scrap yards, these are an environmental bargain.

In the calculus of total sum environmentalism--a method of reckoning a product's eco-impact by computing the cost of its materials, the energy to produce it, the pollution caused by production and disposal, and the efficiency of the product itself--a good old car is unquestionably cleaner than than a parade of new cars.

To the objection that older cars are less fuel-efficient and have fewer pollution controls--and are therefore a losing proposition for the environment--I'd counter with three points: First, a carbureted V8 in excellent tune can burn very cleanly indeed--far cleaner than is generally known. Two, if you account for the costs of replacement and disposal, the longer the service life of a car, the more it amortizes its impact on the environment. This will remain true until the United States and other countries establish a recycling apparatus for cars. Currently less than 20 percent of materials from junked cars is recycled.

Third, and I think most important as a matter of green realpolitik, until we change power supplies, the notion of clean cars is problematic, at best. We are merely talking about what is less bad rather than what is truly good.

Allow me this digression: All this dithering about hybrid vehicles, methanol and flex fuel, electric cars and--most hilarious of all--fuel-cell cars with reformers, is pissing in the wind. The answer to our propulsion problems is compressed hydrogen gas. Here. Today. CHG is the ultimate destination for combustible fuels, for combustion is merely a means to oxidize the hydrogen in a given fuel. First we burned wood, which is low in hydrogen content and high in carbon, resulting in soot, ash and smoke. Then we burned coal, which has higher levels of hydrogen, and lower levels of troublesome carbon per calorie; likewise, oil and by another remove, gasoline. Compressed natural gas (CNG) has high levels of hydrogen, and very low levels of carbon. With compressed hydrogen gas, carbon has been eliminated from the equation, so it is virtually nonpolluting when it is burned.

Digression concluded. Before we reach those Elysian fields, we must weigh vehicle choices carefully. Which brings me to the new Mercedes-Benz C-class. In the not-too-distant past, the C-class was rather a weak link in the Mercedes chain. A compact car with all the fundamentals in place but not much of the radiance of bigger Benzes, the C-class (introduced in 1995) seemed down-market and ephemeral, particularly compared to the dreadnaught S-class of the 1990s, one of the most formidable sedans ever created, selling in excess of $100,000. Those things were tanks.

The price-is-no-object S-class has been replaced by a leaner, more finely detailed S-class costing about $30,000 less. Mercedes generally are far more value-intensive than they have ever been, and they are richer, more elegant, more lapidary in their finish than ever before.

You might expect a significant drop-off in said qualities when it comes to the baby Benz. But not so. In fact, this car doesn't feel appreciably less elegant in materials or quality than its stablemates costing $30,000 more. All of the high-end switchgear, instruments, leather and wood, and many of the best amenities and safety features (like stability control, ABS, front and side airbags, airbag curtains and cellular Teleaid emergency notification system) have made their way into the low-end Benz, in a way that almost begs the question: Why pay more?

Meanwhile, the new car feels so solid, so over-engineered, so there that I can't help imagining it tooling around 20 years from now (when, I hope, it will be a gas-powered relic of a less-wise age). Finally, an entry-level Benz with the aura of invincibility of the bigger cars.

This is a really fine automobile. And lovely. It successfully carries the pared-down lines and proportions of the S-class, with handsome rock-panel cladding and unique, amoebic-shaped lenses in the headlights. The shape is also aerodynamically efficient, with a Cd of .27--remarkable now, unheard of just a few years ago.

Looks count, because the C-class carries a lot of water for Mercedes--nearly a third of the marque's worldwide sales are in the compact segment. It appears Merc will have little trouble selling the new C-class, however. Its first build order of 100,000 units has already been sold.

In the United States, the car will come with either a 2.4-liter V6 producing 168 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque or a 3.2-liter, 210-hp mill with 229 pounds-feet of torque. Either engine can be paired with a six-speed manual transmission--good news for stick fans stateside.

Of course, some things will never change, including Mercedes' refusal to design a decent cupholder. The one in the C-class pops up, then flips out in a kind of comic dance. It is too feeble to hold even a soda can with any kind of security. On the other hand, the seats have received another round of biometric refinement, and they are excellent, firm but comfortable and adjustable in all the right directions.

My review of C-class comes down to a simple sentence: This one is a keeper.

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