► First experience of new C-Class saloon
► Merc's all-new baby exec nears debut
► Georg Kacher rides shotgun in C300 4Matic
The wraps have almost come off 2021’s new Mercedes C-Class, with its full debut expected later in February 2021. Before that, though, we’ve had our first taste of the new baby executive car.
We’re being piloted by Christian Früh, the C-Class’ chief project engineer, and a veteran Mercedes manager who oversaw the SLR sports car built by McLaren before diving deep into chassis development and assistance systems. In his next career move, he was given full responsibility for the C-Class, as well as all four-seater coupes and convertibles.
The man in charge of W206 wastes no time taking us for a ride in his latest brainchild. Determined to demonstrate every new trick in the book, the wiry mastermind hammers the throttle, and we’re off like greased lightning.
Even though Christian knows his car inside out, is undoubtedly familiar with the road and has obviously noticed the steady rain, here we are approaching at 60mph-plus a 20mph speed camera that sticks out like a sore thumb. Wake up, my friend! About 30 metres prior to the first induction loop, Evel Knievel’s distant relative finally hits the brakes hard enough to simultaneously vent three PPE masks and to rapidly slow down the mildly camouflaged silver arrow which a second later wafts past the 24/7 electronic policeman without triggering that orange flash. ‘I don’t normally drive like this,’ claims the poker face to my left. ‘But this is a show run, and we want you to walk away impressed.’
Let’s step back a little – what spec is this C-Class?
If it did wear a badge, it would read ‘C300’, which is about as meaningless as Audi’s 45 TFSI and BMW’s 330i, since none of these three engines can count to six, nor do they come close to a displacement of three litres. Instead, the entire segment is now dominated by 2.0-litre fours which deliver between 254bhp (Mercedes, BMW) and 260bhp (A4).
The C300 4Matic is a mild hybrid, with the integrated starter motor giving a gentle e-boost of 20bhp to reduce turbolag and give you an extra 27bhp of overboost when applying full throttle.
Even with two middleweights and one fatso on board, the most potent petrol C-Class this side of the PHEV and incoming AMG variants can accelerate in six seconds flat from 0-62mph – its predecessor was two tenths quicker – and is capped to 155mph. The maximum torque is cut into nine slices by the slick automatic transmission which slows down the indicated engine speed to a thumb width above idle at a constant 60mph. NVH? Oddly enough, the 3.0-litre six we tried in the S500 sounded more strained close to the redline than this vocal but never rowdy four-cylinder.
This new C-Class can also now come with rear-wheel steering – just like its larger S-Class sibling – and manages to turn even tighter than it.
What’s it like from the passenger seat?
There are few things more frustrating for a motoring journalist than to experience (let alone evaluate) a new car when riding shotgun. But it allows the opportunity to fiddle with the new C-Class’ myriad tech upgrades, heavily inspired by the larger C-Class. One can kill time adjusting the trick seat, leaf through the long list of available massage functions, cool down the bum still sizzling from the hot stone treatment or upset the rest of the crew by indulging in Burmester’s awesome amp attack.
The number one interior eye-catcher is of course the disarmingly pretty, expertly finished, fully loaded and logically parcelled cockpit. True, there are not enough hard keys left for keen drivers, the button which activates the transmission’s manual mode now lives inside the big silver screen, and the numerous controls embedded in the four steering-wheel spokes are sized for pointed artist fingers, not normal digits.
But the new angled centre touchscreen looks like it was co-designed by the grandson of my math teacher. Novices are bound to struggle befriending this nerdy haptic environment loaded with vague touchsliders, overeager proximity sensors, stacks of menus and sub-menus, a tiny wee home button and plenty of disturbingly obtrusive assistance features which purists must deactivate one by one. And then again after every restart.
Tech overload. Got it. Is it still a Mercedes to be in?
Most parts of the chosen route - a mix of smooth turf, fast sweepers and a flat-out autobahn section - made the C300 shine. But around town and on the sole short stretch of C-road, the ride quality was not brilliant, the evident absence of pillowcase cushiness was further emphasized by the widest available (winter) tyres, and the subdued low-speed rumble was in combination with certain transverse irritations the obvious price to pay for the otherwise enlightening sports suspension.
Christian Früh elaborates: ‘The previous C-Class was available with Airmatic, but over time the take rate dropped from six to one percent, so it was no longer economically viable. While Dynamic Body Control was in the W205 paired with the sports suspension, the extra-cost variable-rate dampers are now tied to the notably more compliant comfort suspension.’
Will there still be a V8 AMG?
Prepare to be disappointed – Merc’s new AMG C63 will be a four-cylinder PHEV, marking the end of the V8 C-Class. If that was the case, why didn’t Mercedes go the whole hog and make the platform underneath front-wheel drive? ‘That would have been a mistake,’ states the man at the wheel. ‘The weight saving is almost negligible, but in terms of traction, steering feel, ride comfort and premium drive quality such a shift is counter-productive. The more sophisticated rear axle alone makes a real difference in the way this car handles and absorbs the vagaries of the road.’ Furthermore, the suspension had to be re-engineered anyway to accommodate the mandatory PHEV module.
With the drive mode in Sport, Herr Früh’s mind firmly set in Go For It mode and a wide open stretch of B464 dotted with friendly top-gear corners filling the windscreen, the hard-charging C300 performed like a fast-forward asphalt plotter testing the dynamic boundaries demarcated by hinted understeer and envisaged oversteer. Although this was more of a Super G than a giant slalom turf, W206 fused stapler loads of grip with crosshair poise and the lingering fun factor of a 1970s Penny Arcade.
Mercedes C-Class: first impressions
The new one-style-fits-all C is genetically more E than S. The exclusive use of four-cylinder engines suggests compromised refinement is to be offset by improved efficiency and performance. Those who regularly travel four up should still consider a used S-class (if you’re flush enough) or, more sensibly, a Skoda Superb. Those who don’t are perhaps better off with a nicely appointed C than with a rental spec E.
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