It looks like there’s a major change going on here
Certainly is. Gone are the smooth curves of the previous C-class, replaced with something far more edgy and, dare we say it, rather modern. The C-class is bigger all-round and crucially there’s another 45mm in the wheelbase and more shoulder room. That’s hardly a surprise. Passenger space has always been the weakness of compact premium cars in the compact exec segment, and with the cheaper and hugely competent cars like the new Ford Mondeo offering limo levels of comfort, space can’t be ignored. We've already driven the new C-class on its continental launch; now we've finally driven it on UK roads.
What’s with the funny grille?
For the first time, a Mercedes saloon uses the grille to distinguish between models. The traditional trim levels, SE and Elegance, get the three-pointed start on top of the bonnet, as every Mercedes should. The Sport, in a slightly worrying nod towards bling, ditches the bonnet emblem for a massive star mounted in the centre of the unique three-louvre grille. The range has been simplified too, with Avantgarde versions dropped in the UK.
Sport models? Has Mercedes has finally woken up to the fact that BMW sells twice as many 3-series?
Indeed it has, imbuing a far more sporty character into the latest generation. Key is the Agility Control suspension that has adaptive damping. It’s a pretty simple system, just two stages and hydromechanical rather than electronic, but comes as standard on all models. And it puts C-Class handling on a new level. There’s tight chassis control and sharp turn-in, and the result is a new level of driver entertainment. The C-Class Sport gets speed-sensitive steering with a welcome degree of extra weight, plus a slightly lower ride height. Being a Mercedes there is, of course, the full suite of active safety installed to try and prevent you make a complete fool of yourself when you breach the boundaries. But they don’t really intrude on the fun.
So it handles, but does it go?
All the four-cylinder engines, petrol and diesel, have been uprated. The best seller is likely to be the C220 CDI driven here, with its 168bhp (up from 148bhp in the old car). More significantly, this now pumps out 295lb ft of torque at 2000rpm, endowing performance that seems perfectly matched to the both old-school Mercedes subtlety and the newfound enthusiasm for driving prowess. That old bugbear, the Mercedes manual gearbox, has been improved in the hope 3-series buyers will take it seriously, and there’s a hill-start system to overcome the problem with the foot-operated parking brake. But this diesel remains best suited to the automatic transmission, where the short rev range can be readily accommodated. You get five rather than seven gears with the four-cylinder engines, but Sport models get a handy paddle shift, too.
Sounds too good to be true...
It is. Somewhere down the line the suspension designers seem to have overlooked the fact that the C-class will have to contend with British roads. On a smooth surface, the C-class rides beautifully, but get onto the lumps of city roads, and even country roads taken briskly, and there's a most un-Mercedes feel about the whole experience. There just isn’t enough compliance; the C-class jiggles about like a hot hatch. That might increase the appeal to GTI enthusiasts looking for their next step in car ownership, but buyers looking for their first luxury Mercedes may be disappointed.
Yes, but there’s still that luxury Mercedes interior
You’d think. Vinyl seats, anyone? Long the favourite of the German taxi diver, they are now the standard fitment on the Elegance model while the Sport gets half vinyl, half cloth. You’ll upgrade to full leather of course, and buy into the many personalisation options on Mercedes’ long list. Particularly impressive is the full-length glass sunroof complete with electric blinds. Not so good is the mottled plastic covering to the dashboard and door panels that shows scuffmarks too readily. There’s a decent voice control for your telephone, but the Bluetooth can’t read your telephone address book. The full sat-nav system does a good imitation of the beautiful display for navigation and radio in the S-class, but the standard radio screen, and the instruments, look smarter in a 10 grand Honda Jazz. As a microcosm of Mercedes missing the point, you can download music onto the 30GB hard drive – but from an SD memory card, not a USB drive.
The shift in emphasis by Mercedes with its new C-class is to be welcomed. It’s now a vastly better car to drive. It offers sufficient passenger space to remain competitive and the design underlines the forthright new direction. With careful choice of materials and colours the interior might even look attractive. But Mercedes hasn’t been as clever as BMW in matching handling dynamics to a comfortable ride. Can Merc really risk alienating existing core customers in its the quest for the 3-series buyer?