Seven years since the last, an all-new C-Class. What are the highlights?
Mercedes has gone back to basics with the new C. Keen to banish memories of the E-class quality/breakdown/recall debacle, it has scrapped some of its old techniques and relied more on a computer-generated virtual C-class (its 2130GB of data might just crash your average PC) to iron out problems at the design stage. And to make sure it doesn't break down on a wet Friday night, it then spent five years and 15 million miles testing real cars... Has it all worked? Read on...
So in what other ways does it break from tradition?
Well, for one, this is the first Mercedes saloon to be offered without a stick-up three-pointed star atop the grille. Ever. Traditions at Benz aren’t broken lightly, and approval for this came from the top – from Dr Zetsche himself. Merc also wants to give sporting handling as much priority as pampering comfort. Like hot ice cubes, this is hard to achieve. Unless, they say, you develop two clever forms of suspension – using both electronic dampers and, on standard cars, ‘amplitude dependent hydromechanical’ units (similar to the A/B-Class, but four generations on). Both are adaptive, but it’s the former, standard on even the boggo C180 K SE, that are most ingenious. They cost more than regular units, but this alone is proof of Mercedes’ aspirations with the C.
It certainly looks good, in an S-Class kinda way
Some things never change. Bruno Sacco instigated the ‘horizontal affinity’ principal of a clear family look, which the new C-class continues. It’s surprising, though, what a difference that grille makes. Only offered on Sport variants, it looks fantastic with a set of AMG alloys, giving Benz a proper rival to S line/M Sport rivals. You can even get it in bling white. Very (P) Diddy. Lesser SE and Elegance models are more traditional, but both share the flowing side and SLK-hinting rear, which boast more substance than the old car. It’s physically bigger, but looks much more so. It’s clever, too. Aerodynamics are such that side and rear windows don’t get grubby in mucky weather, while the tail lights are ventilated so they stay clear in the wet. Needless to say, it has a slippery Cd of 0.27, while rear axle lift is, ahem, down, too.
Is the mainstream ‘hewn from solid’ Mercedes interior back?
It is. Simply laid out, the interior lacks character but there’s no doubting the quality. Panels fit precisely, soft-touch materials abound and even thumping an alloy into the deepest pothole elicits barely a grumble from the trim. There’s tactility too, while the floating speedo needle is just plain cool. Trad Mercedes seats are flat but firmly supportive, while the (LHD) driving position and ergonomic set-up is, save for a too-low indicator stalk, without fault. The optional sat nav is little short of genius. Controlled via COMAND APS (think i-Drive that you can immediately decipher), this includes a 30Gb hard drive and destination input by voice recognition. It leaves 4Gb to store MP3s and, if you still buy CDs, it’ll store these on there too, in logical files laid out like an iPod. Satellite radio will also be offered in the UK. It’s just a shame the bigger exterior hasn’t yielded more space in the back, particularly for feet, though the 475-litre boot is not significantly smaller than the 540-litre E-Class's.
How does this newfound dynamism translate onto the road?
The C-class is no longer a Manx cat. Liberate the throttle and it’s clear the Mercedes has discovered its tail – ESP reins it in before opposite lock becomes necessary but such newfound dynamism remains (and the ESP is switchable, don't forget). There’s simply a greater feeling of balance, not to mention a clearer connection to the road, aided by light but immeasurably more direct steering that’s both quick and accurate. Gone is the Mercedes mush. Even the throttle response is more immediate. Don’t worry, traditionalists. The standard car still flows along highways with a beautiful low-frequency gait. The stiff bodyshell means interferences are shrugged off and detailed compliance work means sudden intrusions are discreetly absorbed. It’s in corners where those ‘stiffening’ dampers come alive, turning the front end in with haste and, after a slight discontinuity, doing the same to the rear. It’s surprisingly agile for a car that rides so well, while such alert response and reduced roll angles is proof the clever tech works. And cars with ‘Advanced Agility’ electronic dampers? Even more 'comfortably sportive', as the man from Merc says. We'd have to agree - they work well.
But the engines are more familiar, aren’t they?
Yes; Mercedes model and engine cycles are always out of sync. They’ve all been updated, but the engines are as before – supercharged petrol and turbocharged diesel four-pots, plus V6 petrol and turbodiesel higher-end units. We drove the exceptional C320 CDI; with a cammy growl, it’s free-revving and vibration-free, happy to sing in its mid-range and provide fearsome mid-range shove. The seven-speed auto is dozy and obsessed with hitting higher ratios (three staccato downchanges are not uncommon), but take control yourself, and revel in that lag-free yet linear throttle explosion. With 39mpg too, it’s hard to make a case for the C350 petrol. Standard cars will be fairer game. The C180 K has 13bhp more, the C200 CDI gains 14bhp, while the C220 CDI has 20 extra horses and 18 percent more torque. These gains won’t be soaked up by weight, for the new C, in base guise, weighs exactly the same as the old. But no BMW-like brake regeneration and the like. The official line is ‘only if customer demand is sufficient’. Give it about a year, then.
If kitchen sinks designed cars, even they would have been thrown into this project. It’s been ferociously analysed but the end result isn’t overkill - this is the most complete entry-level (real) Merc since the ’83 190. Mercedes UK isn’t revealing any UK data but European cars have an inflation-only price increases, so list price here should be from £23k. For what’s possibly the most complete Merc ever, that’s heartening.