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C SHARP

The Mercedes C-Class has grown up a little, and in doing so has become a force to be reckoned with. Andy Enright reports.

Ten Second Review

The latest Mercedes-Benz C-Class range offers more space, an interior that's leagues ahead of its predecessor, the option of air suspension and some very slick infotainment and technological features. Is it enough to elbow aside the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series? That's far from cut and dried.

Background

How can it be that the car that Mercedes-Benz calls its best selling model has, for so long, felt a bit of an underachiever? The C-Class ought to have been all that the company knows about luxury saloons distilled into a smaller form, but for many years it was instead a car that was short on quality and long on price tag. The 2007 model repaired much of its reputation and the subsequent 2011 facelift brought even more features and better efficiency, but in this country, the C-Class always lagged a distant third in the compact executive sales charts behind the BMW 3 Series and the Audi A4.
Much has changed in the interim though. The introduction of a smaller four-door saloon, the CLA, has allowed the C-Class to become a bit bigger and a good deal more luxurious. The latest car is a fresh design from the ground up and it shows. BMW and Audi will need to be at the top of their respective games to keep this generation C-Class on the third step of the podium.

Driving Experience

The C-Class has for some time been, and will continue to be, focused on comfort and refinement. It's clear that this is where a good deal of the development budget has been spent in differentiating this generation car from the BMW 3 Series, the Audi A4 and the much-improved Jaguar XF. To that end, it's the first car in its class to offer air suspension. This comes with an AGILITY SELECT switch that allows the driver to select between Comfort, ECO, Sport, Sport+ and Individual settings. Even if you stick with the standard steel springs, the front suspension has been greatly improved with a very clever four-link setup that isolates the struts, allowing for optimised geometry and better grip.
The diesel engines include a 2.1-litre C220 BlueTEC unit good for 170PS, plus you can talk to your dealer about feebler C200 BlueTEC and pokier C250 BlueTEC offerings. Petrol-wise, there's a 184PS C200 unit. Granted, it's not a very wide range of engines to duke it out with BMW and Audi but expect more exciting options to arrive in due course. The C300 BlueTEC HYBRID combines a four-cylinder 204PS diesel engine with a compact 27PS electric motor and looks interesting, as does the prospect of a plug-in hybrid model. In the here and now, there's a choice of two six-speed manual transmissions or an improved version of the 7G-TRONIC automatic gearbox. The electromechanical Direct Steer system is also fitted as standard.

Design and Build

Looking at the exterior of this C-Class, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was the most conservative of styling directions. Any notionally car-literate person would be able to tell you it was a Mercedes C-Class, even if they'd never clapped eyes on the thing before. It's tidily executed, with hints of the latest S-Class in its detailing. The long bonnet, a passenger compartment set well back and short overhangs define the C-Class's classic proportions. Large wheels emphasise the rear and communicate a stylishly sporty character. Halogen headlamps are fitted as standard, but there are also two LED options offered: a static system and a dynamic version with an 'LED Intelligent Light System'. There's an estate model option, but its 490-litre seats up boot capacity isn't much greater than that of the saloon. You do get 1,510-litres of space in the station wagon variant though, if you're able to fold forward the rear bench.
Drop inside and you'll see where this Mercedes differentiates itself. It's radically different to its predecessor with a broad centre console swooping between the front occupants, In automatic vehicles, a large one-piece centre console panel performs an elegant sweep from the centre air vents to the armrest. On vehicles with manual transmission, the centre console is slightly steeper and features two separate trim elements in order to create ample space for ergonomic operation of the shift lever. There's also a free-standing 7-inch central display - unless you opt for the ritzy COMAND Online package, in which case an 8.4-inch item is specified. Materials quality is much improved and there are some slick details like the five metallic round air vents and the touchpad in the hand rest over the Controller on the centre tunnel. There's even a head-up display option. An extra 80mm in the wheelbase helps rear seats space and there's a best in class 480-litres of boot space too.

Market and Model

Prices for the C200 petrol start at around £27,000, while for a C200 BlueTEC diesel, you'll pay from around £29,500. There's a £1,200 premium if you want the estate variant. There are three trim levels, SE, Sport and AMG Line.To gain an insight into quite how deep the thought process behind the new C-Class is, consider this. The air conditioning system talks to the car's satellite navigation system. When you enter a tunnel, rather than start sucking diesel fumes into the cabin from that labouring artic, the car knows it's entering a tunnel and automatically switches the air conditioning to recirculate, bringing in fresh air only when you've emerged again. That's smart. As indeed is the COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST PLUS system. When a danger of collision persists and the driver fails to respond, the system is able to carry out autonomous braking at speeds of up to 125mph, thereby reducing the severity of collisions with slower or stopping vehicles. The system also brakes in response to stationary vehicles at a speed of up to 31mph, and is able to prevent rear-end collisions at speeds of up to 25mph.
Each C-Class gets pelvis airbags for driver and front passenger as well as window bags, sidebags for the outer rear seats and a kneebag for the driver. The front passenger seat can also be fitted with automatic child seat recognition, which deactivates the airbag when a child seat is fitted and reactivates it once it has been removed. The sound system is also worth a mention, utilising the Frontbass system, which uses the space within the cross-member and side member in the body structure as a resonance chamber for really punchy bass response.

Cost of Ownership

It doesn't take long to see how Mercedes has forged ahead with efficiency. Where the last C220 diesel emitted 117g/km of carbon dioxide, the latest model trims that down to just 103g/km, with fuel economy improving from 64.2mpg to 70.6mpg; a quite remarkable number to be associated with an executive car. Even the entry-level petrol model, the C180, gets numbers that not so long ago would have been very respectable indeed for a diesel car in this sector: think 56.5mpg and 166g/km.
We've been accustomed to Mercedes featuring a whole host of efficiency measures such as start/stop, advanced aerodynamics and low internal transmission friction but the latest C-Class has been on a diet to help things improve. Despite being a significantly bigger car than before (some 95mm longer and 40mm wider), weight has been cut through extensive use of aluminium in the 'body in white'. In fact, use of aluminium here has gone up from around 10 per cent in the old car to around 50 per cent now, with the result that around 70kg, or the weight of an average adult, has been trimmed from the body structure.

Summary

Is this Mercedes C-Class good enough to score conquest sales from its key competitors? Only a positive answer will do for Mercedes. This car can't just continue on the previous model's form line, not in the UK at least. The fact that it's more of a C-Class than ever before, more imbued with traditional Mercedes qualities, perhaps hints at the fact that it's a slightly insular concept, lacking the dynamism or self-confidence to encroach on the strengths of its rivals. Being bigger and more luxurious are easy things for Mercedes to do. Doing so while being more economical isn't so straightforward and it's here that the C-Class gives a hint of its mettle.
Expect to find pricing very slightly above obvious rivals but the downsized engines balance that out to some extent. One thing's for sure. Mercedes hasn't done things by halves here. This C-Class is one to watch.

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