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.
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 impressive Jaguar XE. 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 begin with a Renault-derived 1.6-litre diesel unit that develops 136PS in the C200d model. Next up is the 2.1-litre diesel unit, offering either 170PS in the C220d or 204PS in the C250d. If you want a bit more technology, there's a C300h model that combines a four-cylinder 204PS diesel engine with a compact 27PS electric motor and looks interesting. Alternatively, there's a C350e plug-in hybrid model that mates petrol power with an electric motor, in this case a 214PS electric motor with a 60kW electric motor to produce a total system output of 282PS. Talking of petrol power, it comes in a simpler guise in the form of the 184PS C200. There are performance petrol models too. The C450 AMG Sport gets 4MATIC traction and a twin-turbo V6 engine putting out 372PS. It's the perfect choice if you can't quite stretch to the range-topping Mercedes-AMG C63. If you can afford this flagship though, you'll be getting quite a car, with a 4.0-litre V8 putting out either 476 or 510PS, depending on the state of tune you select. Back in the real world in the mainstream C-Class line-up, 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.
Market and Model
Prices for the C-Class start at around £29,000. 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 MK4 model 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
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 MK4 model 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. It's all led to some impressive efficiency stats. Where the old MK3 model C220 diesel emitted 117g/km of carbon dioxide, the fourth generation version latest model trims that down to just 103g/km, with combined cycle fuel economy improving to over 70mpg; a quite remarkable number to be associated with a compact executive car. Even the entry-level petrol model, the C200, manages 123g/km of CO2. Predictably, the C63 AMG super saloon is thirstier, returning 34.5mpg on the combined cycle and 192g/km of CO2. The headline-makers here though, are the HYBRID models. The diesel/electric C300 HYBRID delivers 78.5mpg on the combined cycle and 94g/km of CO2. The petrol/electric C300 PLUG-IN HYBRID variant meanwhile, does even better, recording a scarcely-believable 134.5mpg on the combined cycle and 48g/km of CO2.
It used to be quite easy to pigeonhole the three main premium contenders in the compact executive sector. A BMW 3 Series gave you a sporty drive, while an Audi A4 offered a nice cabin and a bit of hi-tech. If you went beyond these two and considered a Mercedes C-Class at all, you were probably a more mature buyer with priorities that didn't really fit into either category. It was a bit of a compromise, badge equity choice. But it isn't any longer. Instead, what we have here is a car more than good enough to make significant inroads amongst customers who once would have thought little before signing again on the dotted line for yet another German C-Class arch-rival. Don't get us wrong - Mercedes still has work to do with this car, primarily in terms of diesel engine refinement. But on the evidence of this model, the signs are that its rivals are going to have to up their game.