Has Merc finally matched the 3-series?
For Mercedes-Benz, this is as important as it gets. Despite the superstardom of its globally dominant, wildly profitable S-class limousine and a brand-new tranche of successful smaller, more affordable models, it is this, the good old C-class saloon, that remains the company’s strongest selling product.
And this despite the fact that in the 20-odd years the C-class has been around, it has never actually been the best car in its class, always playing bridesmaid to the BMW 3-series.
So this is no tweaked and titivated new C-class, but a start-again product not just for this car, but for many different rear-drive Mercedes that will be spun off the same aluminium-intensive chassis. In the C-class’s case it drops weight by about 100kg, despite the new car being both longer and wider than the old. The next generations of E and CLS classes, plus all the coupés, convertibles, shooting brakes and estates they’ll beget, will depend on it, too.
So it needs to be good.
And it is. Very good, in fact. The C-class is now more spacious and, so long as you don’t choose a silly wheel and tyre combination, I am sure the best-riding car in the class. Moreover the interior is of a quality no competitor can even approach. It makes an Audi A4, hitherto the standard-setter in this area, seen almost shabby by comparison. If Mercedes’ aim with this cabin was to create the atmosphere of a slightly shrunken S-class, then it has succeeded. Indeed I’d say this is the first true luxury car to visit this category.
But this is also a car with a shortcoming, and while Mercedes persists it will always prevent the C-class from realising its potential. At launch there is one petrol engine, which I won’t dwell upon because I can’t see why anyone in the UK would choose it, and two versions of the same 2.1-litre diesel, one with 168bhp, the other with 201. There will be no big V6 diesel, nor any other petrol motor save the V8-powered AMG version when it comes. There is a new tax-busting 1.6-litre diesel, but I’ve not yet had the pleasure. But it is the larger diesels, carried over in modified form from the last C-class, that should account for most sales and the one fitted to the C250 CDI I drove clearly lacked the sophistication that oozed from almost every other area of the car.
Of course, when we’re talking about four-cylinder diesel engines you can’t expect too much, but BMW in particular still does it better. That said, I was still amazed to see it return more than 50mpg on a fast hustle to the north of England and back. Drive it gently and it would easily do a genuine 60mpg, which for a car capable of more than 150mph (with no hybrid assistance) is nothing short of remarkable.
I think this C-class might at last be the car to overtake the BMW 3-series, but it’s not quite there yet. You can argue the toss over the chassis – I think the BMW is a touch more taut, the Mercedes a tad more comfortable – but Munich’s powertrain has the edge over Stuttgart’s. But Mercedes has a new generation of diesels on the way and they’ll marry up to its new nine-speed (yes, nine) gearbox. If BMW doesn’t counter the move, Mercedes might finally have what it’s been lacking for 20 years: a C-class to beat a 3-series.
Engine: 2.1 litres, 4 cylinders, turbocharged
Power: [email protected] rpm
Torque: 368lb [email protected]
Transmission: seven-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 153mph