A question of sport

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The Mercedes-Benz C280 Sport is blessed with all the virtues one associates with the Stuttgart marque. But is ‘blessed’ the right word in this context?

A sterile, almost fossilised approach to design has afflicted MercedesBenz for many years, culminating in the drab slabs of the S-class. There are signs of hope for the future: the SLK exhibits genuine visual flair yet is unmistakably a Stuttgart product, and elements of it could be incorporated in the saloons.

In the meantime, we have the C-class, introduced last year, the smallest Mercedes, or at least the smallest in production. Next to its closest rival, the dashing BMW 3-series, it looks rather dull, dour and Teutonic; potential Mercedes buyers may see these qualities as virtues.

Toppling the 3-series from its pedestal was the target Mercedes-Benz set itself, as the latest incarnation of Munich’s small-medium saloon has set new standards in everything except accommodation and, in early examples, build quality. Since its introduction, for smoothness, performance, and above all handling, the 3-series has been a lap ahead of the opposition.

We chose the top-end C280 for evaluation. It’s powered by the 193 bhp straight six, and it costs £25,100 in ‘classic’ trim (replace the first four letters with ‘ba’ and you get the picture). That is £1,350 more than the 325i in Special Equipment form, and it is worth pausing to think about that.

Right, let us continue. Our test car was the ‘Sport’ version. This takes the price up to £28,240, and the additional equipment consists of a simpler (and more attractive) design of alloy wheel, bichromatic rear lights (wow!), a different seat fabric, colourcoded door mirrors, electric front windows,

electric sunroof, leather steering wheel and gear lever, divided and folding rear seat with ‘through facility’, and a reduced choice of external and internal colours; none of this has much to do with sport but, as the marketing men say, what’s in a word?

Throughout its range, the C-class has a driver’s airbag, power-assisted steering, anti-lock brakes, and a dust filter. However, our test car carried a stinging price tag almost £33,900, and that doesn’t include the radio/stereo system, which is ‘to customer’s choice’. Costliest ‘extra’ is leather upholstery, at £1713, with automatic transmission in second place, at £1062; other items include electrically adjustable front seats, glass sunroof, retractable rear head restraints, electric rear windows. infra-red remote locking, and metallic paint.

Mercedes claims 0-100km/h (62 mph) in 8.5s, and although that may be a touch pessimistic, there is no doubt that the C280 is slightly off the pace, despite having more power and torque (192 lb ft) at its disposal than most rivals, including the 325i. It seems that this is not the fault of the smooth-changing four-speed automatic gearbox (which allegedly beats the fivespeed manual’s sprinting ability); the problem is that the car weighs 1490 kg more than a BMW 525i, let alone its little sister.

The C280 peaks out at 141 mph, which is around the class norm, but it’s below that that it is mildly disappointing. The engine is undoubtedly smooth and refined, but where is the urgency, the excitement?

What’s more, to extract all the performance in the mid-range area, you have to stand on the throttle pedal with considerable force to achieve kickdown.

Being overweight also gives the economy figures a knock: use the C280 hard, and it will drop towards 20 from its ‘composite’ average of 26.8 mpg; furthermore, at 13.6 gallons, the tank is not especially generous.

Though it grips impressively, rolls little and handles predictably, this is not a sports car. It would no doubt be impressive on autobahns, but like a lot of Mercs (which are almost all automatics), when you drive them quickly on B-roads, you don’t get that invigorating sense of tactile adjustability that is ever-present in modern BMWs. This is not entirely to do with it being automatic because you can get more of a sense of control in the 7-series (old or new), never mind the 3, even with an auto ‘box. What is lacking is a fine sporting edge the feel you get from an outstanding chassis (the number 325 comes to mind) when the tyres are on the point of losing adhesion. You can go as quickly in this Mercedes as in that BMW; it just doesn’t feel as good.

Perhaps the single area in which the C-class really sets a new standard is in its ride quality. When I drove the car in Ireland on the launch last year. I formed the impression that the ride was a shade harsh, which shows how rough the roads are in Galway. For its combination of damping control at speed and absorption of low-speed bumps. the C-class is probably the best you can get in this size of car without going to an active system.

The brakes big discs, ventilated at the front are powerful and have a very smooth, self-feathering action, but detected signs of incipient fade, surprising in a Mercedes; perhaps the pads had taken a caning from some previous incumbent.

Anyone with memories of sitting hunched up in the back seat of a Mercedes 190 will be agreeably surprised by the accommodation of the C-class, in which full-sized adults can sit in comfort, which would not be possible in the back seats of some rivals, especially the 3-series. Even so, you can get the same internal space at half the price from any number of manufacturers.

Our test Mercedes’s interior looks much nicer than the cloth and wood versions. largely because Mercedes seems to have chosen someone both colour-blind and aesthetically vacuous to choose its cloth and wood; the former looks like a manic depressive’s attempt at jollity, and the latter like the paint finish on 1950s tin toys.

Our car, in contrast, looked ‘hi-tech’ and modern, yet in that appealingly austere style that Mercedes can execute so well it is only when they attempt a younger, more lively image that they fall down. Some of the surfaces cleverly mimic carbon fibre, but this is actually a far cheaper plastic, and why not?

The appearance of the seat leather is very attractive (you have a right to expect the highest grade of cow for this sort of money), but the seats are rock hard in that Teutonic manner that punishes anyone weighing less than 17 stone; they provide insufficient support, especially to the lumbar region. Also, the driving position is oddly offset the pedals are well to the right, while the steering wheel is not quite centred.

Otherwise, the driving position is good. and the wheel is smaller than the Routemaster wheels Mercedes-Benz traditionally Insisted upon. Nevertheless, anyone who has driven any Mercedes built during the last 20 years will find points of recognition. The dials and switchgear look as if a cost accountant told a designer, “These will do -no point spending money replacing them with something more modern.” All-round visibility is good in virtually all cars In this class these days.

Under the bonnet, there is that clinical neatness with its implied deterrence to anyone thinking of doing anything more ambitious than top up fluids. The boot has a keyhole, unlike the driver’s door operable only by the ‘plip’ device, The proportions of the luggage hold are reasonable, but not outstanding the intrusion from the sidelights could surely have been eliminated in a few hours of designing time. Even the BMW’s boot opening, not one of the motor industry’s great leaps forward, is no worse than this. A full-sized spare with alloy rim is provided.

You can have air conditioning in this car for an extra £2,347. Ow! In its absence, the basic heating and ventilation system is as good as anything on offer from any manufacturer.

Verdict

For some, the C280’s superior build quality and accommodation, its marginally greater refinement, but above all, its three-pointed star, will be enough to give it the verdict over the BMW, or anything else in this class, despite a substantial price differential. Although Mercedes-Benz may feel that it has achieved, with the usual ruthless efficiency, the objectives it set itself, this car simply will not win over those who believe the 325i to be the star performer in its class: in other words, almost everyone who has driven it.

Something important, probably impossible to explain in Stuttgart, has been missed. The C280 lacks the 325i’s panache, a word that has little currency at MercedesBenz, or among adherents of its products.

And I would not bet on Mercedes-Benz’s tradition of beating BMW on residual value in this instance: just check out the price of a used 325i. Although this is called the Sport version, drivers who are determined to have a Mercedes and who really want a sporting C-class should either save up for the £38,250 C36 AMG, now available though British dealers, or the 150 bhp, fourcylinder C220: that costs £21,500, and from my initial impressions in Ireland on the launch trip, it offers the best driving experience in the range, probably because it has less of a lump perched over its front axle. Unlike the AMG, which I have not yet driven, it has the option of a manual gearbox. But to impartial observers, it is still not a match for its direct, and rather less costly, BMW rival, the six-cylinder 320. P D