It looks familiar yet different, the new C-class. More like a small Mercedes-Benz S-class than an evolution of the staid outgoing car, it's contemporary in design but not as contrived as the CLA-class. Open the driver's door and the break with tradition becomes even more obvious: in front of you is a modern and tasteful interior, perfectly functional and expertly put together. This completely reengineered sedan comfortably eclipses the E-class in appeal and—as we are about to find out—in ability.
The silver test car is a loaded C250 with cranberry-red leather, a panoramic sunroof, Airmatic air suspension, keyless ignition, a Burmester sound system, heated seats, navigation, intelligent LED lights, a perfume dispenser, and all manner of driver-assistance options save for a round-the-clock butler. The exorbitant list price? About on par with a naked E500. Still missing from our personal preferred specification are two items that aren't yet available in Europe but will be at the U.S. launch this fall: a more powerful, 241-hp engine (in the C300) and 4Matic four-wheel drive.
The key target for the new car was a reduction in weight and significantly improved efficiency. Mission accomplished: by boosting the aluminum content, the new C-class has lost about 220 pounds. The lighter body structure sits on a chassis sporting a longer wheelbase and a wider track. Although the C undercuts the current E-class by ten inches in length, the distance between the axles is now almost the same, so all the bigger brother has going for it size-wise is marginally greater height and a trunk that holds nineteen cubic feet, two more than the C-class.
The Mercedes-Benz design language under Gorden Wagener may appear a touch too flamboyant from some angles and a little pudgy from others, but it checks out of the wind tunnel with a sensationally low drag coefficient of 0.24, which is one of the reasons why fuel economy has improved by as much as twenty percent on some models. During our drive across the windswept Bavarian plains, we also noticed an immunity to crosswinds and a noise level that barely exceeds that of the S-class. As in the E-class, customers can choose between two different front-end treatments. The double-crossbar grille with the full-size three-pointed star denotes the Sport model (by far the more popular choice in the U.S.A.), while the conventional chrome grille with a small star riding on the hood is found on the Luxury version. The headlamp arrangement depends on the depth of your pockets. Featured here are LED daytime running lights sandwiched between LED upper turn signals and LED lower driving lights.
Our C250 boasts the most powerful gasoline engine currently available in Europe, a 208-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder. U.S.-market cars, however, will launch as the C300 (241-hp turbo four) and C400 (329-hp, 3.0-liter turbo V-6), both with 4Matic. Paired with the 7G-Tronic transmission, the C250's engine dishes up 258 lb-ft of torque between 1200 and 4000 rpm, enough to reach 62 mph in 6.6 seconds. On paper, it does everything right. In real life, however, you sometimes wish for greater smoothness, better sound quality, and more evenly spaced gears. As it is, the transmission occasionally feels compelled to change down two or even three ratios. In response, the engine then revs to the limiter to deliver the goods, and this driveline stress is at odds with the car's otherwise commendably calm demeanor.
M-B's equivalent to Audi Drive Select and the BMW Driving Experience Selector is called Agility Select. A new option making its debut in the 2015 C-class, it invites you to adjust throttle response, steering assist, damper firmness, and transmission shift points. There are five calibrations. Eco cushions the effect one's right foot has on the accelerator, triggers idle-speed coasting when conditions permit, and relegates the air-conditioning and seat heaters to energy-saving mode. Comfort strikes a good balance between driving pleasure and a green conscience. Sport adds a dash of excitement to the driveline and firms up the chassis. Sport Plus makes for more aggressive tip-in, swaps ratios almost as fast as a dual-clutch automatic gearbox, and locks the Airmatic suspension in its tautest, least compromising setting. Or you can select Individual to compose your own dynamic cocktail.
We don't know yet whether the air suspension is preferable to the cheaper and less complex steel springs, but we did not find it quite as cushy as expected in Comfort mode and not quite racy enough in Sport Plus. What this chassis does really well is cover the middle ground in Sport mode, which is sufficiently supple to iron out rough patches yet firm enough to generate some thrills. Other Airmatic advantages include the constant ride height, irrespective of whether the vehicle is empty or fully laden; the well-suppressed body roll through fast corners and during quick lane changes; and the ability to lower the ride height at autobahn speeds or to lift it at the push of a button, which can be useful for negotiating steep driveways. The C-class boasts speed-sensitive, variable-ratio power steering that feels quite tight when the car is driven at speed in a straight line while enhancing the handling talents as soon as apexes and radii enter the equation.
On the motorways around Stuttgart, our silver arrow goes with the flow, stretching its legs in seventh gear, the engine humming along at 1500 rpm. At this leisurely pace, the C-class feels almost as softly sprung and detached as an S-class, an impression that lasts until impromptu kickdown orders send the four-cylinder revs soaring. On the fast country roads that span the Swabian Alb, the C250 covers ground so effortlessly that we venture a detour to the northern tip of Lake Constance before night falls. Where the rolling hills end and the route winds back in slow esses to the Danube basin, Agility Select is best locked in Sport Plus for quick turn-in, flat cornering, sharp throttle response, and brisk gearbox action. Scrubbing off speed, the brake pedal ends up feeling a little soft under pressure, and the absolute stopping power is not up to AMG standards, but even when racing down the notorious Fern Pass, the brakes never drop their guard. Having said that, higher-performance brakes may be an upgrade worth considering for the midcycle makeover.
As far as driver-assistance systems go, the new C-class definitely is a certified overachiever. Standard items include collision-prevention sensors that trigger early brake actuation, crosswind compensation, and a driver-fatigue monitor. Extra money buys Distronic Plus with steering assist, the semiautonomous driving system that's available in the S-class and the E-class. Other optional driver aids include Brake-Assist Plus, which now also monitors cross-traffic, parked vehicles, and pedestrians; Pre-Safe Plus, which can sense an imminent rear-end collision and brace the vehicle; lane-keeping assist; automatic high beams; and active park assist that includes surround-view cameras. Are these essential safety enhancers or overkill do-gooders? A bit of both, really. In principle, collision avoidance is a good thing, but recurrent beeping, flashing warning lights, and intermittent steering-wheel vibrations can lead to distraction and disregard. Which is another way of saying that no assistance system beats an attentive and observant driver.
There are many things to like about the new C-class, but no detail impresses us more than the redesigned interior. To some eyes, its instrument panel looks even classier than the boudoir-style S-class lounge and the ritzy yet conservative E-class cockpit. Everything you see has style, everything you touch feels good, everything you operate makes sense and is intuitive to use. The latest addition to M-B's ergonomic wonderworld is the combination of touch pad and Comand controller. There are now three different ways to access the car's key functions: voice control, smartphone-style fingertip and gesture inputs, and the usual twist-a-knob or push-a-button routine. In addition, Mercedes has introduced a larger 8.4-inch screen with much improved graphics, a new steering wheel sporting twelve buttons, LED cabin lighting in three different shades, Google Maps/Street View, and the optional Burmester sound system (equipment may differ on U.S. models).
After three days and more than 300 miles on a wide variety of roads in all kinds of traffic, we would prefer the bigger engine that'll be on U.S. models, and we would check out the steel suspension before paying a bundle extra for Airmatic. Although the C250 doesn't exactly set the pavement on fire, it is notably more sophisticated than the aging Audi A4 and feels more special than the BMW 3-series. The new C-class is roomy, quiet, and well mannered. All in all, we definitely prefer the new C to the face-lifted E-class, and we would be reluctant to spend twice the money for an S-class. The genetically different front-wheel-drive CLA does not even enter this discussion.
There is no doubt about it: the new C-class is a proper Mercedes-Benz that condenses every core brand value in a more compact, youthful wrapper. This may result in a certain amount of cannibalization, but it is also bound to guarantee significant conquest sales.
There's Still More To C A timeline for the new C-class family's roll-out.
- C300 4Matic, C400 4Matic: C-class launch models for North America, late 2014
- C300: Early 2015
- C63 AMG: Early 2015
- C-class diesel: 2015
- C-class plug-in hybrid: 2015
- C-class coupe: 2016
- C-class convertible: 2017
2015 Mercedes-Benz C250
On saleNow (in Europe)
Price$38,500 (base, est.)
Engine2.0L turbo I-4, 208 hp, 258 lb-ft
0–62 mph6.6 sec
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