MARSEILLE, France – Because it competes with the BMW 3-series, which almost singlehandedly coined the term "sport sedan," the Mercedes-Benz C-class often gets compared as one. But it's not a sport sedan, and that's just fine, as European bureau chief Georg Kacher makes clear in his review of the European-spec, rear-wheel-driveMercedes-Benz C250. Mercedes will introduce the car in the United States exclusively in all-wheel-drive form, as the four-cylinder C300 4Matic and the six-cylinder C400 4Matic. We had the opportunity to drive the new Benz C400 4Matic a couple of weeks after Georg's review of the not-for-U.S. C250.
Mercedes says the high take rate for all-wheel drive in the northern half of the United States prompted the decision to launch the 4Matic cars first. We think the automaker also wants to establish a clear break between the front-wheel-drive CLA that now serves as the entry-level model and this new, upscale C-class. The rear-wheel-drive C-class currently sells for $36,725, versus $30,825 for the CLA. We expect the new models to start closer to $40,000, which is the base price for the current C300 4Matic. Those buyers who walk into a Mercedes-Benz dealership uncertain whether to opt for a CLA-class or C-class will be able to perceive instantly what the extra ten grand buys. The upright roofline and clean body sides of the new C-class sedan scream "real Mercedes." Design chief Gorden Wagener notes that he does not need to add ornamentation to his rear-wheel-drive cars (that is, those with longitudinal engines) the way he did with the front-wheel-drive CLA-class. That restraint is evident here, and it enhances the elegance of the C-class. Most cars sold in the United States, like the model we drove, will feature three-pointed star badges integrated into body-colored grilles, but Mercedes still offers a traditional chrome grille and upright star badge for those who prefer it. The C-class has grown 3.7 inches in length and 1.6 inches in width. When one passes you in traffic, you'll need a split second to realize it's not an E- or S-class.
That increase in stature pays dividends in the cabin. The back seat feels spacious enough to seat real adults. The interior design graduates from entry luxury to true luxury. Our AMG-package test car features beautiful open-pore Ash trim, blood-red leather seats, and a stitched synthetic leather dash. The new infotainment system combines a touchpad and click wheel, which sounds like a disaster but actually works well. The two inputs have large areas of overlap, meaning you can use any combination of touching and clicking to access any function. Later this year, Mercedes will introduce CarPlay, a syncing service for Apple iPhones.
The C400 4Matic nominally competes against the likes of the BMW 335ix and the Audi S4, but Mercedes tacitly admits it has not aimed to build a full-tilt sport sedan. The automaker thinks its buyers, who range from practical 55-year-old men in Europe to style-conscious 45-year-old women in the United States and 35-year-old professionals in China, aren't looking for in-your-face performance.
That's reflected in the C400's polite manners. Outside the car, one only hears the subtle chatter of the fuel injectors. Climb inside, roll up the windows, and enjoy near silence. Only when you dip deep into the accelerator pedal does the 329-hp, turbo V-6 clear its throat and sing a raspy baritone deep into triple-digit speeds. The six-cylinder acts like a basketball player in a business suit—it's not looking to play, but if you ask it to, it'll lay down a tomahawk slam-dunk.
Airmatic air suspension, standard on the C400 and optional on the C300, makes the car feel more like an athlete who's arrived at training camp out of shape. It leans heavily into turns and jounces in reaction to fast lane changes. In sharp turns, it wants to plow straight past the turn-in point, although the strong brakes and grippy Continental tires prevent it from doing so. Chief engineer Christian Früh blames the all-wheel-drive componentry, which adds some 150 pounds, nearly all of it over the front axle. Then there's the mass of a 3.0-liter V-6 compared with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder in the C250.
Indeed, the C250 we drove for comparison feels like a different car. It's nimble and balanced, and it enjoys being pushed in corners. While it does lean into turns, it does so in a more controlled and predictable fashion. All C-classes feature variable-ratio steering that tightens as you turn in more, a feature that bothers us in other vehicles but feels just right in this application. It makes the C-class easier to park and easier to point into the apex of a turn.
So, those who want a Mercedes sport sedan should wait for next spring, when the rear-wheel-drive C300 -- essentially a more powerful version of the C250 -- arrives at Benz's U.S. dealerships. Or you could buy a CLA45 AMG right now. However, those who want a comfortable luxury sedan that looks and feels very much like an S-class will do just fine with the C400 4Matic.
2015 Mercedes-Benz C400 4Matic
ON SALEOctober 2014
BASE PRICE$45,000 (est.)
ENGINE3.0L turbocharged V-6, 329 hp, 354 lb-ft [max rpm TBD]
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT184.5 x 71.3 x 56.7
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