Does Mercedes-Benz’s new small luxury saloon have what it takes to unseat the 3 Series from its lofty perch? JON WALL finds out on the roads of southern France
SINCE MERCEDES-BENZ introduced the C-class in the early 1990s, it’s had one car in its sights. Dynamically, BMW’s 3 Series has long been considered the yardstick by which every other compact luxury saloon is judged, and though recent C-class generations (the W203 of 2000 and 2007’s W204) may have come close to unseating their Bavarian rival from its leading position, they’ve never quite exerted the necessary shove to topple it.
That’s not to say that the C has ever been anything less than thoroughly worthy. Its build quality, comfort and sophistication, not to mention the perceived prestige of that three-pointed star on the nose, have ensured it’s been the best-selling car in the Benz line-up for years, giving sterling service to many millions of owners around the world.
But how to snatch BMW’s crown? Enter Mercedes’s new champion in this fiercely contested segment (and remember, too, that the fifth-generation A4 is also just months away), the W205 – or as most of us will refer to it, the 2014 C-class. Revealed late last year and resembling a scaled-down S-class, it’s a car that on paper looks as if it may just have what it takes to carry off the title to Stuttgart.
This latest C-class is being launched to the world’s media in Marseilles, where the assembled motoring scribes have the opportunity to hustle it about on autoroutes and city streets, and through the hills and valleys of coastal Provence. Our test cars are fitted with the full range of engines available at launch, which include C 250 Bluetec (diesel) and C 250 (petrol) versions as well as the allwheel- drive C 400 4matic. Trim options also run the gamut from Avantgarde through Exclusive to the top-level AMG line.
Each of the four examples I drive is, deeply impressive. But I’m restricting my observations to the C 250, not just because it’s likely to be the biggest global seller, but also because it appears to offer the best balance of luxury, performance and economy – all key areas in which this new car must excel.
First, though, those gorgeous, baby S-class lines, which really do set this new C 250 apart – and especially so in sporty AMG guise. Rakish, elegant and subtle, the body is also commendably slippery, with a drag coefficient of just 0.28 (exclusive versions with the classic Mercedes radiator also offer frontgrille shutters, which optimise the aerodynamics still further). Perhaps the rear does appear a little truncated in comparison with the long, low bonnet, but from most viewpoints the C-class is an unusually attractive and even classy piece of kit.
That big-car feel permeates the cabin, as well as the exhaustive list of high-tech options that Mercedes has seen fit to lavish on its newcomer. From the brushed-aluminium air vents to the exquisite door-mounted seat controls and Burmester speaker grilles, the detailing whispers premium quality and even the glamour of considerably more costly vehicles. Exuding luxury at every corner (dual-zone air conditioning, for example, is standard equipment), this interior is beautifully cohesive and a notch well above anything currently offered by the competition.
Not that it’s entirely without shortcomings. I’m still unconvinced about Merc’s info screen, which I first encountered on the A-class and looks as if an iPad’s been tacked onto the centre of the dash, somewhat as an afterthought. And what I first take to be some new-fangled gear shifter on the sweeping central console turns out to be an additional touchpad control for the infotainment system. It’s a cinch to use, once I get the hang of it, though I don’t find selecting Drive via a slender wand on the steering column quite so intuitive.
Lovely though the cabin is, it’s beneath the skin of the C-class where the most important changes have been wrought. Partly thanks to its new aluminium-hybrid body, the new car is around 100kg lighter than its predecessor, and the slimming down has naturally contributed to improved fuel consumption.
Completely revised suspension – four-link at the front and fivelink at the rear – smoothes the ride and sharpens the handling, and for the first time on a car of this class, optional air suspension is offered. The latter, which is fitted to all the test cars, provides a ride quality that’s so cosseting and supple it verges on the revelatory. If there’s one option box that must be ticked, it’s this one.
Driver-assistance aids include a rear-view camera, and a battery of extra-cost add-ons – attention assist, collision-prevention assist, enhanced active-lane-keeping assist, traffic sign assist, active parking assist, head-up display (HUD) – that not only ping and flash like a peripatetic pachinko parlour but will actually take over if they conclude the driver isn’t paying sufficient attention. The HUD aside, I’m not especially wild about such tech, reckoning I can drive perfectly well without it, but I can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity.
All launch engines observe the small-capacity, high-output, high-efficiency mantra that’s now being chanted by all German manufacturers – though doubtless the twin-turbo V8 AMG unit that’s currently under development for the C-class’s super-sporting variant will bellow a very different refrain. The C 250’s four-cylinder turbocharged engine, for example, displaces just 2 litres, and cranks out 208bhp and 350Nm; usefully, the torque is available between 1,200 and 4,000rpm, providing a noticeable boost at the lower end of the rev band. Mercedes claims a 0-100km/h time of 6.6 seconds and a maximum speed of 250, neither of which I’d contest, but equally noteworthy are the 5.3 litres-per-100km fuel consumption (achievable in urban and highway driving) and CO2 emissions at 123g per km.
I’d doubt whether the six-speed manual gearbox that’s standard equipment on entry-level models in Europe will find its way to Asia. C-classes bound for this part of the world will almost certainly be fitted with Benz’s in-house seven-speed autobox, which does a respectable job of delivering the power to the rear wheels, even if it isn’t the smoothest transmission around. Additional to paddle shifters is an Agility Select switch on the console that engages a menu of driving modes: Eco, Comfort, Sport and Sport+. An extra custom option permits a personalised combination of engine, transmission, steering and traction settings.
Out on the autoroute I’m struck by two things. The first is that the modest four-pot motor is smooth, responsive and easily up to the job of keeping station in the fastmoving traffic stream – and there’s clearly more urge in reserve. The second is that the aerodynamicists and NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) engineers have so thoroughly subdued wind and tyre noise, and tuned out other aural distractions, that even at 130km/h the cabin is sufficiently hushed as to permit normal conversation. It’s another critical area where Mercedes has seriously raised the bar well above its rivals.
To get the real measure of the C-class’s dynamic abilities, I snick the Agility switch to one of the two more sporting modes and see how that affects the ride and handling. The answer is that while the chassis and steering seem remarkably sorted, there’s almost no trade off in comfort.
The car wafts around bends and over rough surfaces with perfect composure. It’s stable, it grips tenaciously and the steering, though perhaps a fraction light, is super-accurate – which makes it a joy when I leave the highway and turn onto the byways that wind between Aix-en-Provence and La Ciotat. Here it handles like a proper sports saloon, yet it also exhibits the magic-carpet ride of a limo – thanks, no doubt, to the air springs that soak up the bumps and thumps of the low-profile rubber on tarmac.
It’s that rapid yet apparently effortless progress through the Provençal countryside that neatly pinpoints the C-class’s appeal, and illustrates how Mercedes-Benz has so cleverly moved the goalposts in this all-important automobile category. For the company has created a saloon that’s sufficiently sporting in character, ability and performance to take on the 3 Series on its own terms, yet has endowed it with the grace and refinement of an S-class – the luxury car that many would claim to be the best in the world.
And that achievement isn’t just extraordinary. It also elevates this brilliant “baby Benz” to the very pinnacle of desirability.
+Prestige Hong Kong