What’s this? Another mid-life refresh for Merc’s biggest seller? Should we be bothered or should we just sigh and moan about yet another Teutonic yawn-fest?
2011 Mercedes-Benz C 350, 3.5-litre V6 petrol, seven-speed automatic transmission
What’s this? Another mid-life refresh for Merc’s biggest seller? Should we be bothered or should we just sigh and moan about yet another Teutonic yawn-fest? Well, Mercedes has seen fit to launch the ‘new’ C-Class back-to-back with the undeniably all new SLK in the surprisingly tropical Tenerife. I’ve already driven the SLK and have been impressed by the many advancements made with the two-seater, so will the C-Class feel like a damp squib in comparison?
Well there’s no point in comparing the two, obviously. But the C-Class is a veritable Mercedes staple and of high importance to the brand so any change to its DNA needs to be carefully considered. And on first acquaintance it would appear very little has changed. But Mercedes insists this new model has been updated with “more than 2000 new parts”. So let’s see if that’s enough.
Traditionally, the C-Class has been embraced by private and fleet purchasers in almost equal measure and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. The problem, to my mind, despite the company’s statement that it has been the global market leader in its segment since 2008, is that it has always seemed to be the ‘old man’s choice’ with none of the visual dynamism nor the driver involvement that a BMW 3 Series gives in abundance.
No matter, we need to look at the new C-Class without prejudice. The outgoing model has been available since 2007 and in that time it has sold in the order of 1.25 million units - impressive by anyone’s standards. And more than 2000 new parts should result in a comprehensively new car, but from the outside at least there are very few clues to its progress. There’s a new grille, new lamps front and rear and a new bumper treatment. The grille on the standard and Elegance models is the more traditional, fussy variety with a bonnet-mounted star while the Avantgarde variants receive a much more sporting look with a big star in the centre of a sleeker grille, a la SLS, CLS and SLK. And that is it. Inside, however, advancements are more manifest.
The interior really has benefited from a hike in quality, not only in the materials used in its construction but also in its design. It’s been comprehensively upgraded and one of the biggest improvements is the replacement of its former pop up infotainment screen with one that’s integrated into the dashboard. The real improvements, however, are under its sombre skin.
The engines for the C-Class were upgraded more than a year ago and they’ve been carried over to the new one, but the big news is the new, direct-injection V6 petrol unit. Compared with the outgoing, it’s more powerful by 25kW (up to 225kW) and more fuel efficient to the tune of 31 percent (how does 6.8 litres per 100km sound for a 3.5-litre V6?). Twist is up by 20Nm to 370Nm, too. And, despite the fact that this model won’t be on sale until much later this year, it’s the one I get the keys to first.
The roads of Tenerife are incredibly challenging. There’s plenty in the way of fast motorway but once you venture off piste the mountains dominate and the routes over them can expose the flaws in any car. Bravely this is the terrain Mercedes has chosen for us hacks to explore the talents, or otherwise, of the C-Class. And the news is good.
Stealthily, the C-Class has managed to trump the BMW 3 Series in many respects, not least as a car that rewards the enthusiastic driver - it’s just that not many people have realised this. What the C-Class does is provide the comfort and refinement of an S-Class on the motorway but it comes into its own on the twisty bits, so its pilot can enjoy an enthusiastic drive thanks to its more diminutive proportions and the tightness afforded by its chassis.
The Mercedes-Benz C350 is a brisk performer but it also provides a sense of calm, poise and, key to the brand, sophistication. Grip is plentiful and the sharp hairpins and steep inclines encountered on these roads pose no problem whatsoever for the Merc. The brakes feel excellent and the new seven-speed automatic transmission seems perfectly suited to its powertrain, making short work of some incredibly difficult roads that would have many other cars floundering.
But it’s not the driving experience that Mercedes is keen to concentrate on. Rather, we’re told repeatedly that the new C-Class has been blessed (some would say cursed) with no fewer than 10 new ‘assistance systems for more safety’. In other words, just like Audi, Mercedes doesn’t trust its customers to drive in a safe manner. Attention Assist and Active Bonnet are standard fitment throughout the range and Sport models will come with Intelligent Light System and Adaptive Highbeam Assist. See, they don’t trust us at all. Optionally available are Distronic Plus, Pre-Safe Brake, Active Lane Assist, Blind Spot Assist and Speed Limit Assist. Wipe Your Arse Assist is next, you can bet your life on it.
Before I get off my high horse, really, do we need any of this stuff? If you answer yes to all of it, perhaps you ought to consider whether you should be allowed on the road unaccompanied in the first place. But that’s the C-Class for you - it’s bringing the technology of the S-Class and the CLS to us plebs with less to spend. Having said that, once you start going nuts speccing one up from the options list it’s scary how much you can end up spending.
Oh, and lest we forget, the new C-Class can connect to the internet via a new generation Telematics system. As well as Googling for unspeakable material, occupants can, for the first time in a C-Class, save driven routes - handy when you’re impressed by the scenery and want to retrace your steps at some time in the future.
So, is the new C-Class little more than a mid-life refresh? On paper, no. But in practice that’s exactly what it looks and feels like. That’s not to take away anything from its considerable talents but it really isn’t a car to excite the senses, even with an admittedly impressive V6 under the bonnet. When the AMG comes along (sooner than you might think), the C-Class will take the fight to BMW’s brilliant M3 and there’ll be an extremely handsome two-door coupe that will, at the very least, give the exterior looks a shot in the arm.
If the previous C-Class was a tempting proposition for you then you’ll still find plenty to like here, but only time will tell if Mercedes can cling onto its recent sales record once its nemesis, the new 3 Series, comes along in a few months’ time. The tide could shift once again but the C Class will still remain a seriously impressive, if ultimately unexciting, mode of transport.
The 2011 Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan and estate will arrive in Australia in June, followed by the coupe in July, and all three AMG variants in September.