Benz's fourth-generation compact executive car doesn't just look like a shrunken S-Class...
The three-pointed star’s new range of compact models have been making industry and buyers sit up and take notice for the past couple of years, but now it’s the time for the 2014 Mercedes-Benz C-Class – the latest version of the company’s sales hero.
And while the likes of the A-Class and B-Class hatches are about bringing new customers to the brand, the C-Class is about keeping junior executives out of an Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Lexus IS or, from 2015, a Jaguar XE.
Career-ladder climbers should certainly be attracted to the design of the fourth generation of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class that makes it look like a shrunken S-Class limo, though its length has grown a substantial 95mm to distance it from the CLA four-door.
It borrows more than styling cues from the limo. Construction uses five times the amount of aluminium than the old model to reduce its mass by as much as 100kg in C180 guise.
There’s also a variety of driver assistance tech that has cascaded down, including systems that will automatically brake the car around town or on the freeway to help avoid collisions at a range of speeds.
The most indelible of the S-Class’s various influences on the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, however, is found in the cabin.
Compared with the outgoing model’s interior that needed a major mid-life makeover to make it more appropriately dressed inside for a luxury car, the new C-Class is immediately astounding in its level of quality and detail.
Base models (C180 in Europe but C200 for Australia) have a hard-plastic centre console but in C250 models and above there’s more padded trim at lower levels of the interior than is typical for the category.
Wherever you prod or brush with your fingers, there’s seemingly tactile surfaces everywhere – well beyond just the normal touch points.
Even operating something as simple as the window switches – borrowed from the S-Class – is an almost-sensual experience.
Open the glovebox and there’s even the same style of perfume dispenser found in the S-Class wafting pleasant smells into interior.
Other highlights of the beautifully crafted cabin include the wavy design of the dash and upper door trims, and the classy colour matching that is consistent through all the trim and upholstery options.
These include choices of wood veneers, gloss plastics or genuine metals.
This is carried through to the rear seat where a pair of stylish air vents match the five up front, heating or cooling passengers who are afforded a comfortably angled bench with decent clearance for both knees and noggins. Mercedes says the 80mm-longer wheelbase brings an extra 25mm of legroom than before. Foot room is a bit more pinched and you’ll want to ask front occupants if they’d mind raising their seats.
As with Benz’s compact models, the dash’s infotainment screen is inspired by Apple products – though in the C-Class its size is more iPad Air than iPad Mini. It floats rather than being incorporated into the dash because Mercedes didn’t want the dashboard to go too high.
Mercedes’ Comand system also aims to catch up with Audi’s MMI and BMW’s iDrive system with a new controller that combines a touchpad hovering over a rotary dial.
You run your finger over the touchpad to switch between menu choices and functions, though first impressions are that the sensitivity level could be higher as there can be a delay between moving your finger and the selection being highlighted (which is then engaged by clicking down on the dial).
More certain is that Comand satellite navigation trails iDrive’s map system – with route graphics that can be slow to keep up with the car’s position on roundabouts and voice instructions that come later then ideal both conspiring to occasionally make following directions harder than necessary.
The sat-nav was a constant companion as Mercedes sent testers on the international launch along a wide variety of roads in the South of France, around Marseille and the Provence region.
Roads of a generally high quality means a more definitive verdict on the Mercedes-Benz C-Class will await local bitumen. That said, the car that’s no longer true to its former ‘baby Benz’ label suggests it will ride well on either the standard suspension or the optional air suspension that is a first for the mid-sized luxury car segment.
The steel-sprung version picks up smaller surface irregularities, though in default Comfort mode the air-sprung suspension is also prone to thrumming over expansion joints and porpoising as it reacts to the ups and downs of country roads and freeways.
Rolling the metal Agility scroller on the centre console to select Sport mode settles the C-Class more nicely, with little cost to ride smoothness. This would be our recommendation for the suspension choice in the Individual set-up where you can still have the steering or engine in a more relaxed mode. (Though we’d also have steering in Sport, where we found Comfort too light – but still enjoyably smooth – around the straight-ahead position.)
The chassis of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the company’s first vehicle to sit on its new Mercedes Rear-Drive Architecture (MRA), doesn’t make a mockery of that Agility button, either.
While first instincts are that a 3 Series will retain the edge as the more engaging driver’s car – with the caveats of good surfaces and optional adaptive suspension – Mercedes’ rival takes to corners with a likable liveliness.
The 155kW/350Nm C250 petrol is more enjoyable than the 150kW/500Nm C250 Bluetec (diesel) in this respect due to less weight over the nose and the 2.0-litre’s gurgly note and greater appetite for revs.
However, the diesel is no slower to 100km/h (6.6 seconds) and counters with better fuel economy – 4.3 litres per 100km versus 5.3L/100km.
It’s also no noisier than the petrol at lower revs, and when pushed harder the diesel 2.1-litre four-cylinder sounds more hushed than we’ve heard it in other Benz applications such as the E-Class.
The 135kW/300Nm C200 that uses a detuned version of the 2.0-litre petrol is a pleasant enough engine, though it doesn’t offer any better efficiency than the C250 and can’t match the more powerful four-cylinder’s pulling ability – though both produce maximum torque across a useful band stretching from 1200 to 4000rpm.
Even torquier, though, is the C400 and its twin-turbo 3.0-litre V6 that produces 245kW and 480Nm.
Mercedes has yet to quote specific consumption (“less than 8.0L/100km”, it says) or performance figures for the C400, though it’s undoubtedly quick both off the line and strong through the gears via the seven-speed auto, pairing hard acceleration with a delightfully snarly soundtrack.
The former is helped by all-wheel drive – an option that won’t be available to Australia until the related next-generation GLK comes into production and introduces the AWD version of the MRA platform to right-hand drive.
Fuel efficiency and a quiet cabin are helped by the most slippery car shape in the class – with aerodynamics at their optimum with an available radiator with shutters that can close when the engine requires less cooling.
One of the four cars we tested had noticeable wind noise, which an aerodynamicist suggested was down to a side mirror issue the company rectified late in development but hadn’t been resolved on all the launch models.
Mercedes didn’t nail some key areas of refinement with the A- and B-Class, but the C-Class bodes well for future variants and vehicles to be spun off the MRA platform.
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is already CarAdvice’s pick of the mid-sized luxury cars and it also continues to lead the sales race locally. Everything with the 2014 model now points to a stretched advantage.
It won’t hurt that many are likely to view this as the best-looking C-Class yet, while Mercedes-Benz Australia is also promising more standard equipment with little movement on pricing (currently from $59,900) for the model’s launch in July/August.
For all the bragged new benchmarks (noise refinement, fuel efficiency and aerodynamics), however, it’s the interior that most obviously elevates the new Mercedes-Benz C-Class to a higher level that will make even Audi – the usual standard-bearer for interior quality and launching a new A4 in 2015 – take note.