It’s fair to say that Australia remains clung to the notion that shoving a four-cylinder diesel under the bonnet of a two-door sports coupe is questionable at best, mildly preposterous at worst. It’s not necessarily a bad notion, just one that rubs against the grain of conventional petrol-hedonism that underpins enthusiastic motoring. For Aussies in particular, the execution of diesels-as-driving enjoyment, while ever improving, hasn't exactly hit game-changing strides yet. There remains a psychological hurdle of prejudice in the local mindset that the Europeans find easier to negotiate, undoubtedly aided by the hip pocket lightness opting for diesel their markets provide.
The just-launched 2016 Mercedes-Benz C250d Coupe is the latest in a fairly short line of imports spruiking the, erm, good oil on blending frugality and fun factor to Aussie buyers. And after a week behind the wheel, it makes for a compelling, if not wholly convincing, case.
The sole diesel version of the C Coupe retains the strong on-road presence of its petrol kin, as all Aussie-spec variants of the mid-sized two-door get AMG Line appearance enhancements. That said, the 250d, at $74,900 plus on-roads, gets a few extra goodies over the ($65,900 plus on-roads) entry petrol-powered C200 Coupe in lieu of the nine-grand premium the oiler demands. These include 19-inch wheels (rather than the C200’s 18s), leather trim, keyless entry and go, and privacy glass… over and above the double-stitched Artico dash, automatic seatbelt feeders, black ash wood trim, 360-degree parking cameras, LED headlights, DAB+ radio and satellite navigation that even the most-basic two-door comes loaded with.
But there’s more going on than merely loaded specification. The C250d Coupe deftly blends prestige and sportiness in design and integration. And whether it's a trick of perception of loading the same gear into a coupe body shell or not, the C Coupe seems more upmarket than the C-Class sedan with which its twinned. The two-door just feels it has all the right jewelry in all the right places.
Outside, beyond the sweeping body curves, the highly polished lower front fascia ‘wing’ and dual rectangular exhaust tips, frosted silver accents, lack of boot latch hardware and diamond-pattern single-divider grille all look stylishly ‘flagship’. It smashes the spot-it-from-50-paces test and is less hip-heavy than Benz coupes of old, anchored by a squat stance that's subtly enhanced by much wider 255mm rear rubber than those 225mm fronts.
The cabin space, too, is a feast for the eyes – one of my relatives, a die-hard BMW man, describes it as “retro Bond” with a fair degree of admiration. The deeply set two-plus-two bucket seats, the standard issue Cranberry Red leather trim, generous contrasted double-stitching and the endless array of metal and metal-look switchgear all neatly sidestep the drab grey/piano black/frosted silver ‘prestige-by-numbers’ formula that's spread the motoring world like a disease right through to properly budget cars.
For broad appeal, the Benz Coupe – diesel or not – nails it between the eyes, and it looks and feels well worth the extra $4500, and then some, over the equivalent C250d sedan. And it would want to wind up the feel-good factor because under the curvaceous skin its oily bits, engine and otherwise, are very much common with the C-Class four-door.
There are 150 hardly-jaw-dropping kilowatts underpinned by 500 lusty Newton metres conspiring together to make case of sporty performance with a diesel bent. And it only partially works…
At start-up and on idle, the 2.1-litre (or 2.2L, some may argue, given its 2143cc capacity) four-cylinder struggles to mask its compression ignition design and the typical characteristics it brings. That signature diesel ‘chatter’ is there, and though it’s reasonably muted it’s not quite the quiet operator that, say, Audi’s latest TDI four-cylinder crop has become. It's a smooth enough unit, if one slightly hamstrung by the usual straight-four diesel traits of a lack of character and exhaust note, and a pronounced drop off in motivation if you try liberating rpm.
So while the tacho hits red at five grand, its 150kW peak arrives much earlier, from 3800rpm, so it rewards with pace only if you temper the revs and ride its mid-range... which isn't a terribly 'sporty' driving experience. Meanwhile, that fat 500Nm of torque, too, spreads itself quite thin in the rev range, a mere 200rpm window between 1600-1800rpm. Underfoot, though, the energy is broader and plumper than the numbers suggest, if an undertow of shove fit for moving mass rather than the kind of fizz that threatens to break rear-wheel traction.
Right here the conventional automatic’s nine forward ratios pay dividends, and the whole powertrain benefits from some clever tuning. There are five drive modes on offer – Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and the configurable Individual – and in the more leisurely presets forward progress is polished and untasked even under brisk acceleration, the only negative being a doughy throttle response. The neat trick is that the transmission seamlessly shuffles through eight forward ratios keeping the engine on boil right up to 100km/h. Only after a steady throttle hovering around 110km/h does the ninth ratio engage, ticking the diesel over at around 1300rpm, returning around six litres per 100 kilometres of real-world cruising-speed consumption. Impressive.
Sport and Sport+ progressively heighten the Coupe’s responses, crucially in throttle sharpness. On a charge, the tacho needle barely dips below 2000rpm and the transmission, in self-shifting mode, barely wants for a ratio above sixth, at least when the two-door 'Benz isn’t bolting beyond highway speed limits. Sport is the most flexible and satisfying mode to keep it in for the balance of driving, where it avoids the lethargy and freneticism of the modes either side.
For the contemporary-minded pragmatist, there’s much to like about ‘double-six performance’: that is, six-second 0-100km/h acceleration paired with six-litre-per-100-kilometre frugality. With its set of 6.7sec and 5.4-litre claims, the C250d Coupe does favour frugality over sheer pace, but that needn’t detract from the goodness on offer and the desirability it brings. (For a more balanced set of claims, the C300 petrol, at $83,400 plus on-roads, presents buyers with 6.0sec and 6.6L stats.)
Essentially, the C250d Coupe blends grand touring manners and sporting intent, without being a master or slave to either discipline, but offering a satisfying synergy of both. Dynamically, the single-tune suspension favours sportiness and driver engagement, with a flat cornering stance together with taut and slightly busy, if moderately compliant, ride comfort. As we found during the Coupe range’s local launch, the optional Airmatic adaptive suspension system goes a long way to taming bump composure, though I suspect at the mercy of the passive system’s sporty sheen.
In our regular, passively steel suspended test car, body control is tight. It tracks through sweeping corners assertively, and it points with a confidence allied with a tremendous amount of grip. When choosing to turn up the heat during bombing across the countryside, the coupe responds with gusto and pace.
That said, it’s not ‘sports car like’ in playfulness or in the sense of being able to be driven ‘on the throttle’. It’s quick if benign, satisfying through solid communication rather than dwelling on the fringes of liveliness or injecting a surfeit of character. There’s purpose in the package, though not the type that’ll whiten knuckles or plaster grins, and it has no place anywhere near a racetrack.
Equally, there are probably more practical grand touring options out there… for more than two occupants. The front seats look great, balance support and comfort beautifully, and the first row is roomy and sports-focused, from the low-slung seating position to the driver-centric ergonomics and controls.
Iridium Silver paintwork ($1531) aside, our test car’s options are all centered inside the cabin. I’ve long found the much-criticised Comand infotainment package ($2300) logical, easy to use and fast acting, particularly the predictive sat nav address system, while the 360-degree parking camera – splitable into six different ‘surround’ views – is top-class. The Vision package ($3454), which add a blind-screened panoramic glass roof and adaptive LED headlights are as give or take as the front seat heating option ($531), though the auto high-beam function works a treat. Our test car was also fitted with the novel Air Balance fragrance system ($377) loaded with Freeside Mood, one of a number of perfume choices.
While the second row seems perfectly formed for my six-year-old son and his booster seat, accommodation may be tight for larger beings. Despite cutaway in the ceiling, headroom is very limited, and spaciousness in every other direction is tight. The motorised front headrests retract during the front seat-folding process – much to Junior’s delight – but, for adults, climbing in to or out of row two is a delight only for contortionists. Worse still, those gloriously lengthy frameless doors can only open to a shallow angle in usually narrow perpendicular car spaces.
If there’s an upshot to the tight second row wedged into the coupe silhouette, it’s that it’s created a fairly cavernous and useable bootspace. The bootlid itself is electrically operated, though the lack of an actual external latch (you must use the key fob) is annoying. But in an all-round sense, it's quite a practical and flexible take on a two-door coupe format.
Verdict? Urbanites may find the frugality and punchiness of the diesel a happy companion to the sports coupe vibe if you’re not fussed about the lacklustre character of the powertrain and generally firm ride. For some buyers, it pays more than handsome enough dividends in presence and prestige alone.
The C250d Coupe is a sweeter and more satisfying prospect, though, when open road driving and grand touring take larger slices of overall ownership. If you live in the big smoke and work regionally, or vice versa, and cover large distances regularly, the Benz really comes into its own. For lifestyles on the constant move, the diesel is less intrusive, the chassis satisfies better, the inherent sportiness become more useful and conspicuous.
It’s the kind of car you’d both sensibly and emotionally opt for to bomb across Europe, from the autobahn to the Alpine high passes, for a couple of weeks if you want to keep a lid on fuel costs. And it translates reasonably confidently in tackling the Hume Highway with a detour via the Snowy Mountains, or any other grander touring jaunt you might throw at it in our own grand backyard.
If the C Coupe begs for anything, it's for more powertrain character, something that's proven a real struggle for in-line four cylinders diesel engines. There is, however, an emergence of a number of feisty, revvy, great-sounding V-configuration oilers in the motoring universe, engines of ample soul and an overabundance of torque befitting the place 'Benz's mid-sized two-door occupies.
We can't help thinking that the C350d Coupe with the marque's potent 190kW/620Nm 3.0-litre V6 under the right slipper – available overseas but not taken up by Mercedes-Benz Australia – might make this whole diesel sports coupe deal just that much more convincing.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2016 Mercedes-Benz C250d Coupe images by Tom Fraser.