The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is the most-purchased luxury car in Australia, and has been class leader for more than a decade. But with the spectre of a brand-new BMW 3 Series looming, competition is about to heat up.
So it’s good timing for the brand to release an upgraded version of its now four-year-old staple, encompassing the mainstream sedan version, the sleek wagon, and the coupe and convertible sporty spinoffs.
While the revised range doesn’t look much different - a tweaked grille here, new LED headlights there - Mercedes reckons it has changed a staggering 6500 parts compared to the outgoing models, equating to about half the component set. Same skin, new organs.
We spent most of our time at this week’s launch in the revised C200 version, which gets the most changes of any variant. At $63,400 before on-road costs in sedan form, it’s $1500 more than before. The wagon can be had from $65,900, the coupe from $67,900, and the cabriolet from a startling $88,400.
The biggest change to this revised C200 is its heart. The old 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine makes way for a new force-inducted 1.5-litre unit, still a four-cylinder but clearly with a reduced displacement. From there, things get rather more complex…
The new drivetrain comprises a setup that we’re seeing more of across the premium end of the market, in response to ever-more-stringent emissions regulations. It’s a 48 volt onboard electrical system called ‘EQ Boost’ with a starter/alternator system, driven by a belt, and which charges up with recuperated kinetic energy made during deceleration.
Compared to the old engine, the new 1.5 makes an unchanged 135kW of peak power, though its maximum torque output of 280Nm is down 20Nm. Offsetting this, the EQ Boost is capable of filling in the gap before the little engine’s turbocharger gets up to its ideal boost pressure.
In short, it adds an incremental near-instant 10kW/160Nm during that small window, though it’s not as simple as just adding these outputs to the engine’s, as one source kicks in before the other has peaked.
The EQ Boost also helps the engine reach its ideal speed more quickly during gear shifts, subsequently shortening the nine-speed automatic’s shift times.
It’s not quite a hybrid car as we know it – the kerb weight impost is only 40kg, for instance – but the electrification assists proceedings. The result is acceleration that belies the displacement, both in terms of forward progress and a smoother, more linear feel.
At the same time you can’t paint over the fact that the 7.7 seconds it takes to get from 0-100km/h, while brisk enough, is half-a-second slower than last year’s model. Mercedes would argue that pace isn’t the key here (that’s what AMG is for); it’s smoothness and fuel economy.
On these counts, it’s worked. The claimed fuel consumption figure is 6.4 litres per 100km, which, on the face of it, is only 0.1L/100km better than before. However, once again things aren’t so simple. The old car was measured on the NEDC fuel test cycle, whereas this new version is measured on the harder, but more realistic, WLTP test.
There’s no direct NEDC to WLTP translation, but the latter results in typically higher consumption figures, meaning they’re more reflective of real-world results compared to the pie-in-the-sky NEDC numbers that you had to drive like Grandpa to match. All manufacturers with a presence in Europe are re-testing their vehicles against this metric.
On our test drive we achieved 7.6L/100km, with some spirited application of the right foot at times. Matching the claim will prove eminently doable.
The system has some other positives, not least of all a preternaturally smooth stop/start function. That trick starter/alternator means the engine turns over almost silently, with next to no vibrations, more quickly.
With this setup, the days of your car shuddering off, and shuddering on again while in heavy traffic, appear to be numbered. There’s no longer any sensible need to reach for the idle-stop system’s ‘off’ switch.
There’s also a so-called ‘gliding mode’ in which the engine decouples/switches off while the electrical system keeps your cabin functions going, meaning you’re just cruising along with no emissions, making no noise, before the engine kicks in upon throttle application without fanfare.
It’s a smoother and more seamless experience than a regular series petrol-electric car, though the fuel economy cannot match that of the larger Toyota Camry Hybrid. On the upside, there are fewer packaging and weight restrictions, and the system’s cost premium is reduced.
The biggest asset is the fact you need to try hard to feel any big differences. Indeed, Mercedes has gone to great development expense (well, some of that R&D cost belongs to 48V supplier Bosch) in order to offer a more efficient base engine that feels like any other, only more refined.
On the topic of refinement, for the first time the non-AMG C-Classes also get adjustable dampers programmed into the driving modes, with a softer setting and a stiffer, sportier setting. You have to pay $1400 for the pleasure, though, unlike many rivals.
Our tester was fitted with optional 19-inch rims with Continental tyres, instead of the regular 18s, and the ride was occasionally a little brittle over some pockmarked road as a result. The price paid for style...
Beyond this, the interior gets a substantial makeover. The centre screen is now 10.25 inches diagonally, and runs a new user interface with cleaner and more modern graphics and simpler sub-menus, all controlled by the familiar rotary dial surrounded by shortcut buttons.
It’s sharp and fast, and a more pleasant experience than before. However, Mercedes fans will note it’s not the full-fat MBUX operating system used on the new A-Class, which has pinch/zoom/swipe functions like a smartphone, and conversational ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice control like Siri or Alexa controlling many onboard functions.
Simply put, the C-Class here is an update, not an all-new model, ergo it would have been too expensive to fit the new OS. Still, it seems counter-intuitive.
Nevertheless, this screen has a great navigation system that works a treat on that wider screen, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto phone mirroring, the former enhanced by the fact the iOS 12 now lets you project Google’s live Maps.
The other big change is the fully digital instrument display, measuring 12.3 inches diagonally. As well as having three distinct ‘themes’ called Classic, Sport and Progressive, you can also view maps, and adjust other key functions, without having to turn your head.
On our tester this was augmented by a colourised head-up display projected onto the windscreen, showing your speed and navigation prompts.
Again though, this is an option: in our case part of the $4846 Vision Package that also gives you a panoramic glass roof, a crisp 360-degree camera and Multibeam ‘intelligent’ headlights that block off individual LEDs when the auto high-beam is running, and have a 650m range.
Another first for the C-Class is the new steering wheel trickled down from the E-Class that sports touch-sensitive pads on each spoke, the left one there to navigate the main screen and the right one to toggle through all the menus on the digital instrument cluster.
They’re really intuitive, though when you reach the end of a menu’s options on the cluster the system doesn’t just cycle back to the start, meaning you need to toggle all the way ’back’ to the left again. A small gripe.
All up, the tweaks greatly freshen the cabin, with typically slick Mercedes design and greater user-friendliness. Assisting the aesthetic is the interior ambient LED lighting system with a whopping 64 colour options to choose from. Each changes the interior mood dramatically.
Standard safety equipment includes autonomous emergency braking and blind-spot alert, however you cannot get the Driving Assistance Package until you step up to the revised C300.
This is an issue because with this you get active lane-keeping assist (steers you between road lines), Distronic active cruise control, evasive steering assist, Pre-Safe plus (tightens the belts before a crash automatically) and Traffic Sign Assist. We’d prefer if these were at least optional, with active cruise the most glaring omissions, given its ubiquity in the market.
There aren’t many changes to the back seats or boot, though the wagon models now get 40:20:40 split rear seats, and electric unlocking and folding backrests that operate at the push of a button. The wagon’s boot capacity of 480 litres remains pretty poxy for an Estate, though it grows to a decent 1510L with the back seats down.
It’s worth just mentioning that the cabrio’s soft top can be opened and closed in less than 20 seconds up to a speed of 50 km/h.
So that’s a look at the revised Mercedes-Benz C200. The changes aren’t obvious at first glance, but there are enough things going on under the skin to keep sales ticking over, and potentially enough that’s new to encourage someone to upgrade from their current model.
On the downside, we’d like some of the active safety features found on the C300 to be at least optional on the C200, the new infotainment still trails the A-Class’ game-changing MBUX system, and the base price is a touch higher than before.
On the upside, you get that smooth, efficient and high-tech new drivetrain, slick new cabin interfaces that modernise the otherwise classical style inside, and worthwhile changes to the suspension, lighting and - in the case of the wagon - ease-of-use.
It’s no revolution, but few facelifts are. It should suffice to keep the C-Class atop the charts though, because it hasn’t ‘fixed’ anything that wasn’t broken, and has only added to what was already an enduringly popular package.