Mercedes-Benz C300 2021
launch-review

2021 Mercedes-Benz W206 C-Class review: International first drive

Rating: 8.4
Current Pricing Not Available
  • Fuel Economy
    7L
  • Engine Power
    190kW
  • CO2 Emissions
    159g
  • ANCAP Rating
    9Stars
A new Mercedes-Benz C-Class – the fifth in the mid-size luxury class contender’s 28-year sales career.
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Since its introduction to the Mercedes-Benz line-up in 1993, it has garnered a total of 8.6 million sales worldwide in sedan, wagon, as well as coupe and convertible body styles. That includes 2.5 million sales of the fourth-generation model, which was introduced to the Australian market back in 2014.

It goes without saying that a good deal of the German carmaker’s growth and profitability over the past three decades can be traced to the success of the C-Class. So, the new model, the W206 as it is codenamed, clearly has a lot to live up to.

This time around, however, the odds of repeated success appear less certain than ever. Not because of any fundamental weakness in the car itself. But with the paradigm shift currently being felt right throughout the global car industry as governments work to adopt regulations favouring pure-electric cars, traditional combustion engine favourites such as the C-Class suddenly find themselves under increased pressure.

Having made a big step with the previous model, this new one represents more of an evolutionary change rather than a new start. The new fifth-generation model retains the same basic building blocks as its hugely successful predecessor, though just about every component has been altered to boost its appeal and keep those sales ticking over. To make regulators happy and appease environmental groups, it also adopts electrified engines across the range.

The new C-Class has influence beyond the initial sedan and estate models. It also forms the basis of the second-generation GLC, which is planned to see Australian sales in both SUV and Coupe body styles in 2022. It’s a big deal.

In a move that harks back to the first-generation model, Mercedes-Benz has provided the new model with closer styling links to the latest E- and S-Class than more recent generations of the C-Class, as part of wider efforts to provide its line-up with a more cohesive styling lineage.

This is evident in the shape of elements such as its grille, headlamps, power domes within the bonnet, and horizontally positioned tail-lamps that now extend into the boot lid, to give the new model greater visual width. It also applies to its cab-backwards profile, six-window glasshouse treatment, largely unadorned flanks and overall stance – all closely modelled on those of its larger siblings to give it a drag co-efficient of 0.24.

For the first time since it was brought into its line-up 28 years ago, Mercedes-Benz is launching both the new sedan and estate at the same time. The usual six-month wait for the latter has been done away with thanks to improvements in production line efficiency, according to the German carmaker. Coupe and cabriolet models will follow, although not before 2023.

Predictably, the new C-Class has grown. Length is up by 65mm to 4751mm and width increases by 13mm to 1820mm, though a slightly sleeker roof line sees its height reduced by 9mm over the model it replaces at 1438mm on the sedan driven here.

This makes it 63mm longer, 10mm wider and 1mm lower than the closest of Mercedes-Benz’s four-door models, the second-generation CLA. It is also 42mm longer, 7mm narrower and 4mm lower than its closest traditional rival, the BMW 3 Series sedan.

The increase in length is aligned to a longer wheelbase, which has grown by 25mm to 2865mm. The added width, meanwhile, has seen the adoption of wider tracks. The front is up by 19mm to 1583mm, while the rear is extended by 48mm to 1594mm, with the effect that the new C-Class’s wheels, ranging from a standard 17 up to optional 20 inches in diameter, now sit further outboard within the wheelhouses.

Underpinning the new Mercedes-Benz is a reworked version of the outgoing fourth-generation C-Class’s MRA (Modular Rear Architecture) platform. The German carmaker won’t go into specifics on what has changed here, saying only that the material mix of the floorpan has been altered with greater aluminium and hot-pressed steel, and that overall rigidity has been increased over the old C-Class.

The new four-door uses a similar suspension design to its predecessor, with double wishbones up front and a five-link arrangement at the rear. In combination with the wider tracks, the springs, dampers and anti-roll bars have all been returned.

Buyers can continue to specify adaptive dampers as optional equipment. Unlike the previous fourth-generation C-Class, though, there is no rear air suspension option anymore. In a move aimed at increasing low-speed manoeuvrability while introducing greater stability at higher speeds, however, the new C-Class receives optional rear-wheel steering for the first time. It operates at up to 2.5 degrees in a bid to project it beyond the latest 3 Series for outright driver appeal.

Inside, the new C-Class boasts the same contemporary look as the new S-Class. It makes a very strong impression when you step inside and set your backside on the newly styled front seats, with a mix of materials and expanse of optical-fibre lighting that make it feel even more special than the interior you find in the more expensive E-Class.

The driving position is ergonomically pleasing, with plenty of adjustment for the seat and the newly styled steering wheel, which comes with touch controls in the horizontal spokes on more heavily specified models. Visibility is good, if not great. However, there is an armada of sensors and cameras to keep tabs during parking and the like.

Depending on the model and equipment line, there is either a 10.25- or 12.3-inch instrument display together with a portrait-style central touch display measuring 9.5 or 11.9 inches in diameter within the C-Class’s newly styled dashboard. Many of the controls have been incorporated into the latter, including those for the air-conditioning, leaving very few physical buttons. It’s all controlled by the latest generation of Mercedes-Benz’s MBUX system, which offers conversational speech control for most functions and over-the-air software updates.

Key among the options is a new head-up display featuring augmented-reality functions. Similar to that offered in the S-Class, it projects information as a 29.5-inch image on the windscreen at a virtual depth of around 4.5m.

As before, gear selection is via a so-called Direct Shift stalk mounted on the steering column, freeing up space on the centre console for a large oddment bin. It incorporates a pair of drink holders as well as a USB-C port as standard, with a charging pad available as an option. Manual shifting is via steering-wheel-mounted paddles.

The cabin is cleverly packaged with increases in accommodation all round, most notably in the rear where the new C-Class offers 21mm more leg room, an additional 22mm of elbow room, and 13mm extra shoulder room over the old model. It is rather disappointing in load-carrying ability, though. Despite the increase in length, the sedan retains the same-sized boot as before at a nominal 455L – some 15L less than that offered by the CLA and 25L less than the 3 Series sedan.

The 2021 C-Class comes with a wide range of standard and optional driver-assistant systems. The three most advanced functions, Active Distance Assist Distronic, Active Steering Assist and Traffic Sign Assist, all feature updated functions placing it on the same safety level as the larger E-Class.

Buyers of the new C-Class will be able to choose between two turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engines and a single turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine, in various states of tune, across six different models when European deliveries begin in September.

For the first time since the C-Class’s introduction to the Mercedes-Benz line-up back in 1993, there are no six-cylinder engines on offer with the fifth-generation model.

Five models (C180, C200, C300, C220d and C300d) feature 48-volt mild-hybrid performance-boosting properties with an added 15kW provided by a so-called integrated starter generator (ISG) mounted within the gearbox under acceleration, and a coasting function that idles the engine on a trailing throttle for added energy recovery. One model (C300e) receives full hybrid properties with a provisional electric range put at between 89–100km on the WLTP test cycle.

On the petrol side, the C180 and C200 use a 1.5-litre unit with 125kW and 150kW respectively. They’re joined from the outset of European sales by the C300, which runs a 2.0-litre engine with 190kW.

The same 2.0-litre petrol power plant is also used by the C300e in combination with a gearbox-mounted electric motor, albeit detuned to 150kW to form part of a combined petrol-electric system output of 230kW.

The C220d and C300d share a new 2.0-litre four-cylinder diesel engine. The former develops an added 4kW over the old C220d at 147kW, with the latter receiving an additional 15kW over the previous C300d at 195kW.

All engines now come mated to a standard nine-speed automatic gearbox. Rear-wheel drive is standard across the range, though the C200 and C300 can be optioned with Mercedes-Benz’s 4Matic four-wheel-drive system in selected markets.

First up, the C220d. It is terrifically well suited to the new C-Class’s broader brief, and proving a diesel can still hold wide appeal in the luxury car ranks. With an added 40Nm providing it with 440Nm of torque between 1800rpm and 2800rpm, it is both relaxed around town and quite urgent out on the open road. It is also commendably refined, with relatively smooth and hushed qualities up to and beyond middling revs.

The increase in power and torque may be subtle, but the new entry-level diesel hauls with added enthusiasm, as reflected in its official 0–100km/h time of 7.3sec and 245km/h top speed. A claimed WLTP test figure of between 4.9–5.6L/100km gives it average emissions of between 131 and 138g/km. The outstanding action of the gearbox clearly helps here by providing the C220d with crisp and smooth shifts at all times.

As an alternative, the petrol-powered C300 provides sturdier performance, including a 0–100km/h time of 6.0sec and 250km/h top speed. Although, it lacks the C220d’s low-rev flexibility and, with a claimed 7.0–7.3L/100km and emissions between 161 and 168g/km, overall economy.

The C300e, with a combined 230kW and 550Nm of torque, is the most powerful of all new C-Class models, providing an appealing combination of petrol engine performance and torque-infused electric motor traits. Mercedes-Benz is yet to provide performance figures, but expect a 0–100km/h time under the 6.0sec of the C300 together with a limited 250km/h top speed.

The big development here, though, is the battery. At 25.4kWh, the new C300e boasts an almost 50 per cent increase in electrical energy stores, some 12.1kWh more to be exact.

Together with an improvement in efficiency for the electric motor, whose energy consumption is rated at between 14 and 24kWh/100km, this gives the new model a range of between 89–100km on the WLTP test cycle – up from the 30–50km range quoted for the model it replaces, the C350e. And with it, combined-cycle consumption put at 0.7–1.1L/100km on the WLTP test procedure together with CO2 emissions of between 14 and 24g/km.

Charging with the C300e can be achieved at 11kW on an AC system or at 55kW on a DC charger – the latter of which is claimed to charge the battery in just 30 minutes.

The advances evident with the operation of each of the three drivelines is also reflected in the handling, which takes on a more responsive nature than ever before. It all starts with the steering, which is both well-weighted and, thanks to the adoption of an altered ratio, more eager in its action.

The optional four-wheel-steer system will appeal to both enthusiast drivers and those that do a lot of city driving alike. It provides a clear lift in handling agility, together with a 43cm reduction in the turning circle at 10.64m, for added low-speed manoeuvrability and ease of parking. It’s one option that prospective customers should seriously consider.

The ability of the suspension to soak up surface irregularities, unobtrusively handle bumps, and authoritatively deal with changes of camber, helps to provide the new Mercedes-Benz with a wonderfully flowing nature. It is tremendously easy to place on the road, and aims directly where you point it. There is great balance to its actions too.

It also has very impressive levels of grip. But as an extended drive in the rolling hills an hour or so south of Stuttgart proved, it is the body control that really stands out. It is super composed when you run it hard up to the apex, body roll building in a clearly defined manner, but the chassis also provides a clear picture of where the limits of adhesion are set.

As highly as we rate the latest 3 Series for overall dynamics, the new C-Class clearly runs it close. It will be an interesting test when we get the two together in Australia.

It is clear, though, that the new Mercedes-Benz pips the BMW for ride quality, at least when optioned with adaptive damping control as used by our test car. It gives the new C-Class a great spread in character, and provides it with a truly cosseting feel in Comfort and clearly more athletic traits in Sport.

It’s not perfect, though. The brake pedal action of the C300e is spongy and lacks for feel, with varying stages of retardation that can be traced to the new plug-in hybrid model’s energy-recuperation system.

We’re going to need a lot more time in the new C-Class to fully judge its performance and newfound sportiness. What is evident from our first drive, though, is that it is clearly back in the reckoning.

In its most advanced C300e plug-in hybrid guise, it is a tremendously well-rounded proposition with outstanding levels of comfort, refinement and quality. However, these traditional traits now come with a new-found ability to engage, connect, and even excite the driver.

It is a wonderfully complete car that will no doubt appeal to a wide range of customers of various ages.