Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mercedes C-Class

However good this new Mercedes-Benz C-class is, it nevertheless presents its creators with a tricky problem: its image. Its only serious rivals in the executive saloon class are the Audi A4 and BMW 3-series. Smooth and stylish types identify easily with the Audi; thrusting go-getters form disorderly lines outside BMW dealerships; the C-class, meanwhile, is the kind of car you expect to see being driven by an elderly gentleman wearing a hat.
The problem feeds on itself. I had a neighbour who recently started a new job and was given a choice of company car and chose a C-class. I saw him in the street the day after it arrived and as I came to inspect his new wheels he turned with a forlorn face and muttered quietly: “When I got to work, they just laughed.”
Whether the same fate awaits the new version, due to arrive on UK roads this June, remains to be seen, but Mercedes cannot be said to be ignoring the issue. The new car is significantly more aggressive in appearance, thanks to a much more wedge-shaped profile, a handsome and distinctive nose with an ultra-short front overhang and a sharply abbreviated tail. Its lines flow in a way its more traditional and boxy predecessor would not recognise.
Cleverly, Mercedes has also made it possible to vary greatly the look of your C-class according to spec. Order a basic SE or a luxurious Elegance, and you’ll find it equipped with a small three-point star mounted traditionally like a gunsight on the bonnet. Opt for the Sport, however, and the star grows and migrates into the radiator grille, which itself has a much more distinctive, sporting appearance.
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It may not sound like much until you see them parked side by side: only then will you appreciate how much younger and more dynamic the Sport looks. Clearly the thinking is to provide something of interest to both the BMW and Audi brigade, without alienating the core Mercedes constituency of millinery enthusiasts.
The exterior styling is not all that’s different about the C-class: it’s grown, too, in every significant dimension to provide the interior room its rivals lack without being so commodious as to threaten sales of its E-class big sister. It’s brimming with new technology — from its shock absorbers that stiffen up automatically when they detect you’re driving it a determined fashion, to a whole new operating system called Comand, based on that already seen in the S-class and working suspiciously like a blend between BMW’s infernal iDrive and Audi’s still superior MMI.
So advanced is the Comand system you should be able simply to shout “London” at it and it will take you straight to the capital. Sadly I’m in Spain and the system is not quite capable of interpreting my atrocious pronunciation of local placenames, so while I can see the sense of the idea, I cannot yet say whether it works.
There is a bewildering choice of variants. You can opt for any of four petrol and three diesel engines and three trim levels — and that’s before you look at the options sheet. Nor does this include the AMG C-class that’s expected to appear at the Frankfurt motor show in September. C-class prices will not be announced until the summer but are said by Mercedes to be “broadly in line” with existing models.
I drove a C 320 CDI with Sport bodywork, which is likely to cost around £35,000. Mercedes invited me to Madrid for the unveiling and, as luck would have it, I found myself driving to Heathrow in what will be one of its rivals, a BMW 335d M Sport, which costs £36,100 but comes with an automatic gearbox as standard, unlike the Merc. And although we should be careful about drawing too many conclusions about cars driven on different roads and in different countries, the comparison was fascinating.
In a straight line, even a 330d provides performance this C-class can’t match. The 335d M Sport, lighter by far and with 286bhp compared with the Merc’s 224bhp, is in a different league. So in terms of performance this C-class will struggle against its German rival. More worrying is that the new C-class would seem to have trouble even keeping up with the car it’s replacing: it needs 7.7sec to hit 62mph from rest, instead of the 6.9sec of old.
Comparing spec sheets, the BMW appears at first glance to use more fuel, until you twig that Mercedes’ figures are for the manual car (which you’d need to be mad to buy if you care at all about resale value). On a like-for-like basis, the Mercedes is probably at least as thirsty (Mercedes doesn’t quote fuel figures for the automatic so it’s hard to make a direct comparison). Mercedes is not yet quoting the figures for carbon dioxide emissions either but because the car has exactly the same engine as its predecessor and is heavier they are unlikely to have improved; in which case, BMW wins again.
Yes, on paper, it is hard to make a case for the C-class. And yet, on the road, I liked it very much.
It is a much more subtle car than the BMW. It’s better looking and, once under way, massively more refined. The BMW’s gruff diesel voice is a constant companion unless you’re at a
steady cruise, but the Mercedes’ diesel seems to have been wrapped up in cotton wool and installed in a car a few hundred yards away. Those adaptive shock absorbers let it glide around town where the BMW might bump and thump a little, while the steering is quite the best of any Mercedes I’ve tried. I even liked the seven-speed automatic gearbox fitted to the test car — despite frustrating me in most other Mercedes I’ve tried of late. It’s cabin has a classier ambience, too.
And it’s good to drive. Cranked over in very quick curves, it felt as stable as a well designed sports car, and even in slower corners when you might expect its weight to tell against it, it’s amiable enough and will even let you slide it around a little before a whole Pandora’s box of electronic assistants come rushing out to save you from yourself.
What it is not, despite its more youthful appearance and no matter how its “Sport” badge may plead the contrary, is a car to appeal to the true enthusiast driver. It’s mighty competent and even enjoyable, but it’s not involving like the BMW, even if you ignore its massive performance deficit.
In fact it is exactly what you might expect it to be: bigger and better judged than the car it replaces for sure, but ultimately cut from very much the same cloth.
Is that a bad thing? Not to me. I may be getting old but, image aside, I never thought there was much wrong with the old C-class and the last thing this new one wanted to be was some kind of 3-series clone. I’m glad that even if you restrict your trawl to small, quality saloons, there remains real choice out there, be it a sporty BMW, a stylish Audi, a high-tech Lexus or this C-class, which, despite appearances, remains a die-hard traditionalist at heart.
Will I climb back into the BMW tomorrow and realise that, for all its firepower, it has met its match? I doubt that very much. But I will miss the Merc’s refinement, its high quality interior, the great looks and the absence of rude gestures from other road users. Excuse me while I get my hat.
Vital statistics
Model Mercedes-Benz C 320 CDI Sport
Engine type 2987cc, eight cylinders
Power/Torque 224bhp @ 3800rpm / 376 lb ft @ 1600rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual or seven-speed automatic
Fuel/CO2 39.2mpg / n/a
Performance 0-62mph: 7.7sec / 155mph
Price £35,000 (approx)
Verdict Not a young hip thing, but satisfying all the same
Rating 4/5
Date of release June 2007
The opposition
Model Audi A4 3.0 TDI S-Line £28,905
For Looks great, well built, strong image
Against Rather old now, not that good to drive
Model BMW 330d SE £30,055

Brilliant performance, handling, economy


Looks bland, iDrive operating system

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