First drive: Mercedes-Benz C-Class
What is it?
The entry point into Merc's saloon car range. This small exec model may cower in the shadow of its more luxurious limousine stablemates in terms of sheer prestige, but there's no doubting its popularity, with the C-Class now one of the firm's most popular models. This being the case, the German brand has taken no chances with the new one, and has not only carried out the expected improvements to the engines - which are now slightly cleaner and more powerful - but have managed to save weight despite the car now being larger in almost every respect. However, the C-Class's greatest achievement, according to its creators, is that it is now both sportier and more luxurious, and closes the dynamic gap between the benchmark 3 Series.
What's under the bonnet?
Efficiency and cleanliness is the name of the game with the introductory engine range, with the diesels dominating the line-up. Buyers will have just two to choose from for now; both are 2.1-litre turbocharged units developing 168bhp in the C220 BlueTEC and 201bhp in the C250 BlueTEC, the more powerful engine covering the 0-62mph dash a mere 0.8 seconds quicker at 6.6 seconds. This marginal performance advantage feels negligible on the road, particularly as the smaller engine's broader torque band makes it more flexible in mixed driving. Currently there is just the one petrol engine to choose from: a 181bhp unit badged C200, though it is unlikely to prove popular as it offers no real performance advantage over the diesels despite increased fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. Further engines, including hybrids and a hot 4.4-litre V8 AMG version, will join the line-up next year.
What's the spec like?
Something for everyone, whether you're after discreet transport to the golf course, or want the full in-yer-face, fast-lane dominator look. There are three trim levels to choose from, of which the range-topping AMG Line is set to be the most popular thanks to its beefy exterior design highlights, big wheels and lowered sports suspension. You won't feel like your slumming it in in basic SE models, though, as all come as standard with Bluetooth connectivity, rear view camera, Garmin sat nav, digital radio, automatic wipers, cruise control and Merc's 'Artico' manmade leather upholstery. Mid range sport trim adds some choice extras including LED headlamps, heated front seats and active park assist. Buyers can further individualise their cars by choosing from a number of options packages, with everything from technological and safety upgrades, to mood lighting and panoramic sunroofs on offer.
The posh small saloon market is hotly contested, and aside from the engaging and superbly polished 3 Series and more restrained Audi A4, there are compelling and rather less obvious rivals in the form of the Lexus IS and Volvo S60. All have undeniable charms and offer something for everyone, but aside from the BMW, there is simply nothing that really matches the Mercedes' split personality of poise and pampering, it's ability to be nimble and light footed and yet feel substantial and cocooning on the inside.Unless you like a spirited drive every time you get behind the wheel, the C-Class may well suit better.
What's it like to drive?
Because it apes the stately look of its bigger brother S-Class, you approach the new C expecting it to have the same slightly barge like, easy-does-it approach to getting about the place. The reality couldn't be further from the truth. While there's no doubting this cars ability to float over bumps and isolate its passengers from the road (apart from intrusive tyre noise at higher speeds), there is a new-found sense of athleticism and light-footedness, which, mated to the accurate steering, makes the C-Class an entertaining car on a cross-country dash. Ultimately it doesn't feel as tied down as the 3 Series, with noticeable roll in some corners, though this can be tamed with the car's agility control feature, which alters steering, throttle and suspension settings to suit more spirited driving. The one fly in the ointment, though, is the engine range, which feels strained and not as punchy as the on paper stats (which we aren't doubting) would suggest.
The AOL Cars verdict
Mercedes has nailed what it set out to achieve with the C-Class. The new model boasts both a hugely upmarket cabin and improved sporting credentials, and has been pitched in just the right way to appeal to both the existing Mercedes drivers and younger newcomers to the brand. The perennial thorn in its side, the BMW 3 series, is still the leader dynamically, feeling sharper and better balanced. But the C-Class is a much closer second than it ever was before and with a luxurious cabin matched by none in its class, it may just be enough to win over the 3 Series faithful.
Model: Mercedes C220 BlueTEC AMG Line Automatic
Engine: 2.1-litre, four-cylinder, turbodiesel
Power: 168bhp, 400Nm
Max speed: 145mph
0-62mph: 7.4 seconds
MPG: 65.7 (combined)
Emissions: 117g/km CO2