All-new vehicle designs are usually designed to catch the eye and attract attention, but the reasons for that attraction often depend on the numbers that appear on the price sheet.
Since its arrival last year, the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class has garnered its share of positive attention: it was named Best New Luxury Car under $50,000 by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) and World Car of the Year by a jury of international auto reviewers.
I’ll be the first to admit that automotive awards programs have their flaws, and I’ve cast many a vote in the Canadian Car of the Year awards myself, but there’s no doubt that these awards tend to go to vehicles that are among the best in their respective classes.
How you define ‘best’ in the C-Class’s case depends on your perspective. If BMW’s cars offer the self-proclaimed ‘ultimate driving experience,’ then Benz has traditionally played toward buyers looking for a more laid-back vehicle and a purer expression of German automotive luxury. This new C-Class, however, makes it clear that Mercedes is aiming to challenge BMW’s driving prowess.
I hopped in to my C 400 tester, and my first hint of this car’s intentions was the driver’s seat, whose extra-firm cushions were a turn-off before I started the engine. My week in this car was limited to city driving stints of less than an hour at a shot, which I was actually glad for, as this seat discouraged thoughts of long highway hauls. On the upside, these chairs are supportive in the right places, including a power-adjustable under-thigh bolster. Like most of its direct competitors, the C-Class retains compact interior dimensions: a friend who stands a tall-in-the-torso five-foot-nine was disappointed in how little headroom there was under my test car’s standard panoramic sunroof. There was plenty of space for my shorter frame, and only a steering wheel whose telescopic reach didn’t extend far enough for my liking took away from the driving position. Rear seat riders will find useful legroom, though headroom is again compromised, this time by the roofline as it slopes toward the rear window.
Mercedes offers a range of interior colour combinations, but my test car came with basic black with aluminum trim. The metal bits felt like the real deal (including gorgeous grilles on the Burmeister stereo’s door-mounted speakers), but the all-black scheme made the car feel dark and close, and the piano black centre console looked a bit down-market next to the other materials.
Mercedes-Benz is moving away from model names that directly reflect what’s under the hood: while the entry-level model with its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is called the C 300, the C 400 label is reserved for cars using a turbo 3.0-litre V6.
Never mind the name; pay attention to this engine, instead, because it’s a winner with its 329 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque. It wasn’t so long ago that the high-performance AMG-tuned C 55 “only” boasted 362 hp/376 lb-ft, and while this C 400 is no AMG thunderbeast, the turbo six makes this a seriously quick car, especially from low speeds, where all that torque is available at just 1,600 rpm. Standard 4MATIC all-wheel drive is a good fit here, putting that torque down efficiently and without drama; there’s a reason so many powerful, upscale cars come with four-wheel traction as standard kit.
The only transmission is a seven-speed automatic that works unobtrusively most of the time. It’s when you get an itchy right foot and engage the car’s ‘sport+’ mode that the gearbox lets the rest of the car down. While it holds gears longer and is more eager to downshift in that performance-oriented setting, it doesn’t snap off the crisp upshifts I expected, and manual downshifts commanded via the wheel-mounted paddles are sloppier and less-immediate than they should be.
That’s a shame, because the optional ‘agility select’ system (part of the C 400 sport package) that lets you toggle between ‘eco,’ ‘comfort,’ ‘sport,’ and ‘sport+’ modes works on the steering, throttle response, and air suspension to change the character of the car from comfy cruiser to the closest you’ll get to the V8-powered AMG-tuned C 63 without spending the extra $23,000 it commands. No matter what the agility select setup was set to, I found the ride to be on the firm side.
Notably, the C 400 gets big, cross-drilled front brake rotors that provide solid stopping performance and good pedal feel.
Against fuel consumption ratings of 11.1/8.4 L/100 km (city/highway), my test car averaged 11.2 L/100 km in real-world city driving, which included liberal use of ‘sport+’ mode, and all that torque.
Mercedes offers the expected high-tech features here: blind spot assist, lane keeping assist, autonomous emergency braking, a rear-end collision mitigation system that aims to protect the driver of a stopped C 400 from injury when it senses a fast-moving car approaching from behind, and pedestrian recognition that activates the auto-brake system when it senses pedestrians in the road and the driver doesn’t react.
More novel available extras include a park-assist system that helps guide the car into a spot, intelligent cruise control that will keep the car in its lane in long curves, a console-mounted touchpad that recognizes “handwriting” gestures for entering navigation destinations, and that sweet-sounding Burmeister stereo with 13 speakers and 590 watts of amplification.
Notable omissions from my C 400 tester were adaptive (steerable) headlights, which are a $1,200 stand-alone option (static LED headlights are standard at this trim level). I’d have liked to see them included in a car whose price came within spitting distance of $60,000.
Overall, the new C-Class is a well-executed sport sedan that actually does challenge the BMW 3 Series’ driving feel, if only because the latest generation is less driver-focused than it used to be. The C 400 does have its flaws, but it’s a car well worth checking out to see if you think it deserves all the attention it’s been getting.