Mercedes’s recent history has been of promiscuous action in every new sector it can: sports cars and coupes, a four-car front-drive range, crossovers and SUVs, the minivans. You might think the core saloon range of C, E and S-Classes have been squeezed. But, actually, while the new models have headlined the company’s growth,
the saloons still shift a lot of units. And they also provide a perceptual anchor. In them is vested the soul of Mercedes as a builder of solidly excellent machines that put priority on long-term satisfaction over quick fizz.
This C is a very high-tech machine, and has a modern sense of luxury when you sit in it. Paradoxically, though, it feels like the best Mercedes saloons always did. It’s solid, trustworthy and relaxing. Although it copes immensely well with being hustled, it doesn’t aim to feel sporty like a 3-Series. Fine. The world already has a perfectly good 3-Series, and BMW makes it. There’s no need for a company as noble as Mercedes to be copying.
The new C is indeed new. Even the 1.6-litre diesel engine in the C180 is all-new, based on a Renault joint venture, though the mainstream units are modified carry-over. A space station’s worth of driver assistance systems is cascaded down from the S-Class. The body and chassis are completely fresh, and it’s future-proofed to provide the basis for the next E, CLS, plus coupes, convertibles, estates, shooting brakes, GLK, etc. The shell is 50 per cent aluminium to save weight, and the 4WD system will now fit in RHD, so we get the 4Matic option, and for the same reason the next GLK too.
The UK range starts with the C200 petrol and C220 diesel, but I’m in a version of that car with slightly higher boost, which arrives a few weeks later. The badge says C250 BlueTEC, omitting the smelly D-word altogether. This is an AMG Line trim, and it’s also got the optional air suspension and adaptive dampers. Just check out the performance and economy numbers above. There’s an even more aerodynamic non-AMG version that gets 72.7mpg in the official cycle, for 103g/km CO2. They’re mighty good figures for a quick, big automatic saloon. A saloon that’s as big as the E-Class was until 2002.
You notice the refinement straight away. This engine is grumbly in other Mercedes, but not here, where, after a chattery idle, it just mumbles gently while kicking you towards perfectly useful overtaking performance. The seven-speed transmission has enough ratios and shifts smoothly, yet we know Merc is working on a nine-speeder. The ride is supple too. OK, it pogoes a bit if you nudge the Agility Control switch towards the sporty settings (it recalibrates suspension, engine, transmission and steering weight, and lets you go closer to other traffic before triggering the safety warnings). I liked it with the suspension in Comfort but the powertrain a bit more eager, and there’s an Individual setting where you can go à la carte like that.
The steering gets more direct off-lock, and the calibration is terrific. You can ease it into a fast motorway curve without any nerves, and yet it’ll double-back around mountain hairpins without feeling lazy. Thanks to the weight cut of 100kg or so, the car never feels bloated. But here’s where Mercedes shows its confidence and competence. The C isn’t set up to be power-interactive in bends – the attitude is always mild understeer at road speeds, whatever you do with the right pedal. There’s a bit less understeer in the stiffer chassis mode, that’s all. It’s not aiming for edgy sportiness, and actually engineering such consistency is a hard task.
There’s masses of technology if you spec it, and a screen that guides you through all the options in a series of slick animations. It’s easy to use too, with a quadruple-redundant layout of a big control-wheel, shortcut keys, voice activation and a new touchpad – which you can fingertip-write on, or use swipe, pinch or rotate gestures. Basically, if you can’t communicate with this machine, you’ve probably got some sort of social disorder.
Tick all the optional driver-assist systems, and it uses radar, stereo camera and ultrasound to figure out what’s going on all around. It can look for – and take action to avoid – vehicles, people and other obstacles coming from pretty well any direction except outer space. That’s very reassuring and seems reliable. In most traffic, it’ll drive itself for about half a minute before telling you to get your hands back on the wheel.
It obediently stays in lane, and at speed doesn’t even undertake. At low speed, it uses radar and cameras to lock onto the car in front, but at motorway speeds it reads the lines only. As with all such systems, the times when lanes are easy to see it works well, but when it’s dark and wet and you need the help, it gives up.
You’ve got to be careful calling this a traditional Benz, because that makes it sound like it’s stuck in a bygone era. It isn’t. It looks modern, and the interior is a bit of a masterpiece, with clean modern curves and delicious ambient lighting. There’s none of the cold blockiness of the last C-Class. It’s lush but not elaborate. And the technology beneath is anything but traditional, even if it serves the traditional Mercedes aims of safety and driver ease.
2143cc 4cyl turbodiesel, RWD, 204bhp, 369lb ft 65.7mpg, 113g/km CO2 0–62mph in 6.6secs, 150mph 1595kg £35,500 approx