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The 2009 Mercedes-Benz C-Class brings multiple refinements. The 2009 C-Class is composed of the C300 Luxury, C300 Luxury 4MATIC, C300 Sport, C300 Sport 4MATIC, C350 Sport, and C63 AMG.
The C-Class was completely redesigned for 2008. For 2009, the infotainment systems have been updated with more capability and a Zagat restaurant guide, front-side pelvic airbags have been added to all but the C63, the C350 and C63 receive more standard features, and Comfort suspension has been added to Luxury models.
A C-Class can be set up as a more traditional Mercedes four-door in the Luxury grade, with or without all-wheel drive. Alternatively choose from four levels of sportier look and feel with a manual-transmission rear-drive Sport, all-wheel drive Sport, more-engine-more-brake C350 Sport, or the C63 AMG, a good substitute for a light aircraft across Europe.
You'll find everything you expect from Mercedes-Benz in a C-Class from safety features to predictable driving dynamics. And you'll find more room, especially in the rear seat, than in any previous C-Class since the 190 models evolved into the first-generation C-Class. It's rare when the same car finds favor with buyers in one country as a status symbol while in other countries the same car is a favorite of taxi drivers for its durability, driving ease and moderate operating costs.
While the styling was updated for 2008, it is the actual driving where equally noteworthy advances have been made. The C-Class has levels of driver feedback, the steering in particular, that it never had before; it has always been rock-solid and so stable it was hard to get in trouble, and it still is, but the driver now has far better grasp, literally and figuratively, on what the car is doing. And it does this without taking away any of the refinement or comfort that makes driving one a fatigue-free process.
The C-Class is not a big car; taller than average families or business-people that routinely transport clients may find they still need an E-Class. Among its primary competition that includes Audi's A4, BMW's 3-Series and Lexus IS-F the C-Class is competitive; rear-drive, manual-gearbox fans may also cross-shop the Infiniti G37.
There are six listed C-Class models, but you can simplify by thinking of two of them as merely all-wheel drive versions. All save the C300 Sport Sedan come with an automatic transmission and all-wheel drive is available on any 300 with an automatic.
The C-Class was completely redone in 2008, the fourth-generation of the C-Class known to three-pointed tar faithful by its W204 codename. Apart from the V6 engines, transmissions and those three-pointed stars little was carried forward.
While larger than its predecessor its dimensions reflect the class; very similar to BMW's 3-Series and just a couple of inches shorter and less wheelbase than Audi's 2009 A4. Like most vehicles in this class the size gives good urban utility with the ability to carry four passengers and some luggage.
The C is distinguished from earlier versions by its headlamps that feature round lamps within a rectangular housing, eyebrow lights above the main beams, and a wider grille reminiscent of the big CLS and CL-Class Benz coupes. This is more evident on Sport C models with the star in the grille than it is on the Luxury models with more chrome and the traditional hood ornament. At the rear the C has a typical Mercedes light layout and comes across as a scaled-down version of the S-Class sedan, with rounder edges and lots of taper.
Character lines on the sides of the car present a forward-leaning profile, more of a wedge that certainly aids in making this iteration the sportiest-appearing of any C-Class; the hood seam carries from headlight corner to the window bases, and the lower character line starts behind the front wheels and gets heavier as it rises to the rear, squeezing the window line ever tauter, and ending at the top of the tail lamp opening. Wheels play a big part too, the Sport cars using twin-spoke wheels with some attitude while the Luxury versions use finer more elegant wheels.
Closing the door brings a different sound than the old bank vault Benzes did, perhaps because the outer skin of the doors, hood, front fenders and trunk is aluminum. However, the basic structure is very rigid and has lots of high-strength steel in it, providing three benefits: First, it keeps squeaks and rattles away, as both of our examples made no noise at all when subjected to opening the doors and trunk while parked on just three wheels; second, it makes a good handling and comfort compromise easier to reach; and third, it will help keep you alive should you attempt to rearrange by force any civil engineering.
The hot-rod C63 by Mercedes-owned AMG is the most aggressive C-Class, the Sport-style front end appearing even more imposing because of the 63's extra front track width and bigger coolers lurking behind the grille. The wheels are similar in design and size to the Sport option 18s but the brakes behind them are substantially larger, and at the rear are a lip spoiler, mild diffuser, and four large tailpipes. Look carefully and you'll see at least 15 AMG markers outside (minimum 9 inside), though anyone who hears it will know this is no plain C-Class.
Mercedes claims the new C is at least 12 percent stiffer than the old chassis, partially a result of the C being the first in Mercedes-Benz history essentially designed, developed and validated by computer.
Regardless of model the C-Class interior is familiar Mercedes-Benz function not trumped by form; the miniature seats on the doors used for adjustment, floor-mounted gas pedal, the sophisticated light switch to driver's left, all the control stalks on the left side of the steering wheel (to keep the right hand free for shifting), glovebox latch where the driver can reach it, and no sharp edges even on switches or vent adjusters all staples of Stuttgart.
Upholstery is called M-B Tex and it looks more like leather than the real thing on some cars, wears well and is PETA approved; leather is available on any C. Some cars have aluminum trim, others walnut or maple, and you can pop for carbon fiber on the C63 but whichever you choose it is the real thing. Most of the trim, all the way down to the Mercedes-Benz badges in the front floor mats, is low-glare so errant reflections don't distract or dazzle the driver, and assembly quality is first-rate.
Front seats are electrically adjusted with heaters available and with the tilt/telescoping steering wheel (powered, with driver memory as standard on C350 and C63 for 2009) provide good support and driving position; those of larger sizes may find the Sport seats a tad confining while others will appreciate the lateral support. Luxury model seats are less aggressively bolstered but maintain the hours-long support and comfort.
Relative to some other ultra-performance sedan seats those in the C63 don't look overly racy and hard to extricate yourself from but the deep side bolsters and range of adjustments offer superb lateral support (these seats preclude the pelvic side airbags standard on all other C for 2009). All C63 have aluminum shift paddles behind the steering wheel (upshift right, downshift left); a leather and Alcantara flat-bottom wheel is available.
Cabin styling follows the same forward-sloping theme as the outside, with armrests that gently fall away forward and end in window switch plates angled parallel the dash and center stack of controls. The center console also slopes downward forward, adding control space to the vertical surfaces, and the dashboards arches downward away from the windshield adding a degree of spaciousness.
Instruments comprise analog coolant temperature and fuel left, speed/display center, and tachometer to the right. The speedometer needle rides around the outer periphery of the gauge, the center a digital display used for the extensive information available though the steering wheel controls; everything from oil temperature to directional instructions can be called up here, and for 2009 more trip computer data is available. In events that require immediate attention, such as a manual upshift or loss of oil pressure, the entire display switches to red.
Above the center vents is the screen, which varies in size based on options, and hides below the dash when the car is off or you turn it off. Direct sunlight may wash it out and polarized sunglasses may make some info difficult to read (problems not exclusive to Mercedes) but the screen is very close to line of sight without interfering in it; some of the vision issues are overcome by using the speedometer display for route following.
Below the vents are audio system controls and the 10-key pad for the COMAND system (M-B's audio/navi/phone integration) and below that ancillary switches for bits like the rear window shade and seat heaters. At the bottom of the panel is the standard dual-zone climate control, so you needn't fumble through menus trying to thaw.
For 2009 the electronics have been upgraded, with 6 GB of the HDD's 40 set aside for music and a Zagat restaurant guide; buyers who forego navigation can still use New Car Test Drive's old-school approach of using radar detectors to rule out establishments with microwave ovens. COMAND also adds an auxiliary input for iPods, and the Multimedia package plays CD, DVD and memory-card source material. The available harman/kardon 5.1 surround sound system features 450 watts to drive 12 speakers, and makes the best of all of them with good sound stage and plenty of impact. It's amusing that a large round controller moves a needle across the radio tuning display screen just as an old radio dial with vertical pointer gliding left and right.
Behind the ashtray Mercedes' auto shifter solves the dilemma about whether the up/down shift direction should be forward/backwards respectively or vice-versa by making downshifts to the left and upshifts to the right. Automatics offer multiple modes requiring nothing more than a button push or holding the lever left of right for one second; it's a simple setup many could do well to emulate.
Under the driver's right arm are clamshell-opening armrests and the controller that's become the de facto computer mouse in modern premium cars. With just a few buttons and click/rotate wheel it can execute a wide variety of commands, and while the system may not be as intuitive as the benchmarks it's far better than employing 200 buttons to do the same thing. When pressed we'd label it better than BMW's 2008-or-older iDrive and not quite up to Audi's MMI but these are akin to Mac vs. PC decisions best left to individual owners. Do, however, have someone else do a test drive so you can see which commands can be done, and how easily, while the vehicle is in motion.
As in most compact sedans rear-seat legroom is likely the defining measurement because it's fine for kids and smaller adults but perhaps not the best for need-impressing clients or big golf buddies. Size aside, those riders do get a nicely shaped and proportioned seat, reading lights, door pockets, comfy center armrest and AC vents; available on most C are a folding 60/40 rear seat and rear window shade.
Driver visibility is very good, especially on cars with the bi-Xenon headlamps, although by compact sedan standards the side mirrors are relatively large and shorter drivers may find themselves having to peer around sometimes. There are three rear headrests but they don't obscure rear vision.
Trunk space amounts to about 12 cubic feet, adequate but not class-leading. Load height is reasonable and the well isn't too deep so you won't need a crane to unload overstuffed suitcases.
The C-Class offers an interesting performance bang-for-the-buck scenario at each end of the model lineup. At $32,000 the entry-level C300 Sport is the lightest and has the interaction of a manual gearbox to use engine power as you choose. At the other end, the C63 rocket is very competitively priced against its BMW M3, Lexus IS-F and outgoing Audi RS4 competition; only Cadillac's CTS-v offers significantly more power for about $4000 more.
A C300's 228-hp is a bit more than Audi's 211-hp turbo four, well ahead of Lexus IS250's 185, and on par with BMW's smoother inline six. Mercedes' 3-liter V6 is also quite flexible, with maximum torque for 90% of your driving needs available from 2700 rpm to 5000.
The standard six-speed manual is easy to operate with light clutch and shifter efforts; there is a hint of notchy-ness in the shifter we haven't found in cars with some miles on them. Ratios are well-spaced to take advantage of the power and deliver good highway fuel economy; we have bettered the EPA's highway value by 20% in some cases.
Whether in the C300 or 350, we find no fault with the seven-speed automatic transmission. It shifts quickly and cleanly, seamlessly transparent in comfort mode, with intelligent feedback in sport mode, and manually within parameters allowed by road speed/engine speed/gear.
Called 4MATIC, the all-wheel drive system offered on either C300 is fully automatic?the driver does nothing. At a cost of 1 city mile-per-gallon, 145 pounds of added mass and $2000 (remember the C300 Sport price does not include an automatic transmission) it adds inclement weather traction and directional control. All-wheel drive does nothing for braking in the snow, and many flat-grounders will do as well with a set of dedicated winter tires. An all-wheel drive with snow tires will likely embarrass most of your neighbor's SUVs.
At 268 hp the C350 packs the power of the very first C-Class AMG car, the C36. Plant your right foot and 60 mph comes up in a shade more than six seconds (one quicker than the 300), and there isn't much to it; Lexus' IS350 with its 306 hp and BMW's twin-turbo 335 are both faster but they both require more effort to extract maximum performance. Audi's 3.2-liter A4 V6 is very similar and usable as it comes only with all-wheel drive.
Both the Luxury and Sport versions have better road feel and steering than the previous C-Class, to the point that BMW's advantage is no longer as distinct and a rear-drive C-Class competes with a front-drive A4 or rear-drive IS. The C350 responds to the steering wheel crisply, allows minimal body roll to keep you more aware, and changes direction quickly all while retaining a compliant ride that moves only the tires around impacts, not the whole car.
The Luxury prioritizes ride comfort over ultimate response and grip, the shocks designed to allow free suspension movement over smoother surfaces while firming up on rougher roads so the car doesn't bounce and wallow about. Mercedes-Benz cars have always been extremely competent, inspiring driver confidence, but now they inspire the driver as well without losing any of the confidence factor.
Sport models flop the Luxury paradigm, with quicker reactions and higher cornering ability, without losing the compliance that maintains ride quality and automobile integrity. You can upgrade sporting ability with the 18-inch wheel package that adds a half-inch to front wheel width, a half-inch to rear tire width, and employs lower profile, stickier tires. If you local infrastructure is questionable consider this carefully?replacement wheels aren't cheap.
All C-Class brake systems are sized appropriately and get the job done. Initially you may feel there is a lot of pedal but this allows easy modulation from stopping dive-free to bruising your ribcage if someone pulls out in front and you hammer the pedal (as you should?and electronics will aid in that respect).
The C63 is in another performance dimension. At 6.2 liters its engine is larger than any Audi, Lexus or BMW so it makes a very quick compact sedan. Mellowed to 451 hp (from the 500+ in other Mercedes using it) the C63 has more horsepower than the M3, RS4 or IS-F but the 443 lb-ft of torque, 90% of it on tap from 2000 rpm-and-up, obliterates the competition's numbers. With traction control off it also obliterates the C63s rear tires.
When you do it right a C63 reaches 100 mph coincident with the average car reaching 60 mph, which the C63 eclipsed in just more than four seconds. The Speedshift AMG automatic can be shifted manually?be ready with that upshift trigger?and full-bore acceleration feels like you're driving a car with five first gears. Alas, at 12/19 mpg, there is no way to get good mileage with a 6-liter engine.
Unlike any previous C-AMG car this one has a unique front-end, including fenders, air dam, chassis, suspension, brakes and wheels. Steering resistance adds up nicely the harder you push, limits are a long way off but 3-stage electronic stability control makes them relatively easy to find when you have a racetrack for exploring, and the big engine's compression barking lets you just lift the throttle to load up the front tires for crisper turn-in, no braking needed to upset the balance.
The C63 is arguably the best-steering, best-handling, best driving car Mercedes builds; certainly it is in the sub-$125,000 range. And it does so without active suspension or other techno-wizardry that often uses electronics to fix a chassis that wasn't ideal in the first place. BMW and Audi loyalists will stick to their marques as each has advantages, but there is no denying that the C63 moves the C-AMG model beyond mere straight-line supremacy.
The Mercedes C-Class has something for everyone, unless they seek four-cylinder economy in a premium compact sedan. Redesigned in 2008 and further refined for 2009 it adds an element of driving enjoyment to known Mercedes characteristics of safety, stability and luxury defined by driving performance. And if you don't need the larger rear seat, it does so for about $18,000 less than an E-Class.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale filed this report from Los Angeles
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