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The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is the most compact and least expensive of the brand's sedan offerings. Yet it's no less a Mercedes-Benz. You'll find everything you expect from Mercedes-Benz in a C-Class from safety features to predictable driving dynamics.
The C-Class Luxury grade does indeed feel like a small version of a traditional Mercedes four-door luxury sedan. For drivers who want something sportier, the Sport models provide that. Those want a street-legal racecar can order an AMG version.
The C-Class is a terrific driving experience; great driver feedback through the steering, rock-solid, and so stable it's very difficult to get into trouble, and delivering to the driver a superb grasp, both 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.
C-Class models are available with rear-wheel drive or 4MATIC four-wheel drive, the latter for improved active safety and winter weather capability.
The Mercedes-Benz C300 comes with a 228-hp 3.0-liter V6. The C350 comes with a 268-hp 3.5-liter V6. The racy C63 AMG features a 451-hp 6.2-liter V8.
Compared with Luxury models, Sport versions use wider rear tires and wheels, sit more than half an inch lower, use firmer suspension settings, and get a three-spoke steering wheel. Sport sedans use a different grille with the Mercedes-Benz ringed star in it as opposed to the Luxury with the star on the hood, and Sport models use AMG-style deeper front air dams, side skirts and rear aprons. AMG version are distinguished by unique styling cues.
The C-Class is not a big car, so tall drivers and business-people who routinely transport clients may find they need something bigger, such as an E-Class. But among its primary competition the C-Class is more than merely in the game; it's a real player.
For 2010, the C-Class offers a few new features. Standard equipment includes a new monitoring system that shows individual tire pressures. The outside mirrors are more aerodynamic and the steering wheel is wrapped in premium leather. The C300 Sport trim level also has new 17-inch five-spoke alloy wheels. A new option is a Dynamic Handling Package for Sport models that includes active damping suspension, faster, speed-sensitive steering, and 18-inch five-twin-spoke AMG alloy wheels; on those with the automatic transmission, this package includes steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. In addition, for the first time on the C-Class, the Keyless-Go system is now available, which gives push-button starting. Other new options include a rear-view camera, four-way power lumbar adjustment, a tilting side mirror for parking, and a universal media interface.
The C-Class dimensions reflect its market segment; very similar to BMW's 3-Series. Like most vehicles in this class the size gives good urban utility with the ability to carry four passengers and some luggage.
The C-Class has round headlamps within rectangular housings, eyebrow lights above the main beams, and a wide 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 brings peace-of-mind from knowing you're in a vehicle that will do its best to protect you and yours if a traffic calamity should occur.
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 C63'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 of nine inside), though anyone who hears it will know this is no plain C-Class.
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.
The 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) 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. The C63 has 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 to the dash and center stack of controls. The center console also slopes downward forward, adding control space to the vertical surfaces, and the dashboard 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 is a digital display used for the extensive information available though the steering wheel controls, and everything from oil temperature to directional instructions can be called up here. 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 the line of sight without interfering with it; some of the vision issues are overcome by using the speedometer display for route following.
Audio controls are below the vents, along with the 10-key pad for the COMAND system. COMAND is the Mercedes system for controlling the telephone, navigation system, and audio system. Below that are switches for the rear window shade, seat heaters and other ancillary systems. At the bottom of the panel is the standard dual-zone climate control, so you needn't fumble through COMAND menus to warm or cool the cabin. The COMAND system includes an auxiliary input for iPods, and the Multimedia package plays CD, DVD, and memory-card source material. The 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 and plenty of impact. We like the large round controller that moves a needle across the radio tuning display screen just as an old radio dial with vertical pointer gliding left and right.
The auto shifter solves the dilemma about whether the up/down shift direction should be forward/backward 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 or 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 a 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-Class models 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. The entry-level C300 Sport is the lightest model and has the interaction of a manual gearbox. At the other end, the C63 rocket is very competitively priced within its market of uber hot rods.
The C300's 3.0-liter V6 makes 228 horsepower and is quite flexible, with maximum torque for 90 percent of your driving needs available from 2700 to 5000 rpm. The standard six-speed manual is easy to operate with light clutch and shifter efforts; there was 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 percent in some cases.
The seven-speed automatic transmission, whether in the C300 or C350, 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 selected.
4MATIC all-wheel drive is fully automatic: It's always on, the driver need do nothing to engage all-wheel drive. 4MATIC is a great feature for traction and directional control in inclement weather. An all-wheel-drive C300 4MATIC with snow tires will likely embarrass most of your neighbor's SUVs, it works so well in the slippery stuff.
The C350 packs 268 horsepower, roughly 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 second quicker than the 300), and there isn't much to it. We found 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.
Luxury and Sport versions both have great road feel and steering, to the point that BMW's perceived advantage is no longer as distinct, and a rear-drive C-Class competes with anything in the segment.
Luxury models prioritize ride comfort, so the shocks are 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 prioritize 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. However, the 17-inch tires with their taller sidewalls are better for rough roads, both in terms of ride quality and wheel damage.
Brakes are sized by model to get the job done. Initially you may feel there is a lot of pedal travel, but this allows easy modulation.
The C63 is in another performance dimension. At 6.2 liters its engine makes it considerably more than just a very quick compact sedan. Mellowed somewhat to 451 horsepower, the C63 engine has 443 pound-feet of torque, with 90 percent of it available from 2000 rpm, and with the traction control turned off it can simply obliterate the C63's rear tires.
The C63 can reach 100 mph in about the same amount of time the average car can reach 60. The C63 can accelerate from 0-60 mph in just more than four seconds. The Speedshift AMG automatic can be shifted manually 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 fuel mileage with well over 400 horsepower. This also results in a Gas Guzzler Tax for the C63 AMG.
Unlike any previous AMG C-Class model, the C63 AMG 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 three-stage electronic stability control makes them relatively easy to find when you have a racetrack for exploring, and the big engine's compression braking lets you just lift the throttle to load up the front tires for crisper turn-in, with no braking needed to upset the balance.
The C63 is arguably the best-steering, best-handling, best driving car Mercedes builds 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-Class AMG model beyond mere straight-line supremacy.
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class represents a broad range of cars models designed for different priorities. 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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