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The compact Mercedes-Benz C-Class is the least expensive of the brand's 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 2012 C-Class includes a new coupe body style, while the sedans benefit from a major mid-cycle update.
All 2012 C-Class sedans get all-new interiors and new engines. 2012 Mercedes-Benz C250 models feature a new 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 models feature an all-new 3.5-liter V6 more powerful and more fuel efficient than the previous 3.5-liter engine. Styling revisions to the front and rear fascia of the 2012 C-Class sedans signal the changes underneath.
The C-Class Luxury grade feels like a small version of a traditional Mercedes four-door luxury sedan. For drivers who want something sportier, the Sport models provide that. Those who want a street-legal racecar can order an AMG version.
The C-Class offers a terrific driving experience: great driver feedback through the steering, rock-solid, and so stable it's very difficult to get into trouble. The C-Class chassis tells the driver exactly 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.
Most C-Class models come with rear-wheel drive, but 4MATIC all-wheel drive is available for improved active safety and winter weather capability.
Compared with Luxury models, Sport models use wider rear tires and wheels, sit more than half an inch lower, use firmer suspension settings, and get a three-spoke steering wheel. The Luxury models ride smoother and are more comfortable for commuting, running errands and everyday driving. You're less likely to spill your cappuccino in a luxury model. The Sport models are quite sporty and fun to drive on a winding road or at elevated speeds on the open highway. Sport sedans use a different grille with the Mercedes-Benz ringed star in the middle, while the Luxury models have the star perched on top of the hood. Sport models also use AMG-style deeper front air dams, side skirts and rear aprons. AMG versions are distinguished by unique styling cues as well.
The C-Class is not a big car, so tall drivers and business-people who transport clients will 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.
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class dimensions reflect its market segment: It's very similar in size to the BMW 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 adds a coupe body style for 2012 and the sedan gets a refreshed exterior: Up front, the hood adds a more noticeable peak in the center, the front bumper and lower air intakes are reshaped and more angular, the headlight housings are more contoured with new LED turn signals at the bottom, and the fog lights change to LEDs. The optional bi-xenon headlights also have C-shaped positioning lights. At the rear, the new bumper leaves room for a more pronounced lower diffuser, visually lightening the rear end, and the taillights add LEDs.
The C-Class has a wide grille reminiscent of the big CLS-Class and CL-Class coupes. The look is more noticeable on the C-Class Sport models, which have a different front end than the Luxury versions. The Sport has fewer grille bars and they are painted silver. It also features the Mercedes star front and center. Luxury models have a chrome grille with more slats, no star, and the traditional stand-up hood ornament. At the rear, all C-Class models have a typical Mercedes light layout and come across as scaled-down versions of the S-Class sedan, with rounder edges and lots of taper.
Character lines along the sides present a forward-leaning profile, a wedge look that helps make this the sportiest-looking C-Class yet. The major 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. The hood seam carries from headlight corner to the base of the window on each side. 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.
The C-Class coupe has the Sport face. The coupe's dimensions are similar to those of the sedan. The rear of the roof drops down in a more elegant arc and there is a kickup at the bottom rear of the rear side windows. Mercedes didn't need to do that much to the coupe to make it look good because the sedan already had an aggressive forward rake.
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; two test cars made no noise at all when subjected to opening the doors and trunk while parked on just three wheels. (We look at things like that.) 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 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 lower air intake is black instead of body color and the grille bars are thinner than those of the Sport version. The wheels are similar in design and size to the Sport's optional 18s but the brakes behind them are substantially larger (and the calipers are painted red with the AMG Development Package). At the rear, the C63 features a lip spoiler, a 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 metaphoric seat controls, those switches on the door panels that look like miniature seats, are instantly understandable and have been used by Mercedes for several decades now. Likewise, the sophisticated light switch to driver's left excels at ease of use. All the control stalks are located on the left side of the steering wheel to keep the right hand free for shifting. The glove box latch is within the driver's reach and there are no sharp edges on the dash even on switches or vent adjusters. And, of course, there's the floor-mounted gas pedal; those on most smaller cars are suspended from above. These are 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. Real leather is available on any C-Class. Some models have aluminum trim, others Burled Walnut or Black Ash, and you can pop for carbon fiber on the C63, but whichever you choose it is the real thing, real aluminum, real wood. Most of the trim, all the way down to the Mercedes-Benz badges on the front floor mats, is low-glare so errant reflections don't distract or dazzle the driver, and assembly quality is first-rate. The materials include soft-touch surfaces for the dash, as well as other touch points, all appropriate for a luxury car.
The electrically adjustable front seat and tilt/telescoping steering wheel combine to provide good support and a comfortable driving position. Larger drivers may find the Sport seats confining while others will appreciate the lateral support. Luxury model seats are less aggressively bolstered, making it easier to get in and out of the car, yet they are supportive and comfortable on long drives.
The C63 AMG seats don't look overly racy relative to the seats in other ultra-performance sedans, but the deep side bolsters and range of adjustments offer superb lateral support. The C63 has aluminum shift paddles behind the steering wheel. With the upshift on the right and the downshift on the left, they are very simple to use, and they're easy to access.
Dashboard styling is completely new for 2012. A standard 5.8-inch screen now resides under a hood that also covers a revised gauge cluster. The instruments comprise analog coolant temperature and fuel level on the left, speed/display in the center, and a tachometer to the right. The speedometer needle rides around the outer periphery of the gauge, as the 4.5-inch round center section is a new digital display with a gold hue. It is 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.
The controls include a 10-key pad on the center stack, which makes it easy to dial numbers with a Bluetooth-connected phone. The radio controls are in this same area, while the central control knob for the COMAND system (standard for models with the navigation system) resides on the center console. COMAND controls the telephone, navigation system, and audio system. It also uses a group of buttons opposite the keypad and a pair of buttons on either side of the central knob. COMAND requires a learning curve and adds more steps than simple buttons, but it eliminates dozens of buttons and becomes second nature after awhile. Do, however, have someone else do a test drive with you so you can see which commands can be performed easily while the vehicle is in motion. Of course, the salesman can and should help with this, also.
The available harman/kardon 5.1 Surround Sound system features 450 watts to drive 12 speakers, and it sounds great with plenty of impact. Below the radio controls 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.
As in most compact sedans, rear-seat legroom is lacking. We found the C-Class back seats fine for kids and smaller adults but not good for transporting clients to lunch or hauling around big golf buddies. However, rear-seat riders do get nicely shaped and proportioned seats, reading lights, door pockets, a comfy center armrest and AC vents, so the C-Class will feel quite luxurious to little ones. The sedan has enough width to accommodate three rear passengers provided they're small and like each other.
Rear-seat space in the coupe is worse. Head room is sorely lacking (as in, you'll get a sore neck if you sit back there), leg room is even tighter than the smallish sedan, and there are only two seating positions. So think of the coupe as primarily a two-seater.
Driver visibility is very good in coupe and sedan models. Optional bi-xenon headlamps help light up back roads on dark, stormy nights. Big mirrors aid rearward vision, though shorter drivers may find themselves peering around the large mirrors for best vision to the front sides, such as when turning into a parking space. There are three rear headrests in the sedan and two in the coupe but they don't obscure rear vision.
Trunk space is a decent 12.4 cubic feet in the sedan, adequate but not class-leading. The coupe has a respectable 11.7 cubic feet. In either, the load height is reasonable and the well isn't too deep so you won't need a crane to unload overstuffed suitcases. A split-folding rear seat is standard in the coupe, but optional for the sedan and we recommend it for the added carrying capacity.
The C-Class offers an interesting performance bang-for-the-buck scenario at each end of the model lineup. The entry-level C250 Sport is the lightest model and offers the best fuel economy. At the other end, the C63 AMG is competitively priced against other uber hot rods. In between, the C350 Sport offers a great balance of power and fuel economy. So enthusiast drivers can't make a wrong choice here. The Luxury models drive like smaller versions of the bigger Mercedes luxury models.
The C250's turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder puts out 201 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque, which is no embarrassment in this luxury car. It has as much power as most drivers will ever need. There is very little, if any, turbo lag, but power is most accessible over 3000 rpm. In other words, thrust does not come as quickly and easily when loafing around at low rpm as it does from a V6. The engine is refined as the turbocharger smoothens and muffles the coarseness inherent in a four-cylinder engine. Mercedes quotes a 0 to 60 mph time of 7.1 seconds, which is impressively fast for such a small engine and as quick as the V6-powered C300 4MATIC. Fuel economy is considerably better, though, at an EPA-estimated 21 mpg City/31 mpg Highway.
The C300 4MATIC's 3.0-liter V6 makes 228 horsepower and 221 pound-feet of torque. It is quite flexible, with maximum torque for 90 percent of your driving needs available from 2700 to 5000 rpm. It runs smoother than the four-cylinder in the C250, but is far less fuel efficient, earning an EPA-rated 18/25 mpg. The 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system 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 works so well in the slippery stuff it will likely embarrass most of your neighbor's SUVs. The C300 4MATIC is the best choice in the C-Class for drivers who must contend with a lot of snow and ice.
The C350's 3.5-liter V6, all new for 2012, may be the same size as the 2011 C350 3.5-liter, but it's considerably more powerful, and far more fuel efficient. The 3.5-liter engine feels very strong in the C-Class and has a rumbling exhaust note to match. Mercedes quotes a 0 to 60 mph time of 5.9 seconds, which is just two tenths of a second quicker than last year's 3.5. It feels stronger than that, though, and a few magazines have observed times as low as 5.4 seconds. In short, the 3.5 feels almost like a V8 while delivering fuel economy close to the four-cylinder at an EPA-rated 20/29 mpg.
The 7-speed automatic transmission that comes in all C250, C300 and C350 models shifts quickly and cleanly. We found it seamlessly transparent in Comfort mode, with intelligent feedback in Sport mode. Drivers can also shift it manually via the gearshift or, with the Dynamic Handling Package, via paddles on the steering wheel. Mercedes doesn't offer a manual gearbox for the C250 or C350, which is too bad because it would be fun.
Luxury and Sport versions both have great road feel and steering. We think BMW's perceived advantage is no longer as distinct, and a rear-wheel-drive C-Class competes with anything in the segment. Surprisingly, the coupe is 77 to 110 pounds heavier than the sedan (except the C63 AMG models, which have a spread of only 11 pounds). The feel of the coupe and sedan is very much the same, though, in both engine performance and handling. The real differences come with the Luxury or Sport choice.
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. 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 much of 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.
We found that every C-Class responds to the steering wheel crisply, allows minimal body roll, and changes direction quickly.
Brakes are sized by model to get the job done. Initially, the pedal travel seems long, but this allows easy modulation for slowing the car at precisely the rate you want.
The C63 AMG 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. Turn off the traction control and it can simply obliterate the rear tires. It's a torque-rich beast with great low-end thrust, unlike the BMW's M3's 4.0-liter V8, which revs higher and more freely and performs better at higher speeds.
The C63 can reach 100 mph in about the same amount of time the average car can reach 60. It can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 4.4 seconds. If you chose the optional AMG Development Package, which uses lighter internal engine components to reduce mass and increase horsepower to 481, 0 to 60 falls to 4.3 seconds.
The Speedshift AMG dual-clutch automated manual transmission can be used like an automatic or shifted by the gearshift or steering wheel paddles. It snaps off shifts quicker than the regular automatic in other models, adding a sporty flair, but it feels quite smooth in everyday driving. Alas, at an EPA-estimated 13/19 mpg, there is no way to get good fuel mileage with well over 400 horsepower. This means getting slapped with a federal Gas Guzzler Tax when purchasing a new C63 AMG.
Unlike any previous AMG C-Class, 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. The limits of grip are a long way off but three-stage electronic stability control makes them relatively easy to find when you have a racetrack for exploring. 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. BMW and Audi loyalists will stick to their marques as each has its advantages, but there is no denying that the C63 AMG does more than just go fast in a straight line. A C63 AMG can hold its own with an M3 or S4.
The Mercedes-Benz C-Class represents a broad range of models designed for different priorities. A stylish new coupe joins sedans that offer fresh styling. New engines improve fuel economy while offering willing power. The C-Class offers driving enjoyment in addition to safety, stability and luxury. And if you don't need the larger rear seat, it does this for about $14,000 less than an E-Class.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale reported from Los Angeles, with Kirk Bell reporting from Kennebunkport, Maine.
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