Photos copyright ©2011 Rex Roy / AOL
The 2012 C-Class is not an all-new car, but instead a revised 204 series (introduced in 2007). What's new? For the U.S. market we get refreshed front and rear styling, three more-efficient engines, a new gearbox, a revised interior and driving aids previously only available on M-B's more expensive models, including Lane Keeping Assist, Brake Assist, Adaptive Highbeam Assist, Blind Spot Assist and Parktronic. And yes, this means no diesels for us. No manual gearboxes, either, but that's not so surprising.
All the engines reside under a new aluminum hood and behind a facelifted nose featuring new headlights. Around back, new LED taillamps complete the visual modernization.
Powertrain details begin with the fact that our three new engines all run direct fuel injection. The 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder makes 201 horsepower and 229 pound-feet of torque, and is available in the rear-wheel-drive C250. Those wanting all-wheel drive get the 3.0-liter V6 making 228 hp and 221 lb.ft. in the C300 4Matic, while the top-of-the-line rear-drive powertrain is the 3.5-liter V6 making 302 hp and 273 lb-ft, an increase of 34 ponies over 2011's C350.
All engines run through the company's seven-speed 7G-Tronic transmission. The combination of direct injection, an extra cog in the gearbox and a small overall weight savings help boost fuel economy by up to 15 percent. The gains are bigger in other markets, where an engine stop/start system is also standard. That feature will be coming to the U.S. when fuel economy pressures justify the additional complexity and cost of the system. Mercedes hasn't released final EPA figures, but offered preliminary combined numbers (by engine) of 24 mpg, 20 mpg, and 21 mpg, respectively.
Like overall efficiency, dynamic performance is also improved. Daimler says to expect a 5.9-second 0-60 mph dash for the 3.5-liter and 7.1 seconds for the other two powertrains.
As luck of the press-fleet draw would have it, our ride on the twisty roads of Tenerife (the largest of Spain's Canary Islands) was a rear-wheel-drive C350 equipped with the Elegance package. The Stateside equivalent would be called the Luxury model. Significant differences separate this model from the Sport: a four-spoke steering wheel, either rich brown ash or burr walnut and wide S-Class-style headrests with side bolsters (great for resting passengers).
While Sport C-Class models (known as Avantgarde editions in the EU) possess a sportier countenance with a CLS-style grill, AMG-style three-spoke steering wheel and gloss black ash, our C seemed to be the execution that most entry-level luxury buyers are looking for. There's something proper about looking out over the Three-Pointed Star standing proud over the chrome radiator surround. Ditto for the inside's rich wood appliqués and soft Nappa leather.
Our unit had the optional Audio 20 system with integrated navigation and a high-resolution (800x400 pixel) seven-inch screen. Like so many other vehicles, the C's new system is Internet-capable using Bluetooth tethered to a data-capable smartphone. Compared to the operation of the 2012 Audi A6
(with the optional fully-integrated, built-in data link), the new M-B system felt clunky. During a demonstration on the island, acquiring Web access and doing anything productive took too many clicks and rotations of the COMAND controller. Given Audi's introduction of a touchpad (A6, A7 and A8), this aspect of the revised C-Class seems behind the curve. Good thing this is another one of those non-U.S. features for now, so Mercedes has time to get it right before it makes the trek across the Atlantic.
Volcanic activity raised Tenerife out of the water off the Northwest coast of Africa. It's simultaneously a beautiful vacation spot for Europeans and an excellent place to drive a new Benz briskly.
The C350 drives solidly, in the manner of a small big car. There's no suspension chop or harshness. The new C has slightly revised suspension geometry and a brace of new bushings. The basic steel-spring setup (struts in front and an independent multi-link design in back) carries over. Dampers on all models automatically adjust between two ride settings and there are three available suspensions calibrations: Luxury, Sport and AMG. Our tester's softest suspension didn't offer any driver-controlled adjustability and its range isn't as broad as the higher-performance versions.
Our C350 also included a Sport/Comfort switch that modified the seven-speed's shift schedule. As you'd expect, the transmission moved up shift points and held gears longer. The hydraulic power rack-and-pinion steering also heavied up in Sport mode and delivered more feel, but don't expect the tactile sensations of a sports car.
Even in Sport mode, this is a sporty sedan, not a sport sedan – more of a baby S-Class, not an Infiniti G
. Cornering is clean and predictable; there's no toss-and-set, just a smooth roll-and-stick. Pushed hard, however, and there's a little understeer. Push harder and M-B's electronic stability control works to prevent oversteer (expectedly) and understeer (unexpectedly). Yup, in some situations, the ESP actually induces additional yaw. The ESP makes the new C-Class feel totally locked down, yet it further robs the car of the playfulness you feel behind the wheel of a BMW 3 Series
The V6 is quiet at light throttle, but wakes up with some pedal. It sounds good at lower revs where most C-Class driver will spend their time. On the far side of the tach, the engine's note isn't particularly sonorous. It's not raspy or thrashy, just not very nice.
Showing that no place on Earth is perfect, our drive was rudely interrupted by a jackknifed semi. An alternative route gave us some miles of easy cruising, and in this more typical driving environment, the C350 drove easily and quietly. There was little road noise, but we were surprised by some decidedly un-Mercedes-like wind noise around the A-pillars. Exceptionally strong crosswinds coming in off the Atlantic may have been to blame, and such breezes are tough to develop for. More time behind the wheel will reveal whether wind noise is properly managed.
After a few more hours behind the wheel, the C-Class continued to feel like a small S-Class. What does the C give up aside from room, stature, status and the feeling like you're gliding over the Earth? Drivers who haven't piloted a modern S-Class won't miss much. However, we noticed details such as the feel of the COMAND knob. The S's is larger and feels as if it's milled from billet aluminum. Additionally, the flagship has a tiny volume control next to the bigger puck, and the feel and utility are far superior. Details like this cost something and are not usually found in this price segment.
While the 2012 C-Class is already on sale in Europe, we'll get the new sedan, coupe, AMG sedan, and AMG coupe this Fall. (According to Mercedes-Benz, America's reluctance to accept station wagons means we won't be getting the C-Class Touring models. For shame.) Pricing hasn't been announced for the States, but given global competitiveness, expect Monroney labels to closely overlay the current C-Class range.
As fuel prices rise and forced fiscal conservatism continues to impact buying decisions, Mercedes executives couldn't have hoped for a better environment to launch the best Baby Benz ever, and for buyers unable to pony up for an S, the C-Class easily fits the entry-level luxury bill.