All-Wheel Drive Sans Compromise

2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic

One can hardly mutter the words "German," "luxury" and "all-wheel drive" without invoking visions of Audi. The company has worked hard to make its Quattro all-wheel-drive system synonymous with each of the phrases above, and its tireless marketing, successful motorsports programs and loyal fans have inextricably married the Four Rings to the power of all-wheel drive luxury. But Audi isn't the only German manufacturer putting power to all four wheels. Buyers have been happily bringing BMW xDrive models home for years, and Mercedes-Benz has a long and storied history of grips-at-all-four-corners innovation as well.

From vehicles like the globe-conquering Unimog to the somewhat more civil G-Class, the Silver Arrow has more than a little experience when it comes to overcoming uncertain terrain. Beyond four-wheel drive systems, Mercedes has sold over one million 4Matic all-wheel drive vehicles in the U.S. since the system's debut here in 1989. These days, Benz offers 4Matic on 10 of its vehicle lines in a total of 21 variations, and for 2012, luxury coupe buyers can rejoice in the inclusion of both the E350 4Matic Coupe and the C350 4Matic Coupe to the horde. With rivals like the Audi A5 and BMW 335i xDrive Coupe already default choices for two-door shoppers who prefer the foul weather capability of all-wheel drive, will the newest additions to the Mercedes-Benz stable be able to keep the pace? We took to the C350 4Matic Coupe to find out.

This time of year, Jackson Hole, Wyoming and its neighboring territories have precisely three weather conditions: "Snow," "About To Snow" and "Holy Hell, We're Going To Have To Resort To Cannibalism." We met the C350 4Matic Coupe deep in the throws of the latter while in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and if anything helped take our minds off the notion of being brunch for our fellow journalists, it was the striking image of the black-on-black two door lurking amidst the driving flakes. Up front, this Benz wears the same proud prow as its four-door relative, complete with a near vertical two-bar grille and a massive three-pointed star. We couldn't help but take comfort in the knowledge that, should we escape the fangs of our companions, it might be possible to use the dish-plate-sized emblem to signal low-flying aircraft.

2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic side view2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic front view2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic rear view

Angled projector headlamps with LED daytime running lights give the fascia an athletic appearance, and the lower valance's LED turn indicators and mesh insets help lend the impression this is a vehicle capable of dashing through the snow with glee. Designers have given the 2012 C350 4Matic Coupe a decidedly forward-leaning profile with pronounced front fender arches reaching nearly to the hood line, a raked character crease that stretches from the taillamps to the lower front fender and a long, angled nose. Whereas the big E-Class Coupe projects a more buttoned-down presence, the smaller C-Class Coupe is appropriately toned and muscular.

Around back, the coupe features a rounded rear section with contoured LED taillamps, a subtle trunk lip spoiler and a more demure emblem. Dual ovoid exhaust outlets add a little flash to the lower valance as well. In the flesh, we think the rear of the C-Class coupe doesn't quite gel with the crisp, angular lines of the vehicle's nose. The aft quarter simply leaves us a bit cold.

2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic headlight2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic fog light2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic wheel2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic taillight

Not that we needed any help shedding body temperature. With the thermometer hovering around 16 degrees and a scornful wind threatening to rip our eyelids from our faces and beat us to death with them, there was no sanctuary more welcome than that of the C350 4Matic Coupe's interior. The cabin features a set of well-bolstered leather bucket seats as gorgeous as they are comfortable. Handsome contrasting double stitching, attractive pleating and a chrome forward-release handle all make the seats easy on the eye. Throw in the fact that the three-stage heated buckets are warm enough to boil water and we were suitably smitten.

The C-Class Coupe treats its driver to a sporty three-spoke, leather-wrapped steering wheel with perforated hide and ergonomic contours at nine and three. The multifunction piece is a perfect fit for the sporty two-door, as are the attractive three-bezel gauges. With an informative LCD set in the center of the speedometer and a slick, outer-ring needle system, the gauges offer a nice blend of analog and digital displays.

2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic interior2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic front seats2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic gauges2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic navigation system

But we're more interested in the vehicle's mechanical innards. The 2012 C350 4Matic is propelled by the same 3.5-liter V6 engine found in its rear-wheel-drive counterpart, complete with identical power figures. The engine produces 302 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque and manages to net the same 20 miles per gallon city / 29 mpg highway Environmental Protection Agency figures as the rear-drive C350 Coupe. Mercedes-Benz employed a raft of engineering cleverness to reduce driveline drag, starting with the seven-speed automatic transmission designed and built in house. The gearbox is the core of the company's modular 4Matic system, and uses an internal transfer case to slim efficiency losses.

Instead of a separate transfer case unit bolted to the rear of the transmission, the seven-speed diverts power to the front wheels directly from the tailshaft via a separate, but still internal, shaft. In addition to curtailing driveline losses, the design offers significant weight savings: 100 pounds over the third-generation 4Matic architecture and 150 pounds over the company's first all-wheel-drive systems. The modular design also allows the vehicle to use the same suspension geometry as the base C-Class Coupe, which means both ride height and turning radius remain unaffected.

2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic engine

The system defaults to a 45/55 drive force split from front to rear, though that figure can swing to 30/70 in either direction as needed. As a result, the system lacks some of the playful rear-wheel-drive bias we typically enjoy in a proper all-wheel-drive sports car, but this is a luxury coupe first and foremost and it's hard to argue with the level of grip on hand. In addition to the mechanical enhancements, the fourth-generation 4Matic system boasts an upgraded version of the company's 4ETS traction control hardware. When the vehicle's sensors detect slip, the brake system automatically slows the freewheeling to enhance grip by sending the majority of the power to the tire with the most purchase.

The result is impressive. We would feel entirely comfortable putting anyone behind the wheel in the midst of the next ice age, regardless of their snow-driving experience. Between the 4Matic system's capability and 4ETS' logic, no amount of ham-fistedness or fondness for throttle yielded anything beyond a split-second of understeer before we merrily resumed course.

That's not to say that 4ETS is a gentle hand ushering the C350 4Matic Coupe away from impending snow banks, though. With its reliance on actuating the brake system to recover traction, the technowizardry arrives on the scene with all the subtlety of Larry the Cable Guy. Power vanishes, speed diminishes exponentially and the two-door simply tracks in the correct direction. Don't expect to be able to hold any beautiful slides through the powder or kick out the tail with any flair with the e-nannies on. You may find yourself fighting the system if you have solid experience on slick surfaces, too.

2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic badge2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic shifter

Turn in for any brief sliding or attempt to power your way out of impending doom, and the Benz's traction control systems will yank the rug out from under you. It's almost as if driver and machine stumble over one another in a series of clumsy reactions. If you're looking for a vehicle to imperil life, limb and sheetmetal in the name of drifting, this isn't your steed.

In addition to 4ETS, the C350 4Matic Coupe is laden with a small symphony of safety system acronyms. While 4ETS may not be defeated by the driver, the closely linked ESP system can be switched off via the vehicle menu mounted in the gauge cluster. Doing so can be useful for trudging your way through deep snow and the like, but the instant the driver touches the brakes, ESP is reactivated. What's more, even with ESP off, 4ETS will continue to actuate the brakes to direct power to the wheel with the most grip.

Fortunately, we doubt C-Class Coupe buyers will be interested in drift-happy showboating. For those who simply need to get where they're going in style regardless of weather, the C350 4Matic Coupe is a more than capable machine. As we threaded our way between the peaks of Stouts Mountain and Ross Peak and wound through the Teton Pass toward Jackson, the two-door simply wouldn't falter. With snow piled well above the vehicle's roof on either side of the road and more coming, the Mercedes-Benz found itself in the company of beaten full-size four-wheel drive pickup trucks, the odd Subaru and a snow blower the size of a city block.

On dry tarmac, and presumably without the Continental snow tires on our tester, the 4Matic can jump to 60 mph in around 5.9 seconds, a time identical to the figure served up by the standard C350 Coupe. In reality, the only concession a buyer would have to make in the switch from C350 Coupe to C350 4Matic Coupe is price. Whereas the base two-door weighs in at $42,370 without destination, adding all-wheel drive to the build sheet will set buyers back by an additional $2,875. At $45,245, the two-door Mercedes-Benz is a shave less expensive than the $46,800 BMW 335i xDrive Coupe.

2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4Matic rear 3/4 view

The 335i arrives with less horsepower and lower highway fuel economy than the snow-going Mercedes-Benz as well. And what of Audi? Interestingly enough, the company doesn't really offer consumers a mid-level all-wheel-drive coupe. Buyers may either purchase the A5, with its turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine good for 211 hp, or the brawnier S5 powered by a 354-hp, 4.2 liter V8. But even with its lower power figures and smaller engine, the A5 is only around half a second slower than the C350 4Matic Coupe to 60 mph. The A5 also offers better fuel economy at 31 mpg highway and a considerably lower price tag of $37,100 excluding destination charges. That said, optioning the Audi to the level of kit found on our tester would require saddling up to Premium Plus trim at $41,000.

Were it our money on the line, we would lose some serious sleep over the debate between the A5 and the C350 4Matic Coupe. While both vehicles offer similar low-traction performance, the Audi A5 still strikes us as the more driver-oriented vehicle. With the availability of a manual transmission, better fuel economy and a lower price tag, the Audi is a good foil for the excellent interior, powerful V6 engine and lightweight 4Matic system found on the C350. Either way, we'll forever be indebted to Mercedes-Benz for ferrying us through the Rocky Mountains without having to reenact the more thrilling moments of the Donner Party saga.

At the end of the day, buyers now have a wealth of options when it comes to attractive all-wheel-drive coupes. The C350 4Matic Coupe is further proof that Mercedes-Benz remains serious about offering all-wheel drive-authority that rankles the chains of both Audi and BMW – not to mention Cadillac – with clever engineering innovation that delivers extra grip without dynamic or efficiency penalties.