2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Ladders. As children, we learn how important they are: even if you don't know who Jacob was or where he was climbing, you know how to make his ladder from string. If you don't want to be cursed, you know not to walk under them; and if you want to win the game, you know you need to avoid the chutes and climb the ladders. As adults, ladders take on more practical (if metaphorical) importance: if you want to rise above your station – to win the game of life, say – you need to avoid the chutes and climb the ladders.

It was the early 1980s when German automakers began introducing their aspirational four-wheeled ladders, and there are still three sedan Leitens to choose from depending on what you want your ladder to say: there's the C, E, S, the 3, 5, 7 and the A4, A6, A8. The point of any ladder, though, has always been to climb – the only reason you stepped on the bottom rung was because you intended to get to the top, or at least as close as you could muster.

That might change with this car, the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. It might be so good that there's no need to climb any higher.

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The new C is being called "the baby S-Class" for obvious reasons.

We've been reading about the new C-Class for months and got to see it in person at the Detroit Auto Show, so its major points have already been covered. It's larger, lighter, quicker, more elegant, more spacious, more powerful and more luxurious than the current sedan. So when we were given a chance to drive it after the Geneva Motor Show, our primary task was to see if it all came together properly. After being given just a few hours behind the wheel, our first impressions are that it most certainly does.

The new C is being called "the baby S-Class" for obvious reasons. Unlike the current C-Class or even the latest E-Class, it has forsaken all of its previously wedgey shape for an upright front graduating into a long hood and a long, laidback greenhouse followed by a visually short trunk, with those stretched-out flanks cut by sharp character lines. That's the S-Class playbook.

But it's easy to glue on some design cues – carmakers do it even when they shouldn't in order to strengthen family connections. It's much more difficult to make your near entry-level sedan feel like your marquee brougham. This is the C-Class that manages it, unlike every other iteration before.

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It starts with that interior, which is nicer than anything else Mercedes makes that doesn't begin with an "S." Stuttgart has clearly put a ton of work into the refinement of its finishes, so even though we're dealing with many of the same materials we're used to – leather, wood, aluminum – they feel qualitatively better than before. The puzzle-piece componentry of the current car has morphed into a tapering ribbon of utility accented with gloss black and metallic sheen; the manmade leather on the seats and steering wheel doesn't just feel like leather, it feels like hide; the seat switches could come straight from the S-Class; the display screen between the gauges is full-color and lush.

Yes, there are some differences. The open-pore black ash (which we will get in the US, contrary to what we were told before) looks great, but the cubby cover in the center console is thin and gets cranky about anything out of place within its confines when you try to close it. Those high-class window switches make the mirror controls above them look kind of ordinary. Mercedes is gung-ho about its analogue clocks for some reason, but we wish that instead of the timepiece installed below the CD player, they had included 'forward' and 'back' buttons to shuffle through media. Yes, there are track buttons on the steering wheel, but we'll get to those in a moment. Let us admit, however, that these are nitpicks. Part of the problem is that almost everything is so good inside that segment-appropriate switchgear, like the truly ordinary buttons on the steering wheel, suddenly feels like they're not good enough. We have to see how it ages, but right now the fact is that this interior is fabulous.

The interior is nicer than anything else Mercedes makes that doesn't begin with an "S."

The new COMAND system is deep, and we could have spent the two days on nothing more than elucidating its mysteries. Overall, it's very good and easy to use, with many new menus and enhanced animations for a number of options. Mercedes has thankfully retained a familiar main knob control under the touchpad. This particular driver doesn't use finger-swiping gestures to do anything other than scroll a page on our phone and turn the page of a book – of the e- and paper varieties – so going for the knob was reflexive. When entering an address in the nav system with fingertip writing, the system read every letter perfectly, so we expect that you master swipers will be pleased. However, Yours Truly could do it quicker with the knob, so we only tried used the fingertip method once.

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COMAND is normally so easy to navigate that its clunky bits have been made that much more strange.

As with the interior, COMAND is normally so easy to navigate that its clunky bits have been made that much more strange. To go back to those track buttons, say you have media on the center screen and audio selected on the in-dash display. If you want to advance a track, when you hit the up-arrow button on the steering wheel, it takes you from the individual track being displayed to the list of tracks in the playlist, and then you have to hit the down-arrow button to get to the next track. Oftentimes the OK button in between the arrows would take us to the main menu, just like the Home button would do, so we weren't sure when it was merely going to register an "okay" or when it was going to say, "Okay, let's go over here now." Nitpicks, again, and you get these incidents in just about every car. You'll figure out how to do everything you really want in 78 seconds. Oh, and the audio clarity of the Burmester stereo – whose work was once standard equipment on the Bugatti Veyron – is outstanding.

For our drive, we chose a C400 4Matic with the AMG package, which gets the sportier front and rear aprons and side skirts with chrome trim, 18-inch wheels with cross-drilled brakes, sport seats with perforated centers, a flat-bottomed steering wheel and stainless steel pedals with rubber lugs. 4Matic uses a 45/55 front-to-rear power split by default, and adds 154 pounds to the curb weight for the privilege of added foul-weather facility.

The "baby S-Class" sensations continue under power. There are five drive modes to choose from, Comfort is the default, Eco, Sport, Sport+ and Individual being the other options. Eco mode uses a host of power-saving technologies to help boost gas mileage so it doesn't need to abscond with all of the engine power to earn its green cred; while there's a noticeable difference in performance, it isn't off-putting. At the other end, we finally have a car you can put in Sport on the highway and not lose top gear; the 7G-Tronic transmission will remain in seventh at speed but kick down earlier – to go with sharper throttle inputs and steering – when cruising.

2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Our car was fitted with Airmatic suspension, and the choices in the Individual mode allow the driver to toggle between Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and Manual settings to tune the steering, damping and transmission behavior. The new C-Class is not a sport sedan, though, no matter how aggressively you set it, but it is an exceptionally sporty luxury sedan when it bares its teeth. It doesn't lack for acceleration, but with all the touting of weight savings, it didn't feel as fleet as we expected. Then we found an empty bit of road, put it into Sport+ and gave the throttle some what-for, at which point the bustle and gown came off and the car bolted. It's in there, but you've got to go get it.

The new C-Class is not a sport sedan but it is an exceptionally sporty luxury sedan when it bares its teeth.

Sitting in the passenger seat while our drive partner tackled a bit of curvy road, the sedan's attitude remained perfectly flat. Attacking a few corners ourselves, the C proved it's game to play, but it's obviously not a hill-climb machine. The base model is 220 pounds lighter than the current car, but add in that twin-turbo V6, 4Matic and all the options thrown at our test car, and it becomes clear you're moving weight. The rear-wheel-drive C300 will be lighter on its contact patches when it arrives in Q1 of 2015, but frankly, no one's going to be buying this car to attack corners because, well, "baby S-Class."

Which returns us to how the cabin feels – quiet. The aluminium-hybrid bodyshell is more rigid and uses fewer components, further enhanced by more noise insulation and sound-absorbing materials, aerodynamic detailing to decrease wind noise (and increase fuel economy), more advanced door seals and even a quiet central locking mechanism.

2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class

The auto stop-start mechanism is so subtle we didn't even realize it was active.

In particular, the auto stop-start mechanism is so subtle we didn't even realize it was active, and we had to pull over twice to verify it. The first time we pulled over, a truck passed by in the opposite lane on the restart, and even though we had our ear next to the steering wheel, we couldn't hear the engine fire up. The interior ambiance is hushed and sturdy, well above its compact premium pay-grade – perhaps more enlighteningly described as offering Lexus-like quiet with a Teutonic bearing.

We had planned to ask engineers some questions on the second day, but the only off-key note of our drive obliterated those plans. Buyers who don't want to lay out for COMAND Online with its larger screen and polished navigation can stick with the standard system, then purchase a Garmin SD card that fits into a slot in the center armrest and enables in-car navigation – which we think is a great thing. On Day 2, though, the navigation system refused to read any of the routes that had been saved to the SD card. A Mercedes helper called an engineer and was told that we needed to lock the car, wait four minutes for the system to reboot completely, then get back in and it should work. We did this. Twice. It didn't work. We swapped out the SD card for one from another car. It still didn't work. Our helper entered an address manually, but instead of taking us to the Michelin test track in Salon-de-Provence, it tried to guide us onto the runways at the Aero-Club Rossi-Levallois Pilot School. Not wanting to end up on Autoblog in one of those posts about some dumbass who followed his sat-nav onto a taxiway, we called off the game and drove straight to the departure hotel.

2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Nothing else in the class will offer everything the new C-Class does.

A foible, yes, but a small foible on a pre-production car. More importantly, once you get beyond the basics like the split-folding rear seat, electric parking brake, the massive trunk and standard features like Crosswind Assist, nothing else in the class will offer everything the new C-Class does. All of the Intelligent Drive features from the S-Class will be available on the C-Class, like Distronic Plus with Steer Assist – a boon in the traffic-clogged rush hour of Marseilles, Parktronic and Active Lane Keep Assist, and remote activation of the HVAC system. Yeah, it's going to get spendy if you order up the lot, but you can't get this much lot anywhere else in the segment.

Here's another way the new C-Class is like the S-Class: That executive luxury sedan has owned its segment for decades, yet it's never given the impression that it's been trying to beat its competitors. It is everything Mercedes represents – even, and perhaps especially, when it stumbles – and it never deigns to argue its position. You either get it or you don't.

Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said of the new C-Class, "It embodies what we understand modern automotive luxury made by Mercedes-Benz to be." This new C isn't arguing, isn't fighting, isn't trying to beat the BMW 3 Series or any other car. It is its own thing, surprisingly mature and substantial – the Mercedes of the segment. It has stepped off the ladder, and now so can you. If you like the size of it, the 2015 C-Class is likely all the climbing you'll ever need to do.