But now Mercedes has the CLA-Class – a slick little front-drive sedan that creates a new bottom end for the brand here in the United States, effectively taking those entry-level duties off of the C-Class' plate. It's clearly working – as of this writing, Mercedes-Benz executives say the company has but a nine-day supply of CLAs and it recently had to add a third shift at its factory in order to keep up with demand. So with fewer needs to fill, where does the C-Class go from here?
There's only one direction to go: Up. Autoblog contributor and Man About Town Jonathon Ramsey got an early taste of the C-Class in European spec this year, and to say he walked away impressed wouldn't do his First Drive justice. According to his initial drive report, the C-Class has transformed from a formidable German competitor in a fierce segment into a true juggernaut that makes a convincing bid for the company's "The Best or Nothing" tagline. That heady praise in mind, I naturally jumped at the chance to put the new US-market C through its paces on American soil.
If you're like us, you've been drooling over the new C-Class ever since it debuted at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show this past January. You're undoubtedly familiar with its miniature S-Class styling, proudly displaying sleek yet aggressive facial features (especially with those full-LED headlamps), classically beautiful proportions, a short rear deck with elegantly styled taillamps and an attractive family of 17-, 18- and 19-inch wheels. Ramsey accurately described how it's all too easy for an automaker to slap some hallmark design cues on a vehicle to try and sell a family resemblance, but it's much, much harder "to make your near entry-level sedan feel like your marquee brougham." We couldn't agree more, with the caveat that you can't really appreciate how handsome this new C-Class is until you see it on the road.
You can't really appreciate how handsome this new C-Class is until you see it on the road.
The long hood/short trunk proportions from the larger S-Class totally work here, and right away, they draw attention to the fact that C's mission is luxury first, sport second. The short front overhang, low stance and careful use of curves and angles really work to make a cohesive package that comes across as far more upscale than not only the CLA, but any previous C-Class.
Nowhere is that more apparent than inside the cabin. This isn't just best-in-class stuff – this is one of the nicest luxury car interiors you're likely to find, full stop. It bests everything currently on offer in the entire Mercedes-Benz portfolio short of the S-Class, and offers a more premium, luxurious experience than a vast majority of more expensive offerings from German rivals.
The design is a good chunk of the story, where flowing lines devoid of harsh edges or angles all work together to lend the interior a truly elegant feel. All of the leathers and woods and plastics come together in a very specific way that radiates attention to detail – this interior was not designed with individual pieces fitted together, it was crafted as one entity, and it shows. The leathers are wonderful, the optional natural wood finishes are some of the best you'll touch, and the aluminum trim looks and feels as premium as it does in the larger S-Class. What's more, despite a relatively high beltline, visibility is good all around. The front seats are particularly comfy and the back seats aren't bad, though sitting back there reminds you that this is indeed a smaller car despite its big luxury sedan aura.
This is one of the nicest luxury car interiors you're likely to find, full stop.
Of course, to most of this segment's buyers, luxurious appointments are far more important than sporty cues in the cockpit, but if they buyer desires, a Sport Pack (optional on C300 models, standard on C400) includes things like a thick-rimmed, flat-bottom wheel, open-pore black ash trim, aluminum pedals and so on. We're likewise big fans of the neatly organized gauge cluster, which offers involving bits for the driver to focus on while leaving passengers to gaze upon the flowing center stack with its three prominent air vents and two rows of climate control and infotainment switchgear. The center stack sweeps down to the small control center that houses the COMAND knob and touchpad, as well as the drive mode toggle ("Agility Select" in Mercedes-speak) and stereo volume control.
A word about COMAND here: Not everyone will like the tablet-like floating mount of the seven-inch display (we've heard you readers grouse about similar installations in other cars), but we think it's gorgeous, plus it packs excellent graphics and a really modern design. Unfortunately, controlling it isn't quite as fluid as we'd like. The rotary knob to manage everything remains intact, underneath the touchpad, and it's a familiar interface to anyone who has used previous generations of the system before. But the touchpad lacks any sort of haptic feedback, and its scroll and swipe gestures (said to mimic those of smartphones) aren't quite as responsive as we'd like. After several hours of trying to warm to the touchpad, we just couldn't do it, eventually relying solely on the knob below. An extended test of the car may warrant more positive impressions, but from our short experience with the C-Class on this press drive, we are not yet fully on board with the Benz's implementation of the technology.
From admittedly short experience with the C-Class, we are not yet fully on board with the touchpad technology.
Mercedes will initially offer two engine choices in the US when the C-Class launches this September. On the low end, there's a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four in the rear- and all-wheel-drive C300 models (the RWD C300 arrives early next year), and the C400, which is only available with all-wheel drive, uses a new, twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 – an engine that will quickly spread to other models in the company's portfolio. Diesel and hybrid variants are forthcoming, so we're told, as is the next-generation AMG model, which is expected to use the new 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 heading into the AMG-GT Coupe. Merc's execs remained a bit mum on details for the upcoming C63 successor, but every time we mentioned it, their eyes got really, really wide. Expect good things when it debuts early next year.
The C300's engine is essentially a boosted version of the 2.0T used in the CLA, rated here at 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque – gains of 33 hp and 15 lb-ft versus its home in the CLA250, but decreases of 114(!) hp and 59 lb-ft versus the more focused and costlier CLA45 AMG. The only available transmission is the company's fine-and-dandy 7G-Tronic Plus seven-speed automatic. The C400's more powerful twin-turbo V6 produces a healthy 329 hp and 354 lb-ft, mated to the same gearbox.
We can honestly say we prefer the less-powerful C300.
After packing on the miles in and around Seattle, WA, we can honestly say we prefer the less-powerful C300. This isn't really a shock – when the F30 BMW 3 Series launched a couple of years ago, several reviewers (us included) admitted to preferring the four-cylinder 328i to the six-cylinder 335i. With the Mercedes, the 2.0T is really nicely tuned for the C300 application, with plenty of get up and go without turbo lag and a meaty torque curve to aid with passing situations. Plus, the C300 is lighter – at 3,417 pounds (or 3,737 here in C400 4Matic guise), it weighs about 200 pounds less than the outgoing model. We also found the seven-speed automatic to be better matched with the less-powerful engine, as shifts often felt surprisingly harsh and oddly timed in the more powerful C400, no matter if the car's Agility Selector was in Eco, Comfort, Sport, or Sport+ modes.
All C-Class models come standard with an all-independent suspension employing four-link geometry up front and a five-link setup out back. The aforementioned Sport Package lowers the suspension by six-tenths of an inch and adds 18-inch wheels on the C300, and while the ride was firm yet comfortable, once again you'll find a greater focus here on luxury than sport. Mercedes also offers an optional Airmatic suspension ($1,190) on both the 300 and 400, with continuously variable damping at the front and rear, as well as automatic self-leveling for when the car is loaded or when cruising on the freeway to reduce drag. The differences between the standard steel and air suspensions weren't especially apparent during our time in Seattle, despite deliberate efforts to expose both setups to a variety of harsh and smooth surfaces. Honestly, the C300 Sport with the standard steel suspension really felt like the total champion of the available setups.
The C has some of the crispest, most rewarding steering in the class.
One commendable part of the C-Class experience is its Direct Steer system, a speed-sensitive assist design that incorporates a variable ratio depending on steering input. Unlike some other adaptive systems, the C-Class' setup never feels overly synthetic or lacking in feedback. Sure, you can tell that there's something sort of mechanical and unnatural happening, but it's not intrusive. In fact, we'd go so far to say that the C has some of the crispest, most rewarding steering in the class. Anyone who came away disappointed by the electronic power-assisted helm in the BMW 3 Series would do well to try this setup.
In the more powerful C400, everything is largely the same, there's just a greater rush of power available, something we put to great use on while passing slow-moving, tourist-filled minivans on the pretty roads around the base of Washington's Mt. Rainier. This is an exceptionally powerful sedan, but the added cost ($8,190 compared to the C300 4Matic) doesn't necessarily feel completely worth it, especially since the C300 can be had with all the same amenities and luxurious appointments (save 19-inch wheels, which look rad, by the way). That added power also means lower fuel economy – Mercedes-Benz hasn't yet released numbers for the C300 models, but we have to believe it's better than the albeit respectable 22 miles per gallon city and 29 mpg highway of the C400 4Matic.
Mercedes has finally allowed the C-Class to be the midsize luxury/sport sedan it has always strived to be.
As Ramsey wrote, "The new C-Class is not a sport sedan but it is an exceptionally sporty luxury sedan when it bares its teeth." Even subtly retuned for US audiences, he speaks the truth. We'll add that as a whole, the 3 Series probably does the sport thing a little better on those rare occasions where it's really hustled, but the C-Class is still plenty of fun on a good road, and it's easily preferable in daily driving. The C-Class' demeanor is closer to something like a Cadillac ATS, but more refined, not to mention far more luxurious. It truly is a step above the rest.
Mercedes has finally allowed the C-Class to be the midsize luxury/sport sedan it has always strived to be but never quite accomplished. Pricing is set at $38,400 for the rear-drive C300, $40,400 for the C300 4Matic, and $48,950 for the C400 4Matic, not including $925 for destination. And while that's on the higher end of the pricing spectrum compared to competitors from Audi, BMW and Cadillac, what you're getting with the C-Class is something extra – something that's genuinely more premium. It's one of the best all-around luxury cars you can buy at any price. It's not just the best C-Class ever, it's one of Stuttgart's most fantastically conceived products yet.