It’s a Merc that handles like a BMW. That may be a back-handed compliment (to Mercedes) but after a quick blast up the 40km Ambenali Ghat from Poladpur to Mahabaleshwar, I was left with no doubt that the latest C-class feels more 3-series than the 3-series itself.
Soon after the deep blue C220 CDI entered our long-term fleet, it was whisked off on the customary get-to-know-each-other drive to Mahabaleshwar.
The icebreaker with the C was, well, a speedbreaker. Several of them actually, all unmarked and dangerous enough to launch a light hatch into lower orbit. The road past the Adlabs Imagica Theme park which links the Expressway to NH17 is freshly laid but so are the speed breakers, and true to the apathy with which road contractors go about their work, no one has bothered to paint them yet. Just as well then that the Indian C-class comes with a jacked-up suspension whose travel I fully used up clobbering the first speed breaker, which I had failed to spot.
I’ve never been a fan of the common practice of cranking up ride height on India-spec cars that global carmakers adopt. It spoils the stance and even the handling to a certain extent. But I have to admit that it’s a small price to pay to stay out of trouble on Indian roads. Good ground clearance equates directly to good peace of mind. So I could afford to be a bit cavalier with the annoying and never-ending rumble strips on NH17, the odd excursion off tarmac and onto the earthen shoulders when dodging a bus on the wrong side of the road and conquering Everest-sized speed breakers that welcome you to every toll plaza.
The C-class’ ride quality is a touch on the firm side and it does a great job of flattening uneven roads. In fact, the flat and very settled ride gives you the confidence to cruise at serious speeds without scaring yourself or the passengers. On the stretch from Wakan to Poladpur on NH17, it was possible to hold a pretty impressive average speed without any drama.
However, sharp edge and ruts trip up the new C-class, which can be felt with a harsh thud from the suspension. It’s partly down to the 225 section tyres which are relatively low-profile but the truth is that the new C-class with all its lightweight suspension bits doesn’t offer the same damped feel of the previous C-class, which smothered bad roads like no other car in its class.
Where the C-class makes up is with its 3-series beating agility. Peeling off NH17 onto the Ambenali Ghat at Poladpur, the fluency and ease with which the C-class flicked from corner to corner made those 40km whisk past very quickly.
On a very twisty road and through tight hairpins, the last thing you want is loads of understeer to spoil your fun, so I was delighted to find the C-class playing ball by diving into corners with minimal understeer thanks to its nicely clamped down front end. The steering too is brilliant and again, is a lesson for BMW on how to balance steering feel, response and weight. Unlike the previous hydraulic system of the older C-class, which had a lot of feel but was heavy, the new C-class steering is light and effortless but doesn’t compromise on feedback and accuracy.
I feared that the seven-speed torque-converter auto may play party pooper, but again, toggling the gearbox into Sport+ had the transmission shifting so intuitively and quickly that there was little need for manual intervention, even on the most twisty bit of Ambenali, some 15km before Mahabaleshwar.
On the more practical side of things, the C-class failed my wife’s boot test – there just isn’t enough space to swallow weekend luggage and large food boxes. The spare tyre takes up a lot of space and more annoyingly, makes the boot floor uneven to allow you to pack the boot well.
The other issue we had was with the fuel filler; the special funnel to pop open the metal flap was misplaced and a regular diesel nozzle wouldn’t fit. This meant painfully slow fill ups at every fuel station. It was just as well then that the C220 CDI was rather frugal and despite some very hard driving, it gave an average of 11.9kpl for the 580km round trip.
The highlight, or rather revelation, of the Mahabaleshwar weekend was the C-class’ brilliantly balanced and stiff chassis, which gives this small Merc sedan a new-found agility. The weak link in the package which has such a strong chassis can only be a weak engine. And that’s what this 168bhp 2.0-litre is. Don’t get me wrong, the C 220 CDI has more than enough grunt for everyday driving and makes light work of highways as well. But the truth is that when powering up Ambenali, I couldn’t help but think that a C250 CDI with the more powerful 201bhp engine would make the C-class so much more compelling. Hope Mercedes-Benz India is listening.