What is it?
It’s not an S-class, but you’ll be forgiven for thinking that its one, especially if you walk up to it from the rear. This all-new W205 C-class has the same regal look as the new S-class launched at the beginning of this year - from its delicately detailed full-LED headlamps, to its curvaceous, crease-heavy sides, to its tapering tail. It’s only when you size it up that you realise it’s a whole lot smaller, and that it rides quite high on its raised-for-India suspension. And you also notice that the grille is a sporty two-bar affair with a big star in its centre, rather than the big chrome slab on the S. The other big difference is that, in relation to the rest of the car, its boot appears a little stubby, but we’re nitpicking here, and overall, the look is a great blend of sporty shape and classy details.
The interior, however, is where things are on a whole new level for this segment. The cabin too borrows a lot from the S-class (a very good thing indeed), but thanks to a new design, has its own unique character. For example, bits like the seat controls and beautifully hewn brushed metal window switches are lifted from the S, but the dash has an altogether more ‘vertical’ orientation about it, marked out by the thick, wood finish thick slab that makes up the centre console. The new steering wheel feels great to hold and echoes classic Mercs with its big, round central boss. Behind it sits the instrument binnacle in a deep hooded enclosure - the multi-info screen gives you a lot of information, but the flat-looking dials, look plain and don’t suit this Merc.
Mercedes hasn’t held back on the equipment list, at least with this fully imported C 200 petrol that will be available at launch. Starting with the screen, which still sits suspended above the air-con vents like a tablet computer, but is now larger (8.4 inches) with higher-res graphics befitting this segment. In addition to the click-wheel controller, there is now a touchpad as well, that makes Merc’s COMAND interface much easier to navigate. There are the basics like auto climate control (three-zone), a rear-view camera and Bluetooth connectivity, but then they’ve added goodies like satellite navigation, LED ambient cabin lighting with three selectable colours, push-button start, a massive panoramic sunroof and a magnificent-sounding 13-speaker Burmester hi-fi system.
The front seats aren’t the slim, body-hugging kind you’ll find on the compact Mercs; these are big chairs that will suit all frames and still manage to be supportive. The ‘wings’ or side bolsters use a slightly firmer cushioning, while the centre portion - which actually supports your weight - uses a softer grade. This leaves you feeling nicely ensconced in the bucket, even when cornering hard. Both front seats are fully electrically adjustable, including the adjustable cushion for added thigh support, and both have a memory function too. At the rear, the seat offers the good legroom and sufficient headroom by class standards, but in absolute terms its nowhere near as spacious as the lesser Toyota Camry and Skoda Superb. Also, we found the seat squab too short to offer enough thigh support. The seat itself, however, is well cushioned and nicely bolstered but again, the deep contours and high central transmission tunnel make the C-class better of for four passengers.
What is it like to drive?
We know there’s a diesel coming later, but at launch, the new Mercedes-Benz C-class will be offered with only the petrol engine - the C 200. This is the same 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged petrol engine as in the E 200, and it produces 181bhp and 30.5kgm of torque. It’s very refined when you’re idling and it only makes itself heard when you’re really going for it, and even then, it’s a rather pleasing snarl. This car is also equipped with Mercedes’ ‘Agility Select’ drive modes; five of them - Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and Individual (which lets you customise the different settings). These different modes alter the engine and gearbox, steering, air-conditioner performance and engine auto stop-start function, but the fixed suspension settings can’t be changed.
What you should know is that the Eco mode makes the steering nice and light but blunts throttle responses. However, this lazy setting makes gearshifts from the 7G-Tronic Plus torque-converter gearbox very smooth, and switches the air-con to its own ‘eco’ mode to save on fuel. Conversely, Sport+ mode offers the quickest throttle response, the most aggressive gearshifts, the heaviest steering, and is the only mode that deactivates engine stop-start by default. The other modes are a mix and match of these settings.
On the whole, the engine is pretty responsive, and though perhaps not quite as free-revving as some of the competition, delivers performance when and where you need it. It has a strong mid-range, which is a superb overtaking tool and, in true Merc fashion, you are whisked to some serious speeds with out any drama. Stay in Comfort mode, pin the throttle pedal down and the C-class gathers speed seamlessly like the Bullet Train
Switch to Sport + and you can immediately feel the powertrain get more aggressive. The engine hangs on in each gear longer, and under full bore accelerations there’s a noticeable jerk between shifts. However, downshifts are not particularly quick, and you have to drop revs quite a bit before the gearbox lets you swap to a lower cog.
The ride and handling too is completely transformed but it’s not all for the better. The new C-class has a stiffer, lighter chassis, which is a good base for brilliant dynamics. However, India-spec suspension is a bit too stiff for our roads. The taller (and stiffer) springs give a sharper rebound, whilst jagged edges and deep ruts can feel quite jarring (the low profile 225/50R17 tyres a culprit to some extent). The new car doesn’t have that all-conquering, bump-smothering ability of the last C-class (which we think rides better than even the current E-class) but over most surfaces it feels very comfortable and ride quality is right up there with the class best .
The good bit about the taller suspension and higher ground clearance is that speed breakers pose no problem. The C-class sailed over all the speed humps thrown at it in our short drive around the Kharghar area outside Mumbai, with the aplomb of an off-roader.
At high speed too, the C-class feels remarkably stable and well planted and again, though the suspension on an uneven surface feels like it's working overtime, the ride is pretty flat and supremely controlled, which makes the new Merc a brilliant highway cruiser.
The C-class finally moves from a hydraulically assisted power steering to electric, which again has transformed the character of the car. Whilst we miss the wonderfully fluid and perfectly weighted feel of the older unit, the new steering is a whole lot quicker, giving this new C-class a much sharper turn-in and an eagerness to change direction. Couple this new found agility with the stronger, more responsive petrol motor, and its clear that the C-class is now far more entertaining to drive.
Should I buy one?
Just the fact that this is the third new Mercedes-Benz model we’re reviewing this week should give you an idea of the aggressive attack the company is mounting on our market. The S-class set a high benchmark at the beginning of the year, a number of AMGs whet our performance appetites, and the MFA-based models have shown us that Mercs are still Mercs, even when they’re compact. It actually made us wonder how the new C-class would fit in without treading on the toes of the smaller cars and the bigger E-class. The answer is simply that it walks its own separate line. The design is fresh and unique, and does enough to both tie it to the bigger S-class and also place it a level above the compact Mercs. The cabin quality is hard to fault and sets a new benchmark for the class, with a fresh design that is a pleasant departure from the ‘cookie-cutter’ design templates that typify the segment. This version is also really well equipped, and gives a proper luxury feel. And our few bugbears with the suspension are more to do with how the pervious C-class with its old-school mechanicals just felt better; on its own, the new C-class’s dynamics is pretty impressive too. Yes, you’ll have to wait until March 2015 for the diesel version, and more affordable lower-specced versions as well as local assembly are in the pipeline too (this fully imported, fully loaded C 200 petrol is a little pricey at Rs 40.9 lakh, ex-showroom Delhi). But for the quality, equipment and sense of occasion alone, we think it’s worth your money.