Typically, car manufacturer model codenames mean little to anyone but car manufacturers – but not always.

German car aficionados aren’t alone, for example, in nodding sagely at the casual mention of a W124, a W140, an R107 or, super-keenly, a W198. Some Mercedes-Benzes, it seems, are so legendary that to refer to them by their proper names seems almost to do them an injustice.

How Stuttgart would love it if the new W205 C-Class comes to earn that kind of reverence. Assuming that significance gives any clue to overall stature, it certainly should.

Daimler-Benz started making recognisable compact executive saloons in the 1950s, with the four-cylinder W120 series. The seminal moment for the modern C-Class came, though, with the launch of the original C-Class’s immediate predecessor: the 1982 Mercedes 190 and 190E.

This was the W201, and it was followed in 1993 by the W202, which first bore C-Class badging. Mercedes introduced a two-door coupé version alongside regular saloons and estates with the W203 in 2000.

This is the first Merc, however, based on an all-new aluminium/steel hybrid rear-wheel drive platform that’ll be adopted for a whole phalanx of bigger sibling models. From body to chassis to powertrain to interior, it’s a sign of things to come from Mercedes.

There’s plenty riding on it. At the car’s launch earlier this year, Daimler boss Dieter Zetsche confirmed that, despite the army of smaller, cheaper front-drive models launched of late, the C-Class remains the company’s biggest-selling model.

The S-Class, launched in 2013, suggested that Merc was rediscovering top form. So is the C-Class destined for greatness?

Top 5 Compact saloons

  • The Jaguar XE - the big cat's new compact exec
    Jaguar's new four cylinder 2.0-litre Ingenium diesel engine comes with either 161bhp or 178bhp outputs

    Jaguar XE

    1
  • BMW 3 Series saloon
    BMW 3 Series is priced from £24,975

    BMW 3 Series

    2
  • Ford Mondeo Titanium 180PS

    Ford Mondeo

    3
  • The 2015 Audi A4

    Audi A4

    4
  • Mercedes-Benz C-Class
    The C-Class shares a lot of its looks with the new S-Class, furthering its desirability

    Mercedes-Benz C-Class

    5

First drives

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Seat Leon 1.4 EcoTSI FR Titanium
    First Drive
    27 May 2016
    High-spec new Titanium FR trim is temptingly good value, particularly on the semi-enthusiastic 1.4 EcoTSI petrol
  • Kia Niro
    First Drive
    27 May 2016
    The Kia Niro will be one of the greenest cars in the compact crossover class when it goes on sale later this year. We drive it to see what else it has to offer
  • Car review
    27 May 2016
    Can the turbocharged successor to the 458 raise the bar again?
  • Car review
    27 May 2016
    The big-in-every-way Bentley SUV lands. We assess the impact
  • Volkswagen Touran 2.0 TDI R-Line
    First Drive
    27 May 2016
    The Volkswagen Touran R-Line offers a sporty twist on the ever-sensible MPV formula. We’ve sampled the punchy 2.0-litre diesel