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 execs

  • BMW 3-series
    The 3-series remains strong in the areas it has always excelled but now it's more rounded than ever

    BMW 3-series

    1
  • 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

    2
  • The Audi A4 saloon is bigger, roomier and more aerodynamic than its predecessor

    Audi A4

    3
  • The CC offers a handsome alternative to the staid Passat

    Volkswagen CC

    4
  • Volvo S60
    The Volvo S60 is offered with an impressive new D4 diesel engine

    Volvo S60

    5

First drives

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • First Drive
    27 April 2015
    The original S-Max was a game changer – your only option if you wanted a fun, seven-seat MPV. The new model aims to be the same, only better.
  • First Drive
    24 April 2015
    Space and practicality has never been an issue for the Seat Leon ST, and thanks to a Cupra 280 engine it's now fast, too - but does it gel as a package?
  • First Drive
    24 April 2015
    Ariel's third model is the best yet - in fact, it's one of the best driving experiences we've ever had
  • Car review
    23 April 2015
    Mazda's Skyactiv tech revolution transforms its cheapest model
  • The new Espace is a seven seater and described by the company as a 'crossover'.
    First Drive
    23 April 2015
    Renault replaces its classic flagship MPV with a new take on the seven-seat utility vehicle, but it's not for sale in the UK