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, 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. And the Stuttgart firm put its money where its mouth is by investing in creating not only an estate version but also W205 coupés and cabriolets, but there was more to come as Mercedes' AMG division has also launched hot and ballistic versions of the C-Class in the shape of the C 43 and C 63.

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

First drives

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Honda Civic
    Car review
    21 April 2017
    Honda’s 10th-generation Civic hatchback goes global — but is that good news?
  • Toyota Prius Plug-in
    First Drive
    21 April 2017
    Second-generation Toyota Prius Plug-in hybrid gets a bigger battery with new 39-mile electric range, more tech and styling updates, but it's expensive
  • Seat Ateca 1.4 EcoTSI 150 DSG
    First Drive
    20 April 2017
    Addition of DSG automatic gearbox in this top-spec model doesn't show the Ateca small SUV in its best light
  • Isuzu D-Max Blade
    First Drive
    20 April 2017
    Isuzu treats its rough-and-ready D-Max pick-up truck to a new engine, revised looks, better hauling ability and more equipment
  • MG ZS
    First Drive
    19 April 2017
    We drive MG’s upcoming Ford Ecosport rival in China-spec; good looks and a smart interior bode well for the UK version