Can the C-Class, our perennial runner-up in the compact saloon category, finally reach the top spot?

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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.

The Mercedes-Benz 190E established the modern-day template for the C-Class

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.

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



Mercedes-Benz C-Class LED headlights

‘MRA’ is the new initialism for those amused by the occasional game of platform architecture bingo.

Standing for ‘Modular Rear-drive Architecture’, it was applied first on the C-Class but has gone on to serve underneath many of Mercedes’ bigger rear-drivers as well.

Mercedes has decided that four links are better than three, as far as suspension is concerned

It allows the car to be about 100kg lighter than its predecessor, model for model, with an underbody constructed of almost 50 per cent aluminium, a lightweight material that’s still rare in compact executive saloons. The car is 95mm longer and 40mm wider, new for old.

The six-speed manual gearboxes fitted to entry-level models are new, and the seven-speed 7G-Tronic Plus auto (which more than 80 per cent of C-Class buyers choose) is kept on.

The range of engines consists of 134bhp 1.6-litre, 168bhp and 201bhp 2.1-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesels in the C 200 d, C 220 d, C 250 d and C 300 h models respectively, and a 181bhp 2.0-litre turbo petrol in the C 200 and C 350 e, while the range will be headed up by the 3.0-litre V6 C 43 and the 4.0-litre V8 C 63. The coupé and cabriolet models come with the same engine range bar the hybrid models and the inclusion of the C 300 - which uses the same 2.0-litre petrol engine but produces a hefty 242bhp.

The C-Class’s suspension is made up of a revised version of the five-link rear set-up that Mercedes has been faithful to for decades, and an all-new multi-link front axle alleged to offer excellent grip and stability.

The new system, similar in type to a conventional double wishbone arrangement, allows for better wheel location under load and higher levels of lateral grip and cornering stability.

The four-link set-up not only accepts both steel and air springs but also allows Mercedes to completely decouple the moving chassis links from the spring strut, which makes for freer axle kinematics and better ride tuning.

The car’s front suspension towers are among the many component parts of the body-in-white that are made of aluminium — cast in one piece for peerless strength, and then bonded, riveted and screwed to the adjacent steel pressings with a layer of glue acting as a barrier to prevent galvanic corrosion.

Over and above which there are four suspension options available: steel springs and ‘selective’ variable-rate dampers in standard Comfort, lowered Sport and even further lowered AMG Sport tunes – and an Airmatic self-levelling air suspension configuration, a first in the segment.

There are five trim levels: SE, Executive Edition, Sport, AMG Line and AMG, while the cabriolet and coupé share the same trims minus the Executive Edition models. However, as seems the craze at the moment, Mercedes will allow you to tweak and alter your car in a similar vein as BMW Individual. Thus, if you want your new C-Class to look and feel sporty inside but appear conservative outside, you can opt for the AMG Line interior with the more subtle SE exterior, or vice versa.


Mercedes-Benz C-Class dashboard

Despite the C-Class’s growth spurt, it still just about fails to offer its market sector’s last word in occupant space. Adults travelling in the car’s back row could be ever so slightly better provided for, particularly on foot space and knee room.

Still, people who buy compact executive saloons probably seldom need enough space for large adults in the back – and if you don’t, this cabin has probably everything that you ever wanted from a junior German saloon.

The only possible demerit is that the space in the rear is a little tight for adults

On material quality and standard of finish, the Mercedes is breathtakingly good. Among the highlights are shining, stippled metallic air vents and air-con controls, which are the first thing that your gaze alights on.

But they set a standard that the rest of the cabin effortlessly continues. The below-the-line mouldings are every bit as solid and smooth as the more visible plastics.

The minor switches for releasing the bootlid and disabling the rear windows are as classy as the door lock and headlight consoles. Mercedes simply looks to have over-spent its rivals on absolutely everything – and has outperformed the standard set by many full-size, £60k limousines in the process.

Opt for the entry-level SE trim and you'll find 16in alloy wheels, auto wipers, cruise control, a reversing camera and Mercedes' Collision Prevention Assist Plus system fitted as standard, while inside occupants are treated to a 7.0in infotainment system with DAB tuner, multimedia interface and touchpad, and 4-way electrically adjustable front seats.

Upgrade to the fleet-friendly Executive Edition and you get heated front seats, Garmin-powered sat nav, front and rear parking sensors, and 17in alloys, while the Sport models get LED headlights, a lowered suspension, folding and dimming mirrors, and leather sports seats. The range-topping AMG Line specs include, 18in AMG alloy wheels, an aggressive bodykit and sports suspension. 

Those opting for the beefy AMG models also get a bespoke trim for their fire-breathing monsters. The C 43 comes with a bespoke AMG bodykit, brake calipers and details, Artico leather upholstery and red seat belts, while the C 63 comes with a mechanical rear axle differential lock and a Nappa leather upholstery. The range-topping C 63 S comes with much of the same equipment except for 19in alloy wheels, grey seatbelts and AMG performance seats.

The driving position is sound, the seats excellent and the instruments supremely readable. Storage space is discreetly and securely provided in lidded compartments.

The only jarring, superfluous feature is the touch-sensitive pad housed atop the familiar rotary controller for the multimedia set-up, which is about as intuitive as it is effective and necessary.

Ornate speaker grilles betray a C-Class that’s fitted with Mercedes’ 590-watt Burmester surround-sound stereo — a £2270 option once you’ve paid for the necessary Comand Online multimedia set-up as well.

Predictably, it sounds magnificent. But the car’s standard Audio 20 system probably sounds more than decent, benefiting from Merc’s unique FrontBass front bulkhead resonance chambers, as seen on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and SL before it.

You don’t have to splash out on Comand Online to get Merc’s new touchpad, as it's standard on all models. It works fairly well when recognising letters for the sat-nav but can be hit and miss when skipping tracks on the audio set-up.

Generally, it requires more precision and concentration to operate with your left hand than is advisable when driving. To us, the neighbouring scroll wheel controller is a better input mechanism.

As usual from Mercedes, Bluetooth phone connectivity is easy to operate, call quality is good and the car’s voice recognition system works very well. Excellent attention to detail from Stuttgart, as ever.


Mercedes-Benz C-Class side profile

The model we’re concentrating on here is the C 220 d, because its likely to be among the more popular choices in the UK.

There are two things of note here: the amount of performance that the 168bhp C 220 d offers, and the manner in which it offers it.

Mercedes really needs to ensure that its new diesel engines are as quiet as possible

First things first, then, and the raw performance figures: the C 220 d is marginally slower to 60mph than the (manual, admittedly) BMW 320d Sport that we tested previously. The BMW managed the sprint in 7.7sec to the Merc’s 8.1sec.

Although the fitment of a seven-speed automatic transmission to the variant we tested, which understandably doesn’t have any nonsense like launch control, is a significant factor in that difference, the pattern is repeated in the arguably more relevant 30-70mph through-the-gears time: BMW 7.4sec, Mercedes 8.1sec.

The Mercedes has a slight advantage in fourth gear – 10.5sec versus 10.8sec – but, by and large, the BMW shades it. Still, the C-Class feels perky enough, with its best work done through the mid-range, which is okay because the automatic transmission is reluctant to shift into higher gears too early.

It’s sometimes recalcitrant if you’ve asked it for a downshift into the higher echelons of a lower gear’s rev range, too. Little change there, then, which means that, we suspect, most owners will never trouble the manual override on the auto ’box.

What the gearbox does mean, however, is that the C-Class is a quieter car than the BMW. Actually, it’s quieter even at idle, where its 44dB clatter is 4dB less than the BMW’s, and it’s a couple of decibels quieter at other speeds.

Partly that’s because the auto doesn’t let the revs stray too far out of their comfort zone if it can help it, and partly it’s just because it’s generally more hushed. The ride’s pretty quiet, too, on the Airmatic suspension, but we’ll come to that in a second.


Mercedes-Benz C-Class rear cornering

The air-suspended C-Class is the most intriguing of the line-up, but it takes no more than 50 metres to know that this is not a baby Mercedes-Benz S-Class in character. In fact, in those first few miles, it’s difficult to work out quite what it is.

Most of the expected absorbency and isolation of air suspension is there, but at town speeds there is quite a lot of intrusion over sharp surfaces, which thump through to the Mercedes' cabin in a sometimes fairly unpleasant fashion – more so than the usual ‘sproing’ you get with air springs. It’s enough to make you wonder why you’d bother with air at all.

The air-suspended version's flawed ride is at its best on motorways and its worst in town

It’s not helped by steering that quickens off centre, which is fine, only without any notable increase in steering effort as it twists, which isn’t fine. Combine it all, plus a primary ride that gently lolls, and you’re left with an impression that this isn’t an entirely happy car. It works best at motorway speeds and provides some justification for its existence.

Once on line, though, a C-Class is a pretty relaxed, stable cornerer. The stability control system is fairly deftly tuned, allowing very little slip, and it can be switched off, but this is no great driver’s car and presumably makes little claim to be.

After a little slip, an ‘off’ stability control steps in with heavy hands. The rear-drive architecture offers quite a natural balance, but a BMW 3 Series is more rewarding, consistent and engaging for people like us. The brakes resist fade well, mind. However, it may lack the poise and likeability that the Audi A4 offers.

But the air-suspended model left us sufficiently confused and concerned that we wanted to try some alternatives. The Comfort-suspended Mercedes, on 16-inch rims, gained some pliancy over surface imperfections at the expense of excessive softness.

The steering weights up as it ought to, and although it’s less pliant than the Comfort set-up and less isolated at high speeds than Airmatic, it feels most like a junior executive car should.

It’s hard to avoid the thought that, had Mercedes halved the number of suspension options and doubled the amount of tuning it put into each one, the C-Class would have gained a more competitive chassis.


Mercedes-Benz C-class

It’s all good news for prospective owners here. Our market experts expect the C-Class to outperform its rivals on residual values by no small amount if you buy now.

Meantime, although Mercedes is adopting its customary position slightly above equivalent BMW and Audi models on list price, it’s going the extra mile to deliver value for money on equipment.

Newness ensures class-leading residuals for the C-Class; it comes out on top against the likes of the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4

Starting with SE trim, the C-Class comes with 16in alloy wheels, a reversing camera, cruise control and rain-sensing wipers outside, as well as DAB radio and a 7in infotainment screen inside. An Executive Edition upgrade swaps the alloys for 17in ones, adds active parking assist, heated front seats and Garmin-powered sat-nav.

The Sport trim includes electrically folding door mirrors, LED headlights, sports seats, leather steering wheel and an ambient lighting package, while the AMG line gains 18in AMG alloys, AMG body stying, uprated brakes, sports suspension, and AMG pedals and sports seats inside the cabin.

Our information suggests that the car will be competitive for fleet drivers on contract hire, as well as on CO2-derived benefit-in-kind tax.

On real-world fuel economy, the C 220 d we initially tested gave up a little to an equivalent BMW 320d – but only 10 per cent or so on our touring economy test and less than two per cent overall.

This will easily be a 50mpg car for anyone who cares to drive it with efficiency in mind.



4 star Mercedes-Benz C-Class

This latest Mercedes C-Class is the embodiment of a growing suspicion in some quarters that rival Audi might be on to something when it comes to prioritising where it spends its development budgets.

Audi could engineer its steering systems and chassis to be more engaging if it wanted to, but it chooses to invest more heavily elsewhere.

The Mercedes isn't as good to drive as a 3-Series, but it does make the BMW appear bit less outstanding overall

The new Mercedes-Benz C-Class, then, follows this path.

It’s better inside, by a mile, than most of its rivals and is competitive in key areas, but it comes with a chassis that falls well short of the excellence achieved by the class-leading BMW 3 Series and the newest arrival - the Audi A4, seemingly no matter which version you choose.

People keener on spreadsheets than we are have presumably satisfied themselves that this offers the best return on investment.

But although it might keep them happy, and the interior and general ambience will satisfy everybody, those keen on driving will be left a little unfulfilled, and that’s enough to keep the Mercedes-Benz C-Class separated from the class lead by a short head.


Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes.