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 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.
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.