Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
The C220d is our model of choice. With the same 191bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine as the one in the larger E-Class saloon, it offers plenty of low-down grunt and feels fast enough to hold its own against any of its chief rivals. It also comes with a nine-speed automatic gearbox as standard that, while occasionally slow to react, at least changes gear smoothly and crisply. There's also a more powerful 242bhp version of the same engine, badged C300d.
As for the petrol options, we're yet to try the entry-level C180, but the 2.0-litre engine in the higher-powered C300 gives even more power, at 254bhp. It’s incredibly responsive and builds speed with ease, even though that same auto gearbox takes a second to change down.
The mild hybrid C200, though, never really feels as fast as its power figures suggest. You really have to work it hard to extract what performance is available, especially on hills, and that isn’t always easy because, as with its stablemates, the auto gearbox takes its time to kick down.
Mercedes’ new diesel-electric hybrid version, the C300de, isn’t due to arrive in the UK until the middle of 2019, but we've already had an early drive that shows it should be a very compelling choice. Not only will you benefit from the superior long-distance economy and low CO2 emissions that a diesel offers, but its 121bhp electric motor and 13.5kWh battery also allow it to travel for up to a claimed 30 miles on electricity alone, meaning it’ll be cheap – not to mention clean – to run around town. With both power sources combined, it pulls strongly from low revs (0-62mph takes less than six seconds), and its electric motor provides instant get-up-and-go off the line.
Up at the top end of the range are the performance AMG C43, C63 and C63 S models. We haven’t sampled the 4.0-litre V8s in the top two cars, but the six-cylinder C43 will be plenty fast enough for most drivers and has the added appeal of standard four-wheel drive.
Suspension and ride comfort
There’s a pretty wide range of suspension choices for the C-Class Estate. While entry-level SE has steel springs with passive dampers as before, Sport and AMG Line versions get adaptive dampers as standard.
Even when fitted with small wheels, the SE is less comfortable than you might think. Urban potholes and lumps cause the C-Class to fidget noticeably, and at higher speeds it feels a little uncontrolled over crests. Upgrade to 18in or larger wheels and we suspect it’ll only get worse. Upgrade to a car with adaptive dampers and things improve slightly, but the C-Class is still less comfortable than the equivalent Audi A4 Avant.
Alternatively, there’s an optional air suspension set-up called Agility Control – part of the Airmatic Dynamic Handling package – which comes as standard on Sport and AMG Line trims. This does a much better job of cushioning surface imperfections and motorway expansion joints, although bigger potholes can still be a bit crashy and it can feel a touch floaty over high-speed crests.
C43 models come with a sportier adaptive suspension set-up that’s comfortable enough when dialled back to its softest mode but feels decidedly stiff over potholed roads in its more aggressive modes. Of course, for performance models, this is what you’d expect.
Despite being pretty firm, the conventionally sprung SE is far from the driver’s choice in this segment. While grip levels are high, there’s a surprising amount of body lean in corners and the car never feels particularly keen to change direction in a hurry.
But models on adaptive dampers are better, allowing you to stiffen things up for less lean and crisper responses. With the Agility Control suspension fitted, the C-Class is pretty good to drive. Flick it into Sport mode and the suspension sharpens up noticeably, giving you strong enough body control to hustle the car along a twisty road at a fair old lick but without making the ride so brittle that the car is knocked off your chosen line by mid-corner bumps.
That said, it isn’t as much fun as a BMW 3 Series Touring or even an Audi A4 Avant down a twisty country lane; while the steering is direct and responsive, its weighting is a little inconsistent and doesn’t involve you in the experience as much as it could.
With its stiffer suspension and quicker steering, the C43 feels even more alert when cornering, and four-wheel drive makes its performance usable whatever the weather.
Noise and vibration
This is the area where the C200 and it’s mild-hybrid set-up disappoints. Even when you’re cruising along, it transmits a noticeable hum and even a little vibration into the car; call for more acceleration and, as the revs rise, so does the racket.
The C220d is better; in fact, when you’re coasting or cruising along, it’s whisper-quiet. But, again, ask it to do more than that and it grows somewhat gruffer, proving more intrusive than the Audi A4 Avant’s 2.0-litre diesel engine.
It's a similar story for the hybrid C300e, although it's whisper-quiet on electric power alone, and the transition between the electric and diesel motors is largely seamless.
The adaptive suspension option is a boon here, too, absorbing a lot of the surface rumble to reduce noise. Wind intrusion is still noticeable, but it’s a much more cosseting experience without all the crashy tyre noise.
Bigger wheels, stiffer suspension and a rorty exhaust make the C43 the noisiest of the lot at a cruise, although that’s fair enough; it’s part of the fun with this performance model.