Mercedes-Benz C-Class saloon performance
The C220d is our model of choice. With the same 191bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine used 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 as standard with a nine-speed automatic gearbox that, while occasionally slow to react, 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 either the entry-level C180 or the more powerful C300, while the mild hybrid C200 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 the auto 'box takes its time to kick down.
Mercedes’ new diesel-electric hybrid, the C300de, isn’t due to arrive in the UK until the middle of 2019, but we've already had a sneaky early drive that shows it should be a very compelling choice. You'll benefit from the superior long-distance economy and low CO2 emissions that a diesel offers, while its 121bhp electric motor and 13.5kWh battery allow it to travel up to a claimed 30 miles on electricity alone, meaning it’ll be cheap and clean to run around town. With both powerplants working together, the C300de pulls strongly and flexibly (0-62mph takes less than six seconds), and the electric motor provides instant punch off the line.
There are also the high-performance AMG versions, the C43, C63 and C63 S. Even the C43 will be plenty fast enough for most drivers, and all have the added appeal of standard four-wheel drive.
Mercedes-Benz C-Class saloon ride
There’s a pretty wide range of suspension choices for the C-Class. While entry-level SE cars get steel springs with passive dampers, Sport and AMG Line versions get adaptive dampers as standard.
Even on small wheels, the SE is still 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 A4.
Alternatively, there’s an optional air suspension set-up, called Airmatic. This is a reasonably priced upgrade and does a good job of cushioning the worst imperfections at higher speeds, although the car still gets caught out over really sharped-edged pockmarks and can feel a touch floaty over high-speed crests.
AMG 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.
Mercedes-Benz C-Class saloon handling
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 it never feels particularly keen to change direction in a hurry. Cars on adaptive dampers are better, allowing you to stiffen things up for less lean and crisper responses, although the C-Class still isn't a car you’ll want to take down your favourite road for the hell of it.
With the Airmatic suspension fitted, the C-Class is pretty good to drive. Flick it into Sport mode and the suspension sharpens noticeably, giving strong enough body control for you 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 the 3 Series or XE down a twisty country lane; while the steering is direct and responsive, its weighting is a little inconsistent and it 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.
Mercedes-Benz C-Class saloon refinement
This is the area where the C200 really disappoints. Even when you’re cruising along, the engine 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 – so much so, in fact, that you’ll have to raise your voice if you want to continue to converse with your passengers. It’s not helped by the fact that the automatic gearbox has to keep the revs high in order to deliver even moderate acceleration, due to the engine’s sluggish performance. This results in the ’box changing down to a lower gear often, amplifying the noise in the process.
True, when you switch to Eco mode, the petrol engine cuts out completely when your foot is off the accelerator to leave just the electric motor, saving fuel and resulting in silent running. Of course, the minute you press the accelerator again, the petrol engine restarts and you’re left with the same problem as before.
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’s 2.0-litre diesel engine.
It's a similar story for the hybrid C300de, with the diesel engine again leaving a little to be desired in terms of refinement, but it’s by no means outrageously coarse. Of course, it's whisper-quiet on electric power alone, and the transition between the electric and diesel power sources is largely seamless.
At least wind noise is very well controlled at higher speeds. Road noise is less impressive, with there being a noticeable hum over coarse road surfaces, even in cars on small wheels.
Bigger wheels, stiffer suspension and a rorty exhaust make the AMGs the noisiest of the lot at a cruise, although that's part of the fun of a performance model.