The new Mercedes C-Class has a seriously tough job on its hands. Not only does it have to beat the brilliant BMW 3 Series, it also has to fend off competition from the slightly smaller but considerably cheaper Audi A3 Saloon.
To help it do that, Merc’s latest executive car has an impressive arsenal of technology. All models get a new touchpad controller, along with a collision-prevention system that uses radar to monitor the road ahead and can automatically apply the brakes to prevent an accident. The new C-Class also becomes the first compact executive car available with air suspension.
On sale in June, the new C-Class will initially be available with a single petrol engine (a 182bhp 2.0 turbo badged C200) and a couple of 2.1-litre diesels – one with 168bhp (C220 Bluetec) and the other with 202bhp (C250 Bluetec).
However, plenty more engines will follow, including lower-powered C200 Bluetec diesel and a C300 diesel hybrid that will emit less than 100g/km of CO2.
Rather less sensible options will include a 4.0 turbo V8 AMG, while all engines in the C-Class range will be available with Merc’s 4Matic four-wheel drive system from 2015 onwards.
What’s the 2014 Mercedes-Benz C250 Bluetec like to drive?
We tried the 202bhp C250 Bluetec auto. This four-cylinder diesel engine is expected to be the second biggest seller in the new C-Class range (behind the C220 Bluetec), and it’s easy to see why; it pulls strongly from low revs and the impressive acceleration continues beyond 4000rpm.
The optional seven-speed automatic gearbox also works better than in other Mercedes models. It resists changing down when you just want to build speed gently, and can even sync with the sat-nav to preselect the optimum gear for upcoming hills and corners. It’s still a little jerky at low speeds, though.
CO2 emissions are extremely competitive – with a manual gearbox the C250 emits just 103g/km, and even with the optional seven-speed auto (which 83% buyers are expected to go for) they rise to only 109g/km. The only diesel rival that can better these figures is the new Volvo S60 D4.
The outgoing C-Class was one of the least refined cars in its class. Its diesel engines were noisy and crude, and motorway journeys were accompanied by far too much wind noise. The good news is the new model is more hushed than its predecessor. The bad news is that the 2.1 diesel engine still sends a bit too much vibration through the pedals, and also sounds gruff at low revs.
Road noise wasn’t an issue along our French test route, but the Merc doesn’t shut out wind noise as well as a BMW 3 Series does.
All of our test cars were equipped withAirmatic suspension – an £895 option on Sport and AMG Line models. This does a properly impressive job of masking all manner of lumps and bumps in the road, especially in ‘Comfort’ mode, where the C-Class lopes along incredibly smoothly.
Switch to ‘Sport’ and the suspension tightens up noticeably, to the point where you can hustle the Merc along a country road surprisingly quickly. There’s lots of grip and the steering is always precise, weighting up consistently as you turn in to bends. It’s never as sharp or as fun as a BMW 3 Series or an Audi A3 Saloon though.
It remains to be seen if cheaper versions with standard steel springs and dampers ride and handle with such sophistication.
What’s the 2014 Mercedes-Benz C250 Bluetec like inside?
Interior quality was never a strength of the old C-Class, but it’s one of this new models biggest assets. Every surface looks and feels a grade above what you’ll find in a BMW 3 Series, while most of the buttons and switches feel solid and well damped.
True, an Audi A3 Saloon is equally classy inside, but unlike that car, the C-Class has a bespoke cabin that isn’t shared with lesser models in Mercedes' line-up.
That said, it’s important to note that we’ve only experienced the C-Class in range-topping AMG Line trim, which gets some extra plush cabin finishes and a dashboard wrapped in manmade leather.
All models come with a seven-inch colour screen that’s controlled using a rotary dial and touchpad positioned between the front seats. You can scroll through the on-screen menus using just the touchpad, swiping left and right to cycle through functions, and pinching to zoom in on maps.
Most of the time, though, you’re better off sticking with the rotary dial, which is quicker and easier to use on the move. It’s just a pity that, whichever method you use, the on-screen menus aren’t as intuitive as the ones in BMW’s iDrive system.
Even seriously long-legged drivers will have no problem getting comfortable thanks to an enormous amount of front legroom, and there’s plenty of front headroom, too – even in cars equipped with the optional panoramic roof.
The glass roof does impinge on rear headroom, although six footers will still fit and there’s a similar amount of headroom as in the back of a BMW 3 Series. You just have to be careful not to bash your head when getting in – the swooping roofline makes this easy to do.
Officially, boot space is on a par with a BMW 3 Series (at 480 litres), and the load bay is easily wide enough for a set of Golf clubs. Split-folding rear seats are standard on all but the cheapest versions.
Entry-level SE cars come with 17-inch alloys, manmade leather seats, climate and cruise controls, a reversing camera, rain-sensing wipers and a DAB radio.
Sport trim (which adds £1995 to the price) gets you a 17-inch alloys, flashier interior trim, heated front seats, LED headlights, lower suspension, front and rear parking sensors, sports seats and split-folding rear seats.
The top-the-range AMG Line (pictured) comes with even larger 18-inch alloys, an AMG bodykit, a leather-wrapped dashboard, sports suspension and gearshift paddles (if you've specced an automatic gearbox).
Should I buy one?
The only version we’ve driven so far – a range-topping C250 Bluetec riding on optional air suspension – is a seriously likeable thing.
Then again, it should be, because with an estimated price of around £35,000, it’ll cost the same as many full-size executive saloons – including a BMW 520d auto.
So, while this is an impressive introduction to the new C-Class, we’ll need to drive the more prudent versions before we can judge whether it beats its key rivals.
Assuming the better-value versions are as good to drive and as classy inside, though, Mercedes could well have a new class-leader on its hands.
What Car? says...
Engine size 2.0-litre turbo petrol
Price from £26,855
Torque 221lb ft
0-62mph 7.5 seconds
Top speed 147mph
Fuel economy 53.2mpg
CO2 output 123g/km
Engine size 2.1-litre diesel
Price from £29,365
Torque 295lb ft
0-62mph 7.7 seconds
Top speed 145mph
Fuel economy 72.7mpg
CO2 output 103g/km
Engine size 2.1-litre diesel
Price from £30,400 (est.)
Top speed tbc
Fuel economy 72.7mpg
CO2 output 103g/km