Mercedes-Benz C-Class review

MUCH LIKE A trophy wife in her prime needs all the help she can get to prevent an easily distracted husband from focussing on the latest pretty young thing, Mercedes-Benz’s best-selling C-Class needs to retain the affection of the consumer especially since the launch of arch rival BMW’s brand new 3 Series is just around the corner.

The Beemer arrives early in 2012, while the brand new fifth generation C-Class, also to be assembled at Mercedes-Benz South Africa’s world leading facility in East London, only launches in 2014. If South Africa’s top selling compact executive sedan wanted to remain desirable for the next three years, a facelift had become imperative.

Merc’s executives tried their hardest not to use the dreaded ‘F’-word when they rolled out seven new and updated C-derivatives at the media launch held in East London. Instead they emphasised the 2000 new parts and new technology making its debut in the 2011 model. It’s more than a facelift, they said. It’s so different it should actually be called a brand new model, they said. After a quick glance at the exterior we said they must have been smoking some of the wacky weed the Eastern Cape is notorious for. Where’s the facelift, we said.

The curvier headlamps, LED taillights and tweaked front bumper pointed more towards some nip and very little tuck. Then we opened the door and the penny dropped. So this was where most of the 2000 new parts had gone. The dashboards and steering wheels across the range are all brand new, with new trim, new surfaces and new instrument clusters. A new telematics system makes its debut in the C-Class. Not only is it easier to use with larger displays than before, but you can transfer your phone book, display your SMS messages and play your music via Bluetooth or use the USB interface in the centre armrest.

A multimedia system called Comand Online provides internet access using your mobile phone’s browser (only when stationary), which enables you to search weather and destinations via Google as well as download routes previously configured on a PC using Google Maps. It works, but it will suck your cellphone’s data allocation dry.

So the interior is a huge improvement with the C-class now boasting a cabin that does justice to the ‘luxury compact sedan’ moniker. So what’s changed under the skin and the all-new aluminium bonnet?

As we dodged one crater after the other on a stretch of potholes masquerading as the R346 between East London and King Williams Town, the C-Class came into its own. Dynamic if you want it to be, but poised and comfortable even when the Tarmac verges on non-existent. All the engine variants (four petrols and three diesels) are now classed as fuel-sipping BlueEfficiency units. Both the four cylinder diesel models (C200 CDI and C250 CDI) feature stop-start, and all the petrol models have direct injection and turbocharging.

Manual transmissions are now only available on the entry level C180 (R359000) and the C200 (R379000), while the rest of the range gets the upgraded 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox. A new V6 petrol engine makes its debut in the C350 (R520000). Whereas the old C350 delivered 200kW and 350Nm of torque and averaged 10.3 litres per 100km, the new engine increases its power by 25kW and torque by 20Nm while cutting fuel consumption to 7.2 litres per 100km. It’s the pick of this seven-strong C-Class litter, at least until the updated AMG version arrives later in the year.

Although highly specced at the sticker price, a veritable feast of options are there for the picking if pockets and the bank manager’s sense of humour stretches that far. Once again the C-Class will be available in standard, Elegance and AvantGarde equipment and trim lines, and the AMG Sports package will be available on all derivatives as well.

So it’s not just a nip and tuck then, but a full body work-over that makes a good car even better, especially on the inside and under the skin. It should serve both Mercedes and the lucky buyer well until version five arrives in 2014.

SELLING A MILLION C-Classes globally in just four years is no mean feat. Had I achieved that, I’d have been seriously tempted to rest on my laurels. But Mercedes-Benz hasn’t been around for 125 years because its employees are experts at playing Angry Birds on their iPads. Instead they’ve been busy developing more than 2000 new parts for the C-Class facelift.

Sounds impressive alright, but park this new model in front of the junior exec who, tempted by a great runout special, just bought the current car and he’d be none the wiser. Okay, so maybe he would notice the adoption of curvier, SL-like headlamps. But you’d have to point out the more contoured front bumper with its deeper side inlets and integrated daylight running lamps, show him the LED-lit tail lights and promise him the bonnet’s now made from aluminium not steel. Still, he’ll probably be quite content with his ‘older’ car.

But open the doors and he’ll turn all Bruce Banner green on you. That’s because many of those 2000-odd new parts went towards kissing the dashboard, fairytale-style, from frog into prince. The difference really is that dramatic. But then it needed to be, as the only consistent criticism levelled at the old car concerned its sub-standard dash design. So out goes the tacky, pop-up central display cover and the slab of cheap smooth plastic beneath it. But they didn’t stop there. In fact, Merc ripped the entire dashboard out, replacing it and those stuffy old steering wheel designs with sharper, slicker, more premium items that take their cue from the all-new CLS. Even the dash’s new grain pattern is tangibly more appealing.

Merc’s telematics team have been busy too, fitting the new C-Class with enhanced infotainment features including that (larger) central display, the ability to transfer your phone contacts to system memory, display SMS messages and play music via a Bluetooth-connected device, which incidentally worked perfectly on launch. Just for good measure they’ve also wired a USB port into the middle armrest. We won’t be getting it just yet, but Europeans can order their new C-Class with Comand Online, which adds full internet access when stationary and Merc’s in-house portal when in motion.

From the integrally-housed central display to the matte buttons on piano black housing, galvanised accents and ‘knurled’ dials, every part of the restyled dashboard is now more rewarding to touch and more pleasing to look at, bringing a much-needed boost in perceived quality.

Another welcome boost is the inclusion of direct injection (DI) for the 3.5-litre V6 petrol (four-cylinder petrol mills received DI back in 2007). Seems like a minor change, but the on-paper results are eye-popping power is up 25kW to 225kW and fuel consumption down by a claimed 31 percent to just 6.8l/100km. Listening to the characterful V6’s growl is a real treat though, so unless you have Madame Tussaud-spec ears and don’t like driving much, you’re not likely to see that sort of saintly consumption.

Mercedes is now happy to classify all engine derivatives as BlueEfficiency units, primarily because all European-spec models feature stop/start, though we’ll only see it as standard on the two four-cylinder diesel models (C 200 CDI and C 250 CDI). The 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox has also been upgraded, in the form of a ‘Plus’ suffix to its moniker. Not just a marketing exercise, as revisions to the torque converter aimed at reducing slippage, noise, friction and vibration result in efficiency gains across the range. In standard form it makes for a fine automatic, but I’d opt for the AMG Sports package which adds shift paddles to the steering wheel. That’s because our favourite aspect of the C-Class its dynamic flourish is still readily available. As long as you tick the right option boxes, of course. The standard suspension set-up includes Merc’s Agility Control non-selectable variable damping system, which provides as much comfort and body control as you’d expect from a traditional Benz, but to get the full BMW-scaring effect, you need to include the Sports suspension (stiffer and lower) and the Dynamic Handling package, which brings two selectable, electronically-controlled damping settings (Sport and Comfort) into the mix.

I’m also quite partial to the variable ratio steering option which noticeably reduces steering wheel angle input when the road begins to meander like a man still sucking on an empty box.

True to form, safety remains a high priority with the Stuttgart tri-star and the new C-Class has a vast array of safety and driver assistance systems from lane-keeping, blind spot, high-beam lighting and parking assistance to Distronic Plus radar-enabled cruise control, to mention but a few.

As before the new C-Class will be available in standard, Elegance and AvantGarde equipment and trim lines, again visually distinguished by differing grille treatments: classic three-bar and bonnet-mounted vertical star for Elegance; bolder, sportier grille-embedded star for AvantGarde. The expected engine line-up includes four petrol derivatives (180, 200, 250 and 350) and three diesels, badged 200, 250 and 350.

A more than worthy update then that banishes the most popular Benz’s weak points and raises its strengths to even loftier heights. They should have no trouble shipping a million more.