2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class: First Drive

August 2, 2014

The 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class isn't just departure from what the C-Class has been. It feels like a clear break with the past; and that's a very good thing.

Too often, automakers are so locked into the mindset of designing a new car to replace a current one in their lineup that they lose sight of the mission -- to design a car that actually meets what the market demands.

That's not the case here. Mercedes-Benz has added to its model line, then rejiggered it where the C-Class is a better fit for today’s market. There’s the new coupe-like CLA sedan, and the upcoming GLA small crossover. That made more room for what’s not quite a radical remake, but a serious rethink for the C-Class -- and a result that will simply be a better fit for the U.S. market.

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People have grown taller, and established models that used to be in sync with the C-Class have inched up in size; and now the C does the same. The 2015 C-Class is no longer so small that it should really be classified as a subcompact by American standards; the automaker has bumped overall length up nearly four inches, to 184 inches, and the wheelbase is three inches longer than last year (and it’s nearly two inches wider) -- all while the new model is just a little lower. Trunk space is more vacation-friendly, too, at 17 cubic feet.

More style, space -- and a focused vision

Of course, size and packaging are only part of it; the new C-Class gets a serious boost in style -- and, at last, a personality of its own. Let’s face it: in this Millenium, the C-Class has been on the verge of a sort of identity crisis in the U.S. Last generation (W204), the C-Class was pulled into sport-sedan duty some of the time, traditional compact luxury duty some of the time, and value-leader duty the rest of the time. With this new generation the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class feels like one car: a luxury car, focused in the way that most luxury shoppers are going to love.

This sort of promotion, to a higher-up position in the lineup -- especially for the U.S. -- isn’t something to be taken lightly, and it seems that the automaker hasn’t fallen directly into some of the pigeonholes it has in the past. It’s not merely trying to provide a 7/8ths-scale version of the S-Class, as with the previous W203 C-Class of a decade ago, although thankfully it borrows plenty of technology from the flagship.

The C-Class has its own exterior -- one that’s sure to impress, with a focused, brawny looking front end (and headlights that look like they’re wearing an eyeliner of LEDs) that now fits all of the recently updated models up the line. The side profile doesn’t just call it in as an abbreviated form of the S-Class, and the side sheetmetal follows the sculpted-inward look of the E-Class. The rear styling is a pleasant surprise, too; Mercedes bids farewell to sharp corners and the chopped-off decklid profile and gives the C a rounded tail that’s a pleasant, softer complement to the sharp front end.

In styling and materials, a knockout cabin

Altogether in design, details, and features, the cabin is a knockout. It really could fit right into a luxury flagship with double the price. Of course, it is very much in line with the S-Class. Large round vents, a flowing center console, and inlaid panels in the door all speak a design language that’s usually reserved for larger and more expensive cars.

We couldn’t help but be effusive when we first climbed in; and even after several hundred miles of drive time split over two days, we think it has the look and feel -- over a wide range of trim variations and colors -- that we can see a wide range of drivers really liking; Whether you expect something contemporary and fresh, or whether you want an updated take on the traditional, it fully fits.

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As we found with a C300 4Matic and then a C400 4Matic, on a wide range of roads in the Puget Sound and Cascade Mountain regions around Seattle this past week -- over some very challenging road surfaces, at that -- we found that the 2015 C-Class drives with the same ‘at ease’ feel that its design suggests. And especially if you go with the C300 -- far and away our favorite, considering price -- you’ll end up with a refined, elegant, fuel-efficient luxury car that you can hustle down back roads on occasion and always come away a little bit impressed.

Engines are completely different than for the outgoing C-Class, and across the lineup you’ll find both stronger acceleration and better fuel economy. On C300 models, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, while the C400 gets a turbocharged V-6 making 329 horsepower and 354 pound-feet.

C300 or C400? Quick or quicker.

And to us, it’s a matter of quick or quicker. The C300 is plenty fast for most; and most of the time, it feels wonderful and whizzy in the way that the CLA45 does; the engine finds its boost almost instantly, and while it doesn’t build to a high-rev frenzy or crackle like in the CLA45, throughout the rev band it feels stronger than the outgoing V-6 in the C350. As for the C400, you might not notice the 88-hp and 81-lb-ft gap between these two engines unless you have your right foot buried; during normal part-throttle driving, both engines feel almost equally perky, surprisingly -- although the sound is quite different, of course.

These cars aren’t just higher-powered; they’re lighter. The 2015 C-Class is nearly 200 pounds lighter in some versions compared to outgoing models, and that’s thanks to the increased use of aluminum (in the hood, roof, and even doors), as well as more ultra-high-strength steel in the structure.

Both models have a seven-speed automatic transmission, and we noticed that the transmission in the C400 shifted in a noticeably more jarring way in the C400; and the fuel-saving engine start-stop that’s included in both models was also more disruptive in the way it worked in the V-6 model.

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Agility Select: It’s now all you need to know

Included in all U.S. C-Class models is a new system called Agility Select. With this, you can toggle between four simplified modes modes: Comfort, Sport, Sport+, and Individual. Each one reminds you which level of steering boost you’re getting, as well as accelerator sensitivity, transmission behavior and, if so equipped, suspension firmness.

Steering-wheel paddles stick with manual mode if you’re in one of the manual modes, or they time out if you’re in Comfort, and it’s all very intuitive. One thing for longtime Mercedes-Benz owners: You’ll notice that the staple ‘C,’ ‘E,’ or ‘S’ button has been purged; the Individual mode now allows you to select for the transmission that mode to match or contrast with driving styles, but there’s no longer any easy way to experiment and toggle with that on the fly if you forgot to set it earlier.

The C-Class has a new four-link front suspension as well as a newly engineered Direct-Steer electric power steering system. The suspension tuning isn’t all that firm, yet it loads and unloads predictably; and the steering is possibly the best in the segment -- far better than the steering in the BMW 3-Series, actually -- bringing some road feel and just a little bit of kickback, and really allowing you to ‘feel out’ where you are with stability.

With the available Airmatic system, Mercedes says it’s the first air suspension in the segment, but we’re not at all convinced it’s worth it in the C-Class. As we’ve felt with M-B’s larger air-suspension cars in the past -- only underscored here -- the C felt less straightforward with Airmatic, at least in C400 4Matic form as we tested it, keeping oddly flat in all but the tightest corners, and not allowing us to drive as smoothly and feel as ‘in touch’ with the car. And there’s no major improvement in ride quality or road noise.

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Better comfort than most rivals

The interior really takes care of you, especially if you’re in the front seats. The front perches are wonderful, with extendable lower-cushion bolsters, good mid-back support, and full power controls for the front passenger -- all ways that some of the compact luxury rivals let us down. The beltline feels quite high, yet the dash is definitely lower than in previous M-B models, and its predecessor, and we like the combination of security and outward visibility. The cabin stays tight and quiet, too, with excellent isolation of wind noise.

One thing that does let us down is back-seat space. Despite the several inches of added length and wheelbase (and a claimed boost in legroom, there’s really not enough legroom or knee room for those six feet or taller -- and changes to the door cut and roofline back there actually make it tougher to get in versus the outgoing version, we think (we checked this impression with an Audi A3, and were puzzled to find as much if not more space in the supposedly smaller Audi). Trunk space is indeed vast for this size of car, and the rear seatbacks flip forward, almost effortlessly, with a lever from the trunk side, to provide a flat floor that’s far more convenient than the ski pass-throughs you find in some sedans.

Pretty much the entire suite of Mercedes-Benz Intelligent Drive active-safety features are now offered in the C-Class -- and for the typical big-city-commuting C-Class customer, they’re probably better put to use here than in the flagship S-Class. Highlights include Attention Assist that warns you if you might be distracted or dozing off; Crosswind Assist; a Pre-Safe braking and pedestrian detection system; Collision Prevention Assist Plus; BAS Plus with Cross-Traffic Assist; and an Active Lane Keeping Assist system that will steer to keep you in your lane for some seconds before giving you a stern warning. There’s also Active Parking Assist, to almost effortlessly get into parallel spots. And with Distronic Plus with Steering Assist, you get one of the best and most advanced of the active cruise control systems.

Where the center stack meets the console, where there’s ordinarily just a dial in other vehicles, there’s something that’s impossible to miss: a new capacitive touchpad controller, which looks a little bit like a rounded-form smartphone mounted at a slight angle. It includes hot buttons for favorites and audio features, and recognizes some gestures. In theory, the touch pad is a very elegant solution. In execution, it’s not as smooth as it might promise; most notably, scrolling just isn’t as smooth as those with tablets have come to expect.

Touchpad helps, but interface isn’t as smooth as the look

There are now various ways to get back to the homepage, to audio and navigation menus, and to car settings. However, after using it for a full day, this improved version of COMAND is still confounding. It might feel familiar and somewhat easier to use than those who have had previous versions of the system, but it makes iDrive feel elegant and streamlined, and highlights the effectiveness of MMI. It’s time for COMAND to evolve into something with true gestural commands, better menus, or more effective onboard voice commands.

The matte-metallic brightwork of the Burmester in-door speaker enclosures are unmistakable, but we weren’t nearly as blown away by the sound of the system, which seemed to muddle its lower midrange and bass in its surround mode. Playing jazz, with that genre's typically clear frequency separations, it sounded great, however.

Standard equipment in the C-Class now includes that capacitive touch pad, plus keyless start, power folding mirrors, a power driver’s seat with memory settings, folding rear seatbacks, USB connectivity, and the seven-inch display and COMAND interface. Highlights from the options list, outside of the active-safety area, include a panorama sunroof, head-up display, a Sport Package with AMG bodywork, AMG wheels, and a sport suspension, a lighting package with LED headlamps with Active Curve Illumination. The Airmatic system is part of an Air Balance Package.

Moves up in price...and worth it

Keeping in mind that the entry-level C300 will be priced at $39,325, ranging up to $49,515 for the C400 4Matic, the C-Class definitely makes a move up the pricing ladder with its newfound freedom of no longer being the entry model. We think that considering the style, the sophistication, and the feature set, that it more than makes up for that upward step.

But it does leave one question: With the C moved upward in the lineup, size-wise and price-wise, will it affect E-Class sales, and convince those looking at Mercedes-Benz’s larger (and now quite traditional and conservative, in comparison) sedan to simply go with the C? That’s an open question; in all fairness, we’d be tempted by the new C if we went in to look at the E.

We also think that the C-Class at last, offers something unique in this segment; while other compact luxury sedan families (like the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4) are trying to be too many disparate things, and other models (the Lexus IS and Cadillac ATS) sacrifice comfort for performance, the C-Class lands somewhere in the middle, as a charismatic entry that’s stylish and satisfying.

Never mind the size; never mind what the C-Class was trying to be in other iterations. Mercedes finally lets the C be what it should be: a true (and very good) luxury car.


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