Toronto, Ontario – It’s funny, you know: a lot of people ask me what I think about this Mercedes versus that BMW, this BMW versus that Mercedes. My answer to them – it’s often long and rambling – is that while their cars may well compete in terms of price, performance and size, they’re often so very, very different. BMW’s core product is its 3-series, a car which is not only its best-selling model but which is the brand’s spiritual centre: a small, sporty little sedan whose genes infuse the company’s bigger, more expensive products. You get the sense that, while they like their 7-series and their X5, that the Bavarians would be quite content just building threes, if the business case could justify it.
On the other hand, Mercedes’ core competency is its S-class, a big, luxurious, feature-packed flagship whose technology and design filter down to the company’s smaller models. The company’s worked hard, in the last decade, to infuse its less-expensive cars with their own design cues and their own personalities (googly eyes on the E-class; a faux-F1 front end on the SLK), but there have been times when I’ve thought it was trying a bit too hard. There was a time, early in this century, where Mercedes models had so many different "faces" the company issued a press photo as a sort of spotter’s guide to the different headlight and grille shapes.
In some ways, the new 2008 C-class is an extension of that multiple-personality syndrome; you can now order it with a conventional Mercedes grille, or if you opt for the sport package, the giant three-pointed star and pointy nose treatment previously reserved for its SUVs and sports cars. In other ways, however, the new C represents a realization, on Mercedes’ part, that people want to buy its cars because of their S-class values; that even though they’re looking at a smaller, less expensive model, they want the same levels of quality, solidity, luxury and technology as the company’s big guns. All you have to do is look at the new C-class in profile to see just how much the S weighed on its designers’ minds.
No more so than the interior, which is a definitely a return to form for Mercedes – a far cry from the organic shapes and squishy surfaces the company had recently dabbled with to the consternation of loyal customers. Replacing the old C’s bulging curves and sweeping surfaces is a dashboard and console design that’s deliberately angular, almost sharp-edged in places. It doesn’t look very friendly, with its slab of black plastic housing the audio controls and its jagged-looking armrests, but in reality, this is a very friendly cockpit. The ergonomics are intuitive, with big, easy-to-use buttons and switches and a central control knob for the multimedia system. The seats are big, wide and comfortable – independently suspended like the Mercedes seats of old, with firm padding that initially feels unyielding but which your butt and back thank after a long trip.
Perhaps more importantly, there’s a sense of openness and space in the new cabin; that’s thanks both to a wheelbase stretch that liberates more room front and rear as well as design elements like low window sills and the (optional) panoramic moonroof. It feels big in here; you sit higher and more upright than in a 3-series BMW, you have more legroom in the back than an Audi A4 (though the next-generation model will handily beat the Mercedes again) and there’s way more shoulder and elbow room than Lexus’ compact IS. Within its competitive set, only the Infiniti G35 feels roomier.
And while the new C may not have every surface covered in leather or wood like the S, the same sense of quality is there. Rap your knuckles on the dash or the door panels and there’s no hollowness to the sound you hear, while every switch and button has an expensive, well-damped feel. The two-tone dash (it’s darker on its top, to reduce glare) feels like it’ll survive forever, while the doors slam with that Mercedes bank-vault thunk. There’s theatre too, thanks to a screen that rises out of the top of the dash when you start the car. Opt for the sport package – why wouldn’t you, when it’s free – and you get grey-stained wood, a silver-trimmed instrument cluster and a gorgeous three-spoke steering wheel that’s a delight to hold and incorporates controls for the audio and telephone systems. Like many cars in its class, the C-class comes with Bluetooth capability, but it didn’t like talking to my BlackBerry or a friend’s Samsung phone, so you may want to check with Mercedes about your phone’s compatibility.
The new C drives like a miniaturized S-class, which is no bad thing. Roll down any road and there’s that same sense of refinement that you get in the bigger car. Even with the sport suspension and its larger AMG-design wheels, the ride quality is super, taking the edge off even the sharpest pavement imperfections, gliding over big bumps as if they were barely there. The seven-speed automatic transmission (opt for the less-expensive C300 model and you can get a manual) swaps cogs quickly and smoothly, always keeping the 3.5-litre V6 in its ideal operating zone. While the Mercedes’ engine is down on power relative to some other small luxury sedans (the BMW produces 300 hp to the 268; the G35 does 306), the combined effect of all those gears and the 3.5’s fat spread of torque means you always have plenty of power for acceleration and passing. The engine is nearly silent in operation, with a gentle snarl only making itself heard when you have your foot flat to the floor.
I’ve always felt that the C-class’ handling was underrated by a lot of my colleagues both here and abroad. The smooth ride and overall refinement suggest a car that’s soft around the edges, but in reality, it’s always had as much handling capability as an equivalent BMW. That’s true of the new car as well; work past the layer of refinement and you discover a chassis that grips and grips and grips (4Matic all-wheel-drive is becoming ever more popular and was fitted to my test car, but you don’t need it with a good set of winter tires), offering plenty of road feel and exceptional stability. What is different about the new C is how its talents are a bit less hidden than they were before. The steering feels immediately sharp and alive, there’s no slop at all in the brake pedal and you really feel like the car wants to dance. It is, then, much like the S-class I had a chance to throw around a racetrack late last year; sportier than previous Mercedes with all of the old security.
That is, in the end, probably the most appealing thing about the new C-class. It is both bang-up-to-date and reassuringly old-school. It combines up-to-date technology, safety and performance with the solidity, security and timelessness of the best big Benzes. It’s full of life – fun to drive, to look at, to be seen in – and feels like it will stay that way for a very long time. It represents Mercedes’ traditional values while simultaneously looking ahead. No wonder it’s proving to be such a success.
Pricing: 2008 Mercedes C 350 4Matic
|(premium package, $4,600; metallic paint, $890)|
|Price as tested:||$||
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