2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Greg Wilson

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Valencia, Spain – Think of “Mercedes-Benz”, and you may picture the big S-Class sedan, or perhaps the exciting SL roadster – but it’s the company’s smallest sedan, the C-Class, which is their best-seller. More than 1.4 million of the current generation C-Class sedans (2000-2007) have been sold worldwide – and if you include C-Class coupe and wagon models, that number rises to two million.

Some consider the C-Class’ smaller predecessor, the 190, introduced in 1982, to be the company’s pioneering small luxury sedan – but it was the roomier C-Class models introduced in 1993 and 2000 that really proved popular with Mercedes buyers looking for a compact sedan.

Still, it’s been seven years since the C-Class’ last major redesign, and with newer competitors from BMW, Audi, Lexus and Infiniti luring ‘entry-level’ luxury buyers with more performance, safety and contemporary luxury features, the redesign of the C-Class is arguably overdue.

Forerunner to the C-Class, the compact 190 sedan (1982-1993) proved that Mercedes luxury buyers could warm to a smaller Benz.
The first-generation C-Class sedan, (1992-2000) was roomier and more refined than the 190, and proved very popular in Canada.
The second generation C-Class sedan (2000-2007) was available with a wider assortment of powertrains and improved performance and luxury.  A hatchback model was available until recently.
Top, C-Class forerunner, the 190; the first-generation C-Class; and the second-generation C-Class. 2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Click image to enlarge

Compared to other entry-luxury vehicles, the C-Class has always been more conservative. Notwithstanding the sporty AMG model (which was discontinued for 2007), the C-Class has maintained its reputation as a comfortable and rather traditional luxury car. For ’08, Mercedes wants to ditch that stodgy image with sportier and more athletic styling and improved vehicle dynamics – without sacrificing comfort. Said C-Class Senior Manager for Product Management, Marc Boderke, at the C-Class introductory driving event in Spain earlier this month: “We wanted to create a car that had comfort, but at the same time, was fun to drive.”

To do this, Mercedes engineers made major changes to the suspension and body. To improve handling and stability, the front track was widened by 44 mm and the rear track widened by 76 mm, while the wheelbase was stretched by 45 mm. In addition, the body’s torsional and bending rigidity was increased significantly, the braking system was improved, the standard rack and pinion power steering ratio was made more direct, and the rear multi-link suspension and subframe were upgraded. Mercedes engineers also added new standard ‘Agility Control’ which automatically firms up the shock absorbers when driving more dynamically and softens them at other times for a better ride.

2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Click image to enlarge

Through the use of high strength lightweight steel, aluminum and plastic components, the new C-Class sedan is also about the same weight as its predecessor, even though it is larger.

For those drivers who want additional performance, the new C-Class will offer a new optional ‘Advanced Agility Package’ that will be available for the ’09 model year. With the push of a button, drivers have a choice of two dynamic modes: Sport and Comfort. Sport mode firms up the shock absorbers for each wheel with variable electronic control, lowers the car by 15 mm, provides a quicker, more responsive feel for the new speed-sensitive steering, improves acceleration characteristics, and provides more aggressive shift points for the seven-speed automatic transmission.

2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Click image to enlarge

There’s also a separate AMG sports package which includes a lowered sports suspension, AMG wheels, improved brakes, and front sports seats. Shift paddles behind the steering wheel are also part of this package.

Improvements have also been made to the standard electronic stability program (ESP). ESP now has a new control logic which improves stability in certain situations – for example, by using braking impulses at up to three wheels accompanied by a moderate drop in speed, the C-Class offers improved control when entering a corner too quickly.

Another new feature of the ESP is ‘trailer stabilization’- it detects any tendency of a trailer to swing from side to side, and automatically brings it safely back on course by means of braking impulses at specific wheels.

C-Class models in Canada

The third-generation C-Class sedan was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March of this year. The model shown here is equipped with the new Bluetec diesel engine.
The third-generation C-Class sedan was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March of this year. The model shown here is equipped with the new Bluetec diesel engine. Click image to enlarge

In Europe, the new C-Class sedan will be available with a choice of three turbocharged diesel engines, two supercharged four-cylinder engines and three V6 engines, but for now, the Canadian market will offer only the top two V6 engines – the same engines offered here in 2007: a 228-hp 3.0-litre 24-valve DOHC V6 in the C300 (formerly known as the C280) and a 268-hp 3.5-litre 24-valve DOHC V6 in the C350. A new C220 Bluetec diesel, introduced at the Geneva auto show, may also be coming to Canada, but that’s still up in the air.

The 2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Elegance model (left) features a more refined chrome grille with an upright Mercedes 'star' hood ornament. The C-Class Avantgarde (right) has a more aggressive blade-type grille with a large three-pointed star in the middle of the grille and a smaller flush one on the hood.
The 2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Elegance model (left) features a more refined chrome grille with an upright Mercedes ‘star’ hood ornament. The C-Class Avantgarde (right) has a more aggressive blade-type grille with a large three-pointed star in the middle of the grille and a smaller flush one on the hood. Click image to enlarge

Rear-wheel drive will be standard and 4Matic all-wheel drive will be available at a later date. A six-speed manual transmission will be standard on base models, and Mercedes’ seven-speed automatic with manual shift modes will be optional.

Two trims will be offered: the Elegance model which can be distinguished by its standard 16-inch tires and a chrome fluted grille with upright Mercedes three-pointed star on the hood; and the sportier Avantgarde model with 17-inch tires and a more aggressive blade-type grille with a large Mercedes star in the centre.

Interior impressions

2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Click image to enlarge

As I mentioned, Mercedes’ goal for the new C-Class sedan was to improve performance without sacrificing comfort, and with the new car’s larger body, the interior is definitely roomier. With a wider body and a longer wheelbase there is noticeably more shoulder room and more rear legroom. As well, the front door opening is larger and the driver’s seating position is seven millimeters higher which makes for easier entry and exit. Mercedes claims the front seat track adjustment is the longest in its class, good for long-legged drivers. There’s also more space in the footwells.

However, entry to the rear seat is not quite as easy. I found the narrow opening at the bottom of the rear doors and the protruding armrests on the doors made it difficult to get in and out without banging my knee or foot on the armrest. Once in, legroom and headroom is adequate for a typical adult, but three across would be a squeeze.

Trunk capacity has increased by a significant 20 litres to 475 litres (16.8 cu. ft.), and my driving partner and I managed to fit two large suitcases and two carry-on bags into the trunk. 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks are also standard.

2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Click image to enlarge

The instrument panel features a new ‘pop-up’ information/navigation screen at the top of the centre stack, where it is more easily viewed by the driver. Control functions displayed on the screen for the heater, radio/CD/DVD, telephone and navigation system can be operated by the driver or passenger via a round aluminum dial beside the driver on the lower centre console. Buttons marked “Return” and “C” in front of the controller make it possible to quit the submenus immediately or delete entries. Most of the functions are also duplicated with buttons on the dashboard, so the driver does have a choice. I found the dial fairly easy to use in my relatively short time with the car, but like any menu system, it requires a number of steps to complete a task.

Also new for ’08 is a three-gauge instrument cluster and a new digital information display in the centre of the speedometer with a clock, outside temperature display, odometer, trip computer information, and transmission gear indicator.

2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Click image to enlarge

The design of the new dash is attractive, and controls are well-placed for reach, but I wasn’t that impressed with the quality of the plastic on the dash – it just didn’t look as high quality as the rest of the cabin. C-Class Elegance models offer woodgrain interior trim while Avantgarde models have sportier aluminum trim.

The new front seats have prominent side bolsters with stiffer padding for better lateral support, while the seat inserts are softer for more comfort. I found the driver’s seat to be very comfortable and supportive during my day with the car. An optional multicontour seat with automatically inflating air chambers will also be available.

The output of the air conditioner and heater has been increased by 10 to 15 percent, and in the sunny environment of southern Spain, we found the interior cooled down quickly. Automatic dual zone climate control is standard, and an optional three-zone climate control system is also available.
Three new ‘infotainment’ systems are available on the new C-Class, each with speed-dependent volume control, a keypad for entering telephone numbers and radio frequencies, and a Bluetooth interface and hands-free system. My test car was equipped with the optional Comand APS system which includes a music server with a four-gigabyte memory, a DVD-player for video and audio, and the upgraded “Linguatronic” voice-activation system which now understands whole words – the driver no longer needs to spell out the names of countries, towns or roads.

The navigation system proved useful to us when we took a wrong turn and ventured into the crowded streets of downtown Valencia. To get us back on track, a kindly woman’s voice provided advance notice of turns, and a display with large arrows and distance notifications provided visual directions. Still, when city blocks were short, it was difficult to know which street was the right one to turn on, and we often had to refer to the street names on the large colour map display.

Safety features

Stripped of its body panels, this C-Class body structure shows the deformation points and crash resistant structures designed to absorb frontal and side impacts. This photo also shows the inflated curtain airbags and driver\'s knee airbag.
Stripped of its body panels, this C-Class body structure shows the deformation points and crash resistant structures designed to absorb frontal and side impacts. This photo also shows the inflated curtain airbags and driver\’s knee airbag.. Click image to enlarge

Always a leader in safety, Mercedes-Benz has gone all out to make the new C-Class the safest sedan in its class. The company says the new C-Class successfully passed more than 100 in-house crash tests some of which go well beyond legal requirements. 70 percent of the new bodyshell consists of high-strength and ultra high-strength steel, and the front-end structure has four independently acting impact levels, which enable forces to be distributed over a wide area and bypass the passenger cell.

In the cabin, seven airbags are standard equipment: two multi-stage airbags for the driver and front passenger, a knee airbag for the driver, two side airbags for the front occupants, and two large curtain airbags for both rows of passengers.

As well, the driver, front passenger and the passengers on the outer rear seats have belt tensioners and belt force limiters. The standard head restraints automatically move forward within milliseconds during a rear-end collision to support the heads of the driver and front passenger to reduce the risk of a whiplash injury.

2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Click image to enlarge

The new C-Class also features flashing brake lights that warn drivers following behind if the C-Class driver is braking hard.

Pre-Safe, Mercedes’ preventive occupant protection system, is a new option. Linked to the C-Class’ standard active safety systems ESP and Brake Assist, Pre-Safe can recognize a potential collision in advance, and prepare the car for a crash – such as tightening the seatbelts and closing the sunroof.

Another new feature available on the ’08 C Class is the ‘Intelligent Light System’ which includes bi-xenon headlamps with five different lighting functions: country mode, motorway mode, enhanced foglamps, the Active Light System and cornering lights.

Driving impressions

Testing conditions in Spain were sunny, dry and 20 degrees Celsius, not exactly typical of Canadian weather in March. Nevertheless, I was able to get a good feeling for the car’s basic steering, braking, cornering and acceleration characteristics. According to Mercedes published figures, the C 300 zips from 0 – 100 km/h in 7.3 seconds, and the C 350 takes just 6.4 seconds. My C 350 Avantgarde test car was deceptively quick because initial throttle tip-in is not jerky and the engine and seven-speed transmission are very smooth – plus the car is very quiet. Passing responsiveness is also very good because the 3.5-litre V6 has excellent mid-range torque. I cruised effortlessly at 130 km/h (while holding up Spaniards whipping by us at 150 km/h in a 100 km/h zone) and though a strong wind was blowing in from Morocco, the car felt perfectly stable and comfortable at high speeds.

2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Click image to enlarge

Fuel consumption is about the same as the previous C-Class model. According to Mercedes, the C 300 will average 9.4 L/100 km while the C 350 is only slightly worse with 9.7 L/100 km.

The standard rack and pinion power steering is more responsive than before but not exactly BMW-like. The optional speed-sensitive steering available with the Advanced Agility Package offers a better high-speed steering feel.

Standard ventilated disc brakes include some new features: while stopped on a grade, the brakes will apply automatically until you press the accelerator; on wet roads, the brakes will dry themselves; and in critical braking situations, the brakes will prime themselves for panic braking.

2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Click image to enlarge

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the 2007 C-Class and the new one is the way it handles and rides. Even without the optional Advance Agility suspension, the C-Class is a much more stable, controllable car with great balance, minimal lean, and neutral handling qualities. The C 350’s standard 225/45 R 17-inch radials and the standard adaptive dampers provide excellent grip and minimal body roll when going fast, yet a comfortable ride at slower speeds.

When equipped with the optional Advanced Agility package, in ‘Sport’ mode, the handling is even better, but the ride is firmer. In Sport mode, the steering becomes sharper, throttle responsiveness is quicker, and the transmission shifts later for improved acceleration and downshifts when braking into a corner. ‘Comfort’ mode reverts back to the standard suspension, steering, throttle and transmission settings. So you can have the best of both worlds with the push of a button.

Whether or not the new C-Class will challenge accepted performance leaders like the BMW 3-Series remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt the new C-Class is more fun to drive – not to mention roomier, safer and more comfortable.

The 2008 Mercedes-Benz C-Class is expected to go on sale in August. Pricing has not been announced, but is likely to be close to the current model.

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