Mercedes is on a bit of a roll at the moment and the fourth generation C-Class clearly demonstrates quite what a task its rivals face. June Neary drives it.
Will It Suit Me?
I'm not sure whether it's just me but Mercedes saloon cars have always had a very masculine air to them. It's something I've long felt about BMWs but not Audis. That's why I'd never been hugely drawn to the Mercedes C-Class in the past. It looked tidy, functional but never seemed possessed of much in the way of flair. The latest MK4 model is undeniably handsome but I fully expected that trend to continue. Our test car was a C220 BlueTEC diesel and I began to harbour images of those cream-coloured taxis you walk out of German airports into but when it arrived it was finished in a very attractive metallic colour with a decent set of alloy wheels that looked anything but utilitarian. I began to see why Janis Joplin wanted a Mercedes-Benz quite so badly.
Although I had been secretly hoping for one of the more powerful models, the C220 BlueTEC would, in truth, be more than enough car to satisfy my needs on a daily basis. I recall the previous generation car feeling far less solid than this design. Drop inside and you'll see where this Mercedes differentiates itself. It's radically different to its predecessor with a broad centre console swooping between the front occupants. In automatic vehicles, a large one-piece centre console panel performs an elegant sweep from the centre air vents to the armrest. On vehicles with manual transmission, the centre console is slightly steeper and features two separate trim elements in order to create ample space for ergonomic operation of the shift lever. There's also a free-standing 7-inch central display - unless you opt for the ritzy COMAND Online package, in which case an 8.4-inch item is specified. Materials quality is much improved and there are some slick details like the five metallic round air vents and the touchpad in the hand rest over the Controller on the centre tunnel. There's even a head-up display option. An extra 80mm in the wheelbase helps rear seats space and there's a best in class 480-litres of boot space too. The Achilles heel of the C-Class has always been the amount of rear seat space and while this generation car is cut from more generous cloth, there's still not a huge amount of knee-room once you lever some taller front seat occupants in. Better news comes in the form of a huge 480-litre boot and a generously-sized fuel tank which means that the C220 BlueTEC has a range of over 900 miles.
Behind the Wheel
It's easy to get a comfortable driving position thanks to the multi-adjustable steering wheel and driver's seat and once inside you'll appreciate the restyled dashboard. And on the move? Well, this is the first car in its class to offer air suspension. This comes with an AGILITY SELECT switch that allows the driver to select between Comfort, ECO, Sport, Sport+ and Individual settings. Even if you stick with the standard steel springs, the front suspension has been greatly improved with a very clever four-link setup that isolates the struts, allowing for optimised geometry and better grip. The diesel engines include the 2.1-litre C220 BlueTEC unit I tried good for 170PS, plus you can talk to your dealer about feebler C200 BlueTEC and pokier C250 BlueTEC offerings. Petrol-wise, there's a 184PS C200 unit. The C300 BlueTEC HYBRID combines a four-cylinder 204PS diesel engine with a compact 27PS electric motor and looks interesting, as does the prospect of a plug-in hybrid model. There's a choice of two six-speed manual transmissions or an improved version of the 7G-TRONIC automatic gearbox. The electromechanical Direct Steer system is also fitted as standard.
Value For Money
I'd begun to think of the Mercedes C-Class as a really viable proposition until I came to the bottom line. The most affordable version is priced at around £27,000, which is still quite a slug of cash for what is a compact family car. Mercedes can generate reams of data that indicate that because of its high resale price and low day to day running costs, that buying a car like this actually works out cheaper than choosing a top-end Mondeo or similar. It's why compact executive cars have pretty much killed off the mainstream sector that used to be populated with cars like Omegas and Scorpios. Couched in those terms, the C-Class isn't bad value for money at all, and when compared with rivals from BMW and Audi, the old Mercedes-Benz premium, where you had to pay around £1,000 extra for a car with the three-pointed star on its bonnet, just doesn't exist any longer. Small wonder sales are quite so strong.
Could I Live With One?
I'll be frank and admit that I didn't expect to bond with the Mercedes C-Class. After spending a week with the car, I found it to be charming, fun to drive and its sheer economy was liberating. Would I buy one? That's a toughie. The problem is that there are any number of cars for half or two thirds of the Mercedes' price that fulfil those criteria. I'm not a big badge snob and would sooner pay less upfront but that's a very personal opinion. Speaking objectively, it's tough to see how Mercedes could have done much better when building a compact executive car.