The Mercedes C-Class ought to be at its best with a bit of extra space in the back. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The fourth generation Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate offers more legroom in the rear, a slick interior, the option of air suspension but a modest 490-litre boot - a slight 5-litre improvement over its predecessor. That kind of total capacity is about par for this kind of car, but if luggage space is important, you'll need to trade up to Mercedes' larger E-Class model - or look at an option with a more proletarian badge on the bonnet.
You don't need to be a genius to work out what was wrong with previous Mercedes-Benz C-Class estates. Yes they looked good, handled pretty well and the good burghers from Stuttgart would gladly shoehorn any size engine you liked under the bonnet but they just weren't, for want of a better word, estate-y enough. Some numbers? Well the outgoing model had 485-litres of fresh air under its parcel shelf. Compare that to supposedly smaller station wagon like a Peugeot 308 SW where you get 610-litres. Even comparative tiddlers like a Kia Cee'd Sportwagon could pack more in than the Merc. So, as talented as it was, the C-Class was always a bit undersized. You noticed it in the luggage bay and you couldn't avoid the fact when you climbed in the back seats. With the introduction of the four-door CLA into the range, the MK4 model C-Class has been given licence to loosen its belt a bit. Has the estate benefited?
The C-Class has for some time been, and will continue to be, focused on comfort and refinement. It's clear that this is where a good deal of the development budget has been spent in differentiating this generation car from the BMW 3 Series, the Audi A4 and the impressive Jaguar XE. To that end, it's 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 begin with a Renault-derived 1.6-litre diesel unit that develops 136bhp in the C200d model. Next up is the 2.1-litre diesel unit, offering either 170bhp in the C220d or 204bhp in the C250d: with both C220d and C250d derivatives, there's the option of 4MATIC 4WD if you want it. If you need a bit more technology, there's a C300h hybrid model that combines a four-cylinder 204bhp diesel engine with a compact 27bhp electric motor and looks interesting. Alternatively, there's an even more sophisticated C350e plug-in hybrid model that mates 211bhp four cylinder petrol power with a 27bhp electric motor. Talking of petrol power, it comes in a simpler guise in the form of the 184bhp C200. There are Mercedes-AMG performance petrol models too. The C 43 gets 4MATIC traction and a twin-turbo V6 engine putting out 367bhp. It's the perfect choice if you can't quite stretch to the range-topping Mercedes-AMG C63. If you can afford this flagship though, you'll be getting quite a car, with a 4.0-litre V8 putting out either 476 or 510bhp, depending on the state of tune you select. Back in the real world in the mainstream C-Class line-up, there's a choice of two six-speed manual transmissions. Auto buyers get either 7 or 9-speed G-TRONIC units, depending on the derivative chosen. The electromechanical Direct Steer system is also fitted as standard.
Design and Build
First the good news. Where the old C-Class estate let you pack in 485-litres of gear in the boot and 1,500-litres with the rear seats folded down, this successor model offers more room. The bad news? It's only gone up to 490-litres with the seats in place and 1,510-litres all-up. So you can stack an extra couple of bottles of Coke in the boot and that's your lot. Still, that's the same as an Audi A4 Avant, while the BMW 3 Series Touring only adds another 5-litres, so as load luggers, all three are reasonably dismal. The luggage bay measures 950mm in width and the rear seat splits 40:20:40 allowing longer items to be carried with two rear seats in use. A powered tailgate and hands-free access system are both offered as options and you can also spend more on a Cargo Package which includes adjustable rails to separate boot contents and an additional electric rear seat release button. Otherwise, the interior is 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 or, if you opt for COMAND Online, 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 which is one consolation, but that small boot will mean that families might have to resort to roof storage.
Market and Model
You're looking at a £1,200 premum to get this estate over the saloon variant. There are some frighteningly clever features built into this MK4 model C-Class Estate. We expect that from Mercedes-Benz but it doesn't mean we're blase about them. The air conditioning system, for instance, talks to the car's satellite navigation system. When you enter a tunnel, rather than start sucking diesel fumes into the cabin from that labouring artic, the car knows it's entering a tunnel and automatically switches the air conditioning to recirculate, bringing in fresh air only when you've emerge again. That's smart. As indeed is the COLLISION PREVENTION ASSIST PLUS system. When a danger of collision persists and the driver fails to respond, the system is able to carry out autonomous braking at speeds of up to 125mph, thereby reducing the severity of collisions with slower or stopping vehicles. The system also brakes in response to stationary vehicles at a speed of up to 31mph, and is able to prevent rear-end collisions at speeds of up to 25mph. Each C-Class gets pelvis airbags for driver and front passenger, as well as window bags, sidebags for the outer rear seats and a kneebag for the driver. The front passenger seat can also be fitted with automatic child seat recognition, which deactivates the airbag when a child seat is fitted and reactivated once it has been removed. The sound system is also worth a mention, utilising the Frontbass system, which uses the space within the cross-member and side member in the body structure as a resonance chamber for really punchy bass response.
Cost of Ownership
We've been accustomed to Mercedes featuring a whole host of efficiency measures such as start/stop, advanced aerodynamics and low internal transmission friction but the MK4 model C-Class has been on a diet to help things improve. Despite being a significantly bigger car than before (some 95mm longer and 40mm wider), weight has been cut through extensive use of aluminium in the 'body in white'. In fact, use of aluminium here has gone up from around 10 per cent in the old car to around 50 per cent now, with the result that around 70kg, or the weight of an average adult, has been trimmed from the body structure. It's all led to some impressive efficiency stats. Take the C220 BlueTEC diesel variant which can emit no more than 108g/km of carbon dioxide, with combined cycle fuel economy improving to nearly 70mpg; a quite remarkable number to be associated with a compact executive estate. Even the entry-level petrol model, the C200, manages 128g/km of CO2. Predictably, the C63 AMG super estate is thirstier, delivering 33.6mpg on the combined cycle and 196g/km of CO2. The headline-makers here though, are the HYBRID models. The diesel/electric C300 HYBRID delivers 76.3mpg on the combined cycle and 95g/km of CO2. The petrol/electric C300 PLUG-IN HYBRID variant meanwhile, does even better, recording a scarcely-believable 134.5mpg on the combined cycle and 49g/km of CO2.
Although there's a lot to like about the MK4 model C-Class Estate, it's still not really a car that will appeal to those with a lot of gear to carry. Seats up in normal family mode, there's a scant 10-litres more space back there than you get with the saloon. So why would you bother? The added practicality does come in handy for those odd occasions when you need to drag some Billy bookcases back from IKEA or such like, but how often will this be? Often enough in, say, three years to justify tying up another £1,200-odd over the saloon? That'll be a decision you need to make. Some may well find the estate's styling a bit more handsome than the saloon's. We've heard a few dissenting opinions regarding the four-door car's CLA-like tapered rear end and the estate appears more conventionally proportioned. Still, the opportunity to offer significantly more space than its key rivals has been missed and that would have clearly and objectively differentiated this model. The C-Class looks a very good car. As an estate, however, we remain to be wholly convinced.