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km : First Drive

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26 September 2011

Sometimes finding success brings with it a whole new set of troubles — “Mo’ money, mo’ problems,” as one famous New Yorker once put it. Take the example of the current Mercedes-Benz C-class, which has represented the brand well and constantly finds itself right on the heels of the segment’s longtime sales leader, the BMW 3-series. The devil is in the details though, and the important detail is that the people sitting at M-B headquarters in Montvale, New Jersey, can only make that claim if only sedans are counted. The Bimmer also sells well as a coupe and a convertible, while the Merc, um, well, can you afford an E-class?



For the 2012 model year, the C-class heads to dealers with a full mid-cycle refresh but also the most important body style for the Munich-versus-Stuttgart race, a coupe. If you’re thinking that this isn’t anything new because there was a stubby hatchback version of the last-generation C, Mercedes would like you to go away and please, stop talking to any of the brand’s customers. Let’s just say it wasn’t exactly a sales — or image — success here in the States.



The new coupe learns from old mistakes and, unlike the hatchback, was designed with the US market not only in mind, but at the forefront. It has a traditional trunk and a roofline that’s both sporty and upscale. From front to rear, the coupe varies slightly in length from the sedan simply because of different bumper designs, but both ride on the same wheelbase. To impart more drama, the roofline is cut down a rather significant inch and a half. A panorama roof and AMG-inspired aero kit are standard equipment here and as a result, the coupe carries a cost premium of about $1500.





We have but one complaint about the C coupe’s design, which also benefits from the same interior updates as the 2012 sedan but for its own attractive bucket seats in the rear. Sadly, this small coupe kills a tradition of pillarless windows that’s been carried on by its older siblings higher up the Mercedes line. Instead, the C coupe has bulky B-pillars and rear windows that are fully fixed, perhaps concessions to price-point targets and its sedan-based chassis that was never built with such concerns in mind. Mercedes-Benz doesn’t rule out the possibility of a convertible coming to the C-class range, but we’re told it definitely won’t happen before an all-new C arrives in three or four years. That will also be the next time a station wagon is considered for the US market, so stop getting your hopes up for now.



If you’ve driven a C-class sedan and liked it, you’ll be equally pleased with the coupe, which drives no different. Even things like rear visibility are essentially the same, though groans from people who have to get in the rear seats will probably increase for coupe owners. At least it’s a nice place once you get back there. Once you get past bodystyles, the biggest news for this new 2012 model is the set of new and upgraded powertrains, which we’ll deal with one at a time.



Four Cylinder Engine Returns



Once anchored by a 3.0-liter V6, the 2012 C-class line-up now starts with the return of Mercedes-Benz four-cylinders to America with the C250. The same engine that will arrive late to the SLK-class, this is a turbocharged, direct-injected 1.8-liter that produces 201 horsepower and 229 lb-ft of torque, making it competitive with Audi’s 2.0T but weaker than the 240-horse four-banger that will come to the next BMW 3-series when it launches next spring.



The C250 doesn’t readily announce its lack of cylinders. Torque comes on strong and early, and the engine has a confident note and impressive smoothness. Through hilly stop-and-go traffic in Portland, Maine, we’re never left longing for more muscle, something that’s surely aided by an excellent and just-updated seven-speed automatic transmission; unlike the SLK250, which uses the same engine, the C250 gets no manual option. Having to carry around about 150 fewer pounds than a C350 helps this base car feel athletic as well. Really, its only flaw is on paper, where we see the EPA managed to squeeze out just a few more miles per gallon than the 302-hp C350, 21/31 mpg versus 19/28 for the coupes. Interestingly, the four-cylinder gets the same fuel economy regardless of door count, while the V6 gains one mpg in sedan form. Also, all coupes wear “sport” trim, while the C250 and C300 sedan can be bought as “luxury” models, which wear the Mercedes star on a hood ornament rather than front-and-center on the grille; lux-spec sedans also have slightly different interiors with four-spoke steering wheels. Sport specification adds about $400 to the $35,675 base-level C250 sport sedan. The cheapest coupe costs $38,095.



V6 Still the Main Attraction



Moving up one rung on the price scale means forgoing the new two-door bodystyle. The C300, previously the base C-class, is now offered only as a sedan and only with 4Matic all-wheel drive. Its 3.0-liter V6 carries on essentially unchanged, producing 228 horsepower but just 221 lb-ft of torque, eight less than the C250. Because it lacks updates like direct-injection and always drives all four wheels, the C300 is the least-efficient non-AMG model, delivering 18 mpg city and 25 on the highway. Later, the C350 coupe (and only the coupe) will get 4Matic. Until then, the some 50 percent of customers who Mercedes-Benz says wants all-wheel drive in the US will have to accept a sedan with an engine that’s just mediocre in terms of both power and efficiency. Company representatives we talked with declined to say anything about 4Matic moving to other models and related to that, whether the C300’s days might be numbered. We’d guess a C300 engine is actually cheaper to produce than the one in the C250 and as a result, the company is going to pigeonhole 4Matic customers into the C300’s higher profit margin as long as possible.



The coupe joins back in at the C350 level, which is easily the best compromise of performance, efficiency, and cost. The four-cylinder costs about $5000 less but trades 100 horses for minor fuel economy gains, while the C63 AMG, at about $60,000, is out of reach for many sport sedan customers before even considering its combined mileage of just 15 mpg. We’ve tested this direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 in cars like the SLK350 and the ML350 already this summer and here, our impressions remain the same: it’s smooth, responsive, and has great overall character. The C350 is equally happy racing up the Mt. Washington Auto Road and wafting down long, straight highways, though considered among cars like the 335i and the Audi S4, it is perhaps a little softer.



V8 by AMG



Meanwhile, the range-topping C63 AMG is about as soft as a sledgehammer swing. Since it was introduced, this has been not only our favorite current AMG, but also one of our favorite cars in general. It only gets better for 2012 with the move to the brand’s seven-speed MCT automatic, which makes its way down from the S- and E-class AMGs, among others. Instead of a torque converter, it uses a specially built clutch pack and the result continues to be one of the best automatics on the market. With a console-mounted dial turned to the sportiest “S+” setting for the computer’s shift mapping, it has a telepathic ability to serve up perfect rev-matched downshifts.



Power goes unchanged for the C63, which is also now offered with a choice of door counts. Motivation still comes from a naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V8 that combines all the aural excitement of a NASCAR racer with the type of mechanical sophistication that only Germany can produce. Standard cars are rated at 451 horsepower, while an optional Development Package raises that figure to 481. A 510-horsepower C63 AMG Black Series Coupe will be let out of its straitjacket some time next year.



Best Small Benz Yet



Regardless of which flavor you choose, the 2012 C-class is improved in all the right places. From behind the wheel, we appreciate the new layout of trim pieces, which can be metal, wood, or, at least in AMG form, carbon-fiber. We’re also happy the car is moving on from its flip-out navigation screen to one that’s nicely integrated into the upper dash, and the new TFT screen in the center of the speedometer has great color and definition. Even the steering wheel is a big step up, though the car’s seats were always good.



Ever since the original 190E was introduced in the early ‘80s, many Mercedes-Benz followers have felt that the smallest sedan was never quite up to the standards held higher up the line, while cross-shoppers have had a hard time finding the little Benzes as involving as cars like the BMW 3-series. When this latest iteration debuted in 2007, the company finally had a real competitor. Now that the updated 2012 cars have arrived, Mercedes-Benz may just have a class leader.


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