- Premium interior a cut above its rivals
- Equipment levels are surprisingly strong
- Excellent economy choices
- Pricey to purchase outright
- Suspension a little stiff at times
- Lower power engines are slow performers
It’s a tough climate for the C-Class, with saloon car sales dropping and a huge amount of incredibly capable rivals, from budget choices such as the Skoda Superb, through mainstream rivals from Ford and Vauxhall, and premium options in the form of the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Jaguar XE, Alfa Romeo Giulia and Lexus IS. Even the Swedes will join the fray soon, with the new Volvo S60.
Mercedes has fought back by refreshing the C-Class with a subtle, but refined new look. There’s also some new engines, including a new mild hybrid option tested here, and the ongoing focus on comfort rather than ‘sporty’ driving dynamics.
That said, the AMG badge makes an appearance on many models, offering a more engaging choice for those tempted by its more overtly sporting rivals, while seriously hot models can be had for seriously frightening amounts of money.
On The Road
There’s an engine option for everybody in the C-Class range, from impressively frugal through to scarily fast.
The best sellers are diesel powered but, in this changing environment, the petrol options are gaining popularity. A 1.5-litre petrol engine under the bonnet of this test car, with a turbocharger bolted on and the very mildest of hybrid drives to boost performance at the lower end of the rev range. There’s a healthy 184hp available, enough to push the car to 62mph in just 8.1 seconds. Forego the 4MATIC four-wheel drive option and it’s even quicker.
The range rises to the C63 S, a 4.0-litre, twin-turbo monster that produces a staggering 476hp, translating to a supercar-rivalling four-second sprint to 62mph and am electronically limited 155mph maximum speed.
The C220d is, arguably, the strongest option, offering a pleasing balance between performance (sub-seven seconds to 62mph) and economy (north of 61mpg), without breaking the bank.
How the car rides depends on what model you specify. Entry level options make do with springs and dampers, but the AMG-Line and Sport versions get adaptive dampers as standard.
The standard setup is fine, but the C-Class can feel a little floaty over high-speed undulations, taking some time to settle down after a motorway ridge. It’s comfortable for the most part though, only being upset by imperfections in urban environments that come crashing through the suspension, although significant body-roll will put you off driving with gusto.
Higher spec cars come with Agility Control, an adaptive suspension system that uses a valve in the dampers to soften or stiffen the responses. This improves the ride, allowing for a more compliant response along normal roads, but start pushing the car harder and the valve closes, stiffening the suspensions and creating a tauter, more responsive car. It adds confidence when required, without sacrificing ride quality, and works well.
Optional air suspension does much the same, but across a wider range, while the proper AMG models have an aggressively adaptive system that is just about acceptable at the softest setting while feeling ready for the race track at the other end of the scale.
The C200 offers a fine balance of performance and economy, it’s not the smoothest of units. Ask for that performance to be delivered and it’s positively raucous, with an amount of vibration joining the party at the same time.
The nine-speed gearbox changes down a ratio or two frequently as well, ensuring there’s poke available when you prod the accelerator, but adding noise more frequently than you’d hope for.
The diesel engine options are similar, but their wider torque bands allow the gearbox to be more conservative, keeping much of the disquiet at bay when cruising along.
The slippery body keeps wind noise away though, and tyre roar is mostly well insulated. Some broken surfaces seem to create a rumble as you pass over, but that may be acoustic frequencies aligning at certain speeds to amplify the effect.
The AMG models (not AMG-Line!) add loud exhausts to the mix, creating something of a drone at cruising speeds, but balancing that with a somewhat anti-social throatiness under power. It’s not particularly refined, but it’s great fun.
In The Car
There’s no classier space inside a car of this size than the C-Class. It may not be quite as perfectly laid out as an Audi A4, or have the ease of use of the BMW 3 Series, but the interior of the Mercedes is simply beautiful.
That’s helped on this AMG-Line model by the open-grain wood trim that adorns the centre stack, where lower models get piano black plastics, but whatever model you go for you’ll find it’s exquisite.
Getting comfortable should be easy for most people, as the seats, in both sporty AMG-Line spec and normal SE spec, are big and endlessly adjustable, as is the steering wheel. However, the driver’s side has a large bump in the footwell, and that can introduce a little discomfort on longer journeys, especially if you’ve got big feet.
The infotainment system takes some getting used to, with three methods of operating it - a touchpad between the seats, a rotary dial underneath that, or buttons on the steering wheel. Frustratingly, the obvious touchscreen choice hasn’t been fitted, leading to random jabbing of the screen before you realise it won’t work. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are fitted, but they’re both slightly limited by the lack of touchscreen capability.
Those swept lines of the outside make finding the edges of the car tricky but there’s a reversing camera fitted to all models, with an automatic parking system making short work of tight spaces on Sport trims and above.
Everything is lovely in the front seats, with plenty of leg, elbow and shoulder room, and enough headroom even when there’s an optional panoramic sunroof fitted. There are three seats in the back, but the middle one really isn’t usable for more than the shortest of journeys. Those on either side will be comfortable enough though, thanks to ample leg and head room.
Those rear seats fold down, split 40/20/40, and rest completely flat, extending the boot space available. This is a rather tight 435 litres, some way short of that found in similar models.
There’s no hiding from the rather robust list prices of the C-Class, with even the C200 tested here costing close to £38,000. No matter how big a discount is available, and how tempting any PCP package is, it leaves company car driver with a significant tax bill thanks to a high P11D value. If you're paying 40% income tax, expect a tax bill of around £375 a month.
Private buyers fare a little better, with strong finance offers bringing down the cost of purchasing, while economy for all is strong on most models. The full hybrid arriving soon will allow for an all-electric drive of as much as 30 miles, making most days a fuel-free event for buyers.
Resale values are also high, ensuring you’ll get a good chunk back when you come to sell further down the line.
None of that holds true for the AM models though - they’re thirsty and expensive on insurance and servicing. It’s probably worth it for the earth shattering performance, though.
The Mercedes C-Class came 27th in the most recent Auto Express Driver Power survey, being a better option to own than both the BMW 3 Series (39th) and Audi A4 (44th). It was also highly rated by JD Power in its 2018 reliability survey, ahead of the Audi and BMW again.
You get a three-year, unlimited-mileage warranty and three years of breakdown cover included in the price, but that’s broadly similar to what every one of its rivals offer.
Every C-Class comes fitted with safety gear including the vital automatic emergency braking, and a drowsiness monitor that alerts you when you look a little tired on long journeys. Adaptive cruise control keeps you relaxed on motorway drives, and a speed limiter can help you keep hold of your licence.
It all goes towards the five-star rating Euro NCAP gave the C-Class when they tested it in 2014, with strong scores for adult protection in a crash, and pedestrian protection, the latter aided by an active bonnet that keeps a pedestrian’s head away from the engine block if all else fails.
Disappointingly, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alerts are relegated to the options list as part of a pack that includes countless other safety gadgets.