Mercedes-Benz C 220 BlueTec SE, from £29,365
MERCEDES ISN’T holding back about its new C-class saloon. You would expect the company to insist that it’s the best car in its class. But Mercedes also maintains that settling behind its wheel is “akin to the uplifting feeling of being upgraded from economy to business class on an airliner”.
Now, that’s a huge claim. Getting an upgrade is one of the most fulfilling experiences known to man. And I speak as someone to whom it has happened precisely once (London to Los Angeles, summer of 1993).
Would driving this carefully reappraised businessman’s chariot really take me back to that fondly remembered “smiled upon by the gods” sensation? Could it genuinely duplicate the elation of eating unpaid-for salmon off china while smug in the knowledge that hundreds of people behind me were sitting with their knees in their eyes and getting tossed a freezing cold sandwich and a tiny tin of Sprite? I flew to France to find out. (Economy. No upgrade.)
A new C-class is a big launch for Mercedes. The model accounts for one in five of the cars it sells worldwide. It has to nudge up alongside the BMW 3-series and the Audi A4 in company car parks and inspire lust in the hearts of the nation’s suited executives. And it has to do this for the next seven years, as there is no new model planned before then.
It certainly looks good, adopting the languorous, curvy body language of the 21st-century Merc. (How prim and rigid the original 1982 “Baby Benz” now looks by comparison.) To the front of the long, flowing bonnet you can now attach your choice of grilles: the classic, multi-strut sedan affair, or a sparkier, chunkier, twin-brace version.
There’s definitely a class-above feel in the cabin, too, which is burnished with chrome, lined with leather and stuffed with clobber — not least the smartphone-style, pinch-and-swipe touchpad control for the information screen, which bears an unsettling resemblance to a giant coat hook.
The smartphone-style, pinch-and-swipe touchpad control for the information screen bears an unsettling resemblance to a giant coat hook.
The standard 7in screen has a slightly stuck-on feel, like an iPad Blu Tacked to the dashboard, and, given the heights of refinement elsewhere, you might be slightly disappointed not to see it integrated into the furnishings. Even Audi’s notionally humbler A3 saloon has a screen that stows itself out of sight when not needed.
We should probably also file under “not strictly necessary” the glovebox-mounted fragrance dispenser, which is ready to spritz the car with one of four Mercedes-developed “interior perfumes”. Mine came piped full of an aroma called Freeside Mood, which seemed to carry hints in equal measure of cornflakes and lavatory freshener.
Offered more seriously is a fat new portfolio of electronic driving aids, including a kind of super-enhanced cruise control that means the car will virtually drive itself in thick traffic while you file your nails, catch up on emails or change the perfume dispenser. Plus, in a breakthrough for joined-up thinking, the sat nav detects any imminent tunnels and instructs the air-conditioning unit to switch to recycle mode while you’re in there, thereby sparing you from inhaling three tons of compacted lorry fumes while, say, stuck in traffic in London’s Rotherhithe tunnel.
This seems to be an idea with a lot going for it. However, when I gave the feature a try-out during rush hour in one of the lengthy tunnels under the centre of Marseilles, two things happened: 1) the air-conditioning continued obliviously to tease the perfume dispenser by blowing a fine mist of noxious particles into the cabin, and 2) the sat nav, obviously unhappy to be underground, promptly had a panic attack, flinging out commands like Lance-Corporal Jones under stress in Dad’s Army, including recommending a U-turn. Such a manoeuvre would have been advisable at that point only if I had been filming an amateur remake of The French Connection. Still some work to do then, clearly, in the excitingly emergent field of sat nav-tunnel relations.
Initially, three four-cylinder engine variants will be offered — two 2.1-litre diesels and a 2-litre petrol — with the choice of a new, silky, seven-speed automatic gearbox or a new, slightly clumpy six-speed manual. I also tried the C 200 BlueTec, a new supercharged 1.6-litre diesel, available from September, which punches pluckily above its weight and offers maximum tax-efficient frugality, at least until the diesel/electric hybrid and plug-in versions come along.
The chassis has lost 100kg in weight, gained air suspension and lighter, more responsive steering, and is more aerodynamic, so it’s not surprising that it’s less stodgy to drive. However, the engines don’t run to an engaging note, or indeed a memorable noise of any kind, so the overall impression is of a car that is fabulously high on creature comforts but a touch low on animal driving thrills.
Still, the fancifully named Agility Select system has four settings to affect the vehicle’s driving style (Comfort, Eco, Sport, Sport+) and a fifth (Individual) that lets you mix your own from the ingredients of the other four. This makes the car more adaptable than the BMW 3-series — assuming adaptability is what you’re after. It’s possible that, after a long day in the office, throttle response and personalised axle kinematics are the last thing you want to think about. You probably just want to get in your car, set the perfume dispenser to Stun and drive home.
Will you be feeling permanently upgraded along the way? I’m not sure. But the C-class certainly has been. And you will always be fragrant.
It stinks. But in a nice way
Mercedes-Benz C 220 BlueTec SE specifications
Mercedes-Benz C 220 BlueTec SE rivals
Audi A4 2.0 TDI 177 SE Technik, £28,900
- For Attractive exterior and cabin design
- Against Can’t rival the driving experience or fuel economy of the C-class or 3-series
BMW 320d SE, £28,775
- For Best overall driving experience
- Against Can’t match the fuel economy of the C 220 BlueTec