We’d been waiting in line so long at the rental agency. Melbourne rush hour traffic was piling up. The caretaker of the holiday home we were staying at for the weekend was waiting for us. It’d been a long day and we now had to rush two hours out of town. You can imagine, then, how frustrating it was to get into a car and have to figure out where the shifter was. It was an inauspicious start for our rental of the new Mercedes-Benz C200, the lowest-priced version of Australia’s best-selling luxury car. Fortunately, it didn’t tarnish the entire rental experience.
To call the C-Class important to the Mercedes brand is an understatement. In Australia, the W205-series C-Class dominates the compact luxury sedan segment. Here, Mercedes-Benz is the top-selling luxury brand overall – as it is globally – and the C-Class the best-selling luxury car. Our industry reporting organisation, VFACTS, lumps the C-Class in the “Medium Sedan” segment and last year the Toyota Camry was the only “medium sedan” to outsell the C-Class. The sedan found 8,549 buyers and the coupe accounted for another 2,818 sales, enough to earn the two-door the #2 slot in the “Sports Cars” segment. In comparison, the BMW 3-Series found 2,584 buyers and the Audi A4 only 2,117. There’s a similar gulf between C-Class and 3-Series sales in the US.
The lure of the three-pointed star is too strong for thousands of Aussies to resist – Mercedes has the best or second best-selling cars in every luxury segment and even the CLA outsells the BMW 3-Series. Surely, I surmised, it can’t just be the badge that attracts buyers.
I approached the C200 with high expectations, only to initially be met with disappointment. Let’s start with the shifter. Firstly, having not driven a new C-Class, I didn’t even know where the shifter was until I found the stalk on the column. Now, I’m not averse to a column shifter even if it’s not my first choice. And there’s nothing wrong with the feel of the well-crafted, metal paddle shifters in the Mercedes, although they could be a tad longer. But the actual shifter has the girth of a conventional column stalk and is in roughly the same location as the turn signal stalk in my own car; the wiper and turn signal controls are on a single stalk on the left-hand side. This meant the first hour of driving the car was a little nerve-wracking as I kept thinking I’d accidentally knock it into Neutral on the highway. Yes, you mostly acclimatize and it does have a high-quality feel but it seems a confounding location for a shifter.
There were also a couple of other irritations in the cabin. The speedometer is on the left-hand side and the odometer on the right when most cars have them the other way around. This makes it more difficult to read your speed unless you’re driving 200 km/h. There’s a nicely-sized screen in the gauge cluster that can display, for example, your navigation directions. Unfortunately, the digital speedometer is a tiny readout above that and it can display either miles per hour or… nothing at all. There didn’t appear to be any way to change it to kilometres per hour, nor make it appear on the larger screen in the gauge cluster.
Our rental was a 2017 model. For the 2019 model year, the C-Class has received numerous tweaks to its infotainment, as well as a new steering wheel and a fully digital instrument cluster. Said changes may well mitigate the issues I experienced.
Mercedes’ COMAND interface takes some getting used to initially. At first I grumbled at the lack of a touchscreen – different strokes for different folks – but the rotary controller is arguably less distracting while driving and you won’t leave smudges on the eight-inch display. You quickly figure out that you can press it down like a mouse and the buttons are duplicated on both the raised portion and next to the knob itself. Overall it’s a fairly intuitive system and it hasn’t completely taken over the interior, the climate control settings remaining button-operated.
The positioning of the infotainment controller and the gear shifter frees up space for a huge cubby at the base of the center stack with a 12V power outlet. There are also two well-sized cupholders. Their location is preferable to most cars’ cupholders which often require you to move your arm back or twist your wrist.
There was one more black mark in the interior, however: the Bluetooth. I don’t know whether to blame Mercedes-Benz or the folks at Apple because every time I turned the car off, it unpaired my phone. I didn’t have that problem in a lowly Toyota HiAce earlier this year and I expected better from a Mercedes.
The interior itself is very attractive with a flowing center stack and Mercedes’ traditional, elegant seat adjustment controls on the door. Build and material quality is excellent, as expected, from the plastics to the exquisitely tactile switchgear. Even the plastics on the lower part of the door are padded – unlike in, say, a Lexus IS – and there’s no evidence of cost-cutting at all in the cabin. I expected a high-quality interior and the Mercedes delivered—everything feels just right. There are even neat touches like “Mercedes-Benz” illuminated in the front-door sill panels. Even though Australian-market C200 sedans aren’t built in Germany – ours come from South Africa – the build quality is still superb.
As a personal preference, I’d rather seats that are a touch softer but the firm Artico synthetic leather pews are certainly supportive. They’re also highly adjustable. Even with the seat adjusted for my height – 5’11’’ – I could comfortably sit behind myself. The C-Class has certainly become more hospitable since the days of the cramped W202.
The 12.6 cubic-foot trunk is also fairly capacious for the class and the rear seats fold 40/20/40 for more cargo room.
Standard equipment includes front and rear parking sensors, nine airbags, automatic headlights and wipers, forward collision warning, power seats and blind-spot monitoring. This isn’t a poverty-pack 180E with wind-up windows. Sure, a better-equipped, more powerful, top-of-the-line Mazda6 costs $10k less so the value proposition isn’t airtight. But how many people are cross-shopping a C-Class with a car from a non-luxury brand?
Let me preface my driving impressions by saying I’ve no problem with turbocharged four-cylinder engines. Unfortunately, the C200’s is noisy. The clatter under the hood gave me pause – when I picked it up, I didn’t check the badge on the trunk and I found myself wondering if I had rented a diesel. Even with the stereo on, I was startled at how rough the engine sounded. Cadillac’s turbocharged 2.0 – an engine that is often criticized for its lack of refinement compared to rivals’ – seemed more refined. At least the C-Class was quiet at idle, with a relatively seamless stop/start system that can still be switched off if you so desire.
I could perhaps forgive the racket if the C200 was a rocketship but it’s not. This was the base engine in the C-Class until this year, rated at 181 hp at 5500 rpm and 221 ft-lbs at 4000 rpm. That’s down 36 ft-lbs from the base turbocharged four-cylinder engines in the Lexus IS and Infiniti Q50, although it’s up 22 ft-lbs on the 2.0 turbo in the comparably-priced BMW 320i. Fortunately, the C200 doesn’t feel underpowered, although I can’t speak for the less powerful C160 and C180 available in other markets.
The C200 never pushes you back in your seat but it has plenty of power for passing and no noticeable turbo lag; Mercedes quotes a 0-60 time of around 7.3 seconds but it definitely doesn’t feel any faster than that. The facelifted version which has just debuted now has a smaller turbocharged 1.5 in the C200, producing the same horsepower figures but 14 fewer pound-feet of torque.
The nine-speed automatic shifts smoothly and you can manually change gears with the paddle shifters, although the car will shift back into automatic mode eventually. That nine-speed auto undoubtedly helps the C-Class achieve its excellent fuel economy: Its rated at 8.4/5.4 l/100km and 6.5 l/100km combined (28/44/36mpg converted). Even after over 200 km of (admittedly mostly highway) driving, I still had more than two-thirds of a tank. If you want more power but don’t want to pay any more at the pump, Mercedes has a C250 with similar fuel economy figures but around 20 extra horses.
Mercedes’ Agility Select system allows you to choose between five drive modes: Sport, Sport +, Comfort, Eco and Individual. The latter allows you to customize the five different elements within each drive mode: engine performance, steering feel, the stop/start system, climate control and, in Cs equipped with the optional Airmatic suspension, the firmness of the suspension. Through Agility Select, you can also opt for the C-Class to shift via paddle inputs only. It’s a nice touch if you love shifting your own gears and don’t like the car overriding your inputs.
Even without the Airmatic suspension, the C200 has a rather comfortable and complaint ride without any major impact harshness, even on pockmarked country roads. One does wonder how appreciably better the vaunted Airmatic system would feel, though.
When thrown down the twisting back roads of Hepburn Springs, the C200 impresses with confident, secure handling. The speed-sensitive, electric power steering is marvellously calibrated, being light when you need it to be and more hefty when you want it to be while still affording tangible road feel. Overall dynamics are commendable although the C200 isn’t exhilarating to drive and doesn’t quite shrink around you. Perhaps with some more power under the hood, it’d come alive.
I was left with the feeling the C-Class probably needs a few ticks on the order sheet to transform from capable to transcendent, including the Airmatic suspension and the punchier turbo 2.0 in the C300. Hopefully that engine is more refined than the C200’s.
Does the C-Class deserve to be the best-selling compact luxury sedan in Australia and in many other parts of the world? For most luxury car buyers, absolutely. The elegant cabin, refined driving manners and that big three-pointed star are enough to satisfy the masses. For enthusiasts, I’d recommend a test drive and a diligent look at the options sheet.