Mercedes' fifth generation C-Class has taken a big step forward, thinks Jonathan Crouch
Despite the rise and rise of the SUV, the C-Class continues to be Mercedes' best selling international model. No pressure then for this redesigned fifth generation 'W206'-series version. Which fully embraces various forms of engine electrification. And brings more than a dash of S-Class luxury to this important segment.
Thinking of a German mid-sized premium badged saloon or estate? If so, then your options have always been pretty straightforward; the dynamic drive of a BMW 3 Series, the uber-cool technology of an Audi A4 or the aspirational image of a Mercedes C-Class. With this fifth generation 'C' though, Mercedes wants to offer more; a sharper drive to temp BMW folk; and a big enough step forward in technology and efficiency to make a potential Audi customer think again. We've heard this before down the decades of course, since the first generation 'W202'-series C-Class was first introduced back in 1993. Particularly with this MK5 model's 'W205'-series predecessor, launched in 2014 which went on to sell 2.5 million units. But there are strong grounds for Mercedes' claims for conquest business this time round. Under the skin, many aspects of its updated 'MRA' ('Mercedes Rear Architecture') platform are shared with the latest S-Class - as is much else. The aim is to redefine what 'luxury; means in this segment. Sounds promising. Let's take a look.
There's quite a change here. This latest C-Class is powered only by electrified four cylinder powerplants - yes, right up to the top C 63 AMG variant. The mainstream engines have mild hybrid tech, with pricier plug-in options if you want them. The core petrol models are the C180 and the C200, which share a 1.5-litre unit offering, respectively, either 170 or 204hp. Next up is the 2.0-litre C300 with 258hp. Mercedes hasn't abandoned diesel either. There are three options, all of which use a revised 2.0-litre unit, which now gets an extra 42cc of capacity. The base C200d gets 163hp, the mid-range C220d has 200hp and the top C300d has 265hp. All C-Class models have to be had with 9-speed automatic transmission. And the C200, the C300 and the C220d can all be optioned with a revised and more efficient version of Mercedes' '4MATIC' 4WD system, which can now send a greater proportion of power to the front axle. We mentioned plug-in options, said by Mercedes to be 'significantly more electric' - and so it proves. Courtesy of a much larger 25kWh battery pack beneath the boot floor, the C300e petrol PHEV manages between 34 and 62 miles of all-electric driving range. It's also pretty quick, courtesy of a combined 304hp output and can drive in all-electric mode at up to 87mph. Mercedes has engineered the usual flagship high performance AMG models to complete the range.
From the front end, the design cues echo those introduced with the facelifted E-Class, particularly the grille and the full-LED headlight arrangement. This 'C' has moved closer in size to an 'E' too, being 65mm longer and 10mm wider, though the roof line has fallen by 7mm. Key aesthetic features include the smart bonnet with its twin power bulges and the stronger shoulder line which flows into a neat boot lid that's flanked by angular LED tail lights and which features a subtle integrated spoiler. The previous generation C-Class was heavily influenced by the larger S-Class model, as is this 'W206'-series model - and you notice that most of all inside. A huge portrait-style touchscreen now dominates the centre stack, with three 'jet engine'-style circular vents just above and single vents at either end of the dash. That screen is a real cabin talking point, as is the fact that for the first time in a C-Class, the instrumentation is all fully digital. A 'floating' 10.25-inch digital instrument panel takes the place of the previous more conventional binnacle, with a larger 12.3-inch screen available as an option. Either way, you can customise the display via three 'themes' - 'Discreet', 'Sport' and 'Classic'. Media connectivity takes a big step forward via a second generation version of the MBUX infotainment system. This features over-the-air updates - and live streaming services have been added so that owners can link accounts to services like Spotify and access them in the car. Space in the rear is slightly improved by the 25mm wheelbase length increase, but it's still comfortable for two but a squash for three. Out back, the 455-litre boot capacity is competitive in the saloon but if you prioritise that, you'll want the Estate variant. Its automatic tailgate rises to reveal 490-litres of luggage room, 30-litres more than before. With the seats folded, that rises to 1,510-litres.
Prices are much as with the previous generation model, which means you can expect to pay somewhere in the £35,000 and £50,000 bracket for mainstream models, depending on the engine and trim level you want - and your choice between the two mainstream body shapes, saloon and estate. Lots of tempting technology is available to persuade you to spend more. We particularly like the 'Augmented Video' system. Here, a camera registers the surroundings in front of the vehicle and the moving images are shown on the central display, with virtual objects, information and markers superimposed on the video image. These include traffic signs, directional arrows, lane-change recommendations and house numbers. This can make navigation much easier, especially in urban areas. Air suspension and a head-up display can be ordered as options. And you might also want to consider optional rear-axle steering and the accompanying, more direct steering ratio at the front axle which reduces the turning circle by 43 centimetres to 10.64 metres. With rear-axle steering fitted, at lower speeds, the rear wheels steer in the opposite direction to the front wheels - by up to 2.5-degrees opposite to the front-axle angle during parking. Go faster and the rear wheels turn slightly in the same direction as those at the front to improve corner turn-in.
Apparently, the Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 team worked with the C-Class development engineers to create a new turbocharger that gives these latest mild hybrid engines better efficiency - and the official readings seem to bear that out. Let's get to the WLTP-rated figures, starting with the petrol mild hybrid models. The 1.5-litre C180 and C200 variants both return the same figures - 37.9mpg on the combined cycle and 141g/km of CO2. For the C200 4MATIC, the figures are 35.6mpg and 151g/km of CO2, which is pretty much what you also get from the 2.0-litre C300. The C300 4MATIC manages 33.6mpg and 160g/km. As for the mild hybrid diesels, well the likely best selling variant, the C220d, manages 48.0mpg on the combined cycle and 130g/km of CO2. The C300d manages 47.0mpg and 131g/km of CO2. Increasingly though, diesel drivers will be moving towards the various Plug-in options available. The C300e petrol PHEV manages al all-electric driving range of between 34 and 62 miles and can be charged in 30 minutes with a 55kW fast charger (an 11kW device is fitted as standard). The latest plug-in 'C' models also benefit from an adjustable energy recuperation system that can top up the battery at up to 100kW when cruising or decelerating. Mercedes has also added in a hybrid-specific route-planning function that uses the navigation, route topography and traffic data to work out the most efficient route, enabling, for instance, automatic prioritisation of the electric motor in town driving.
There's the potential for quite a shift here in the segment hierarchy for mid-sized premium badged saloons and estates. To be frank, in its previous guises, the C-Class was a car you usually chose more because it was a Mercedes than because it was intrinsically better than its Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series arch-rivals. But this fifth generation 'C' could potentially tempt you on grounds other than mere badge equity. It now has the segment's classiest and most sophisticated cabin. We also think it has the best interior media set-up. And when it comes to issues of ride and refinement - the things that really matter to potential business customers - there's the potential for class-leading drive dynamics too. The other thing that really matters to those customers is running cost efficiency; well, this Mercedes is class-leading there too. If you're in the market for a car of this kind, that all makes this 'C' a compelling proposition. It'll be interesting to see how BMW and Audi fight back.
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