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2017 Mercedes-Benz C-Class Test Drive Review
As cars lose out to more popular trucks and crossovers, the C-Class sedan is still the best-selling Mercedes-Benz in the U.S. More than 70,000 Americans took a C-Class home in 2016, all of them attracted to this car’s near-perfect blend of comfort, performance, price, and snob appeal. What’s in store for 2017? More of the same—and that’s a very good thing.
Look and Feel
Introduced for 2015, the W205-generation C-Class pushed Mercedes-Benz into a new era of expressive, bold design. Sleek, flowing curves replace the rectilinear profile of the previous C-Class, while the interior looks several years ahead of competitors. Check out the single-piece arched wood veneer on the center stack, the circular swiveling air vents, those art-deco aluminum-plated speaker covers, and the mix of materials and colors on the door panels, and indeed, everywhere. Unlike the cheaper CLA, the C-Class never actually feels cheap despite starting at under $40,000. It’s a soothing atmosphere of traditional luxury, high tech, and sporting pretensions.
Our C300 4Matic tester wore the Sport package and a BMW-like mix of icy white leather over black vinyl with dark-stained ash wood. Every surface looks expensive and latches, clicks, and presses with a fine touch. On the outside, it almost looks like the 2017 CLA250 we recently reviewed, with attractive 18-inch wheels, bright chrome trim, and a deep, sparkling Lunar Blue Metallic paint job.
There are more C-Class models that boost this car’s natural swagger, like the all-new 2017 C-Class Coupe and upcoming Cabriolet. A spiffy wagon is reserved for Europe. But only the sedan—especially when viewed from the rear quarters—shares the profile of the flagship S-Class. A Luxury package replaces the double-bar grille with a thinner, upright chrome piece and a classy hood ornament. Any way you spec it, this entry-level Benz carries a lot of presence for a compact car.
At your local dealer, you’ll find heaps of C300 models. Really, it’s your only choice, unless you opt for one of two high-powered AMG models. A 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder with 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque mates to a 7-speed automatic transmission in either rear- or 4Matic all-wheel drive, which splits power 45 percent to the front and 55 percent to the rear. The combination is perfect in a car this size. Even with four adults on board, there’s plenty of shove in any gear. The Dynamic Select feature lets you change the throttle, transmission, and steering responses to your desired taste. In Sport+ mode, the C300 keeps its turbo pumping and the revs high, including while under braking. Take it down to Comfort mode, and the C300 will loaf along like a proper Mercedes, quiet and calm.
But the C300 is never as quick or satisfying to wring out as the previous C350’s 302-horsepower V6. Mercedes has replaced this naturally aspirated 3.5-liter engine with the turbo four on all models—and all those models have gotten slower without the dramatic fuel-economy benefit you might expect of a smaller engine. Over 620 miles, we averaged a calculated 23 mpg. That’s not at all impressive. The EPA rates the C300 4Matic at 24 mpg city and 31 highway, while rear-wheel-drive models boost highway mileage to 34 mpg. We were on the highway for most of those miles at normal speeds.
On curvy roads, the C300 is a delight. The steering is nicely balanced under cornering loads and never too heavy, with good off-center feel. Our car’s sport suspension kept the C300 glued to the pavement, its nimble, stiff chassis piling loads of confidence (and grins) on our faces. The brakes are exceptional. But like the CLA250, the C300 rides a bit too stiffly—really, this is a Southern or West Coast option, where the roads are essentially flawless.
Thankfully, the C300 makes amends. The regular base version includes Agility Control, which are non-electronic, self-adjusting shock absorbers that respond to minute changes in the road. The Luxury version uses these same dampers tuned to a softer Comfort setting and smaller 17-inch tires. The best version, if you can stomach the price and the eventual repair bills, is the Airmatic air suspension. But let this be known: Driving on the C’s attractive 18- and 19-inch wheels with run-flat tires will never erase the occasional jolt and hard thwack over uneven surfaces. Choose your C-Class according to your local road conditions.
Want more excitement? The new-for-2017 AMG C43 (formerly the C450 AMG Sport) has a twin-turbo 3.0-liter V6 with 362 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque, paired exclusively with Benz’s new 9-speed automatic. The bro-tastic muscle version, the AMG C63, brings a loud 4.0-liter twin-turbo V8 with 469 horsepower (or in the C63 S, a stupendous 503). Or you can go in the opposite direction with the C350e, a plug-in hybrid that combines the 4-cylinder from the CLA250 with an electric motor, good for 275 horsepower and a worthless 11 estimated miles of EV-only range. There is a C-Class for every budget and taste.
Form and Function
Unlike the CLA, there’s enough room for four real adults inside a C-Class. Cutouts in the front seatbacks allow decent knee room, and the roofline is raised enough for 6-foot passengers to relax without slouching. All seats are firm and supportive. The front seats, with their power-adjustable thigh supports, proved highly relaxing on the back and glutes during long drives. Switches and stalks are easy to reach and operate on the move, save for the stereo Volume dial that lies flat on the center console. The analog gauges and central LCD on the instrument panel incorporate large typefaces and simple graphics to show a variety of functions, such as the exact following distance between you and the preceding car (very handy while using our car’s adaptive cruise control). One great Mercedes feature nobody ever mentions is the versatile ignition switch. Cars with Keyless-Go incorporate a proximity key and push-button start. But what if you don’t want to leave a big, lumpy key in your pocket? Just pop out the plastic button insert and twist the key, old-school, and leave it in the dash. Visibility and ingress/egress are no problem with the C-Class. For 2017, a clear, high-res backup camera is finally standard.
It’ll take a few night classes to master the COMAND infotainment system. On cars with the Premium 3 and 4 packages, such as ours, the central dial (which rotates and pushes in five axes) is now partially covered with a touchpad for more pushing and swiping gestures. A few hard buttons on the center stack allow quick access to the navigation, radio, and other functions, but you’ll need to get used to the Star Trek-style controls. Only now, after driving about a half-dozen new Mercedes models with this latest system, have I become comfortable with it.
A 7-inch central screen is standard with Bluetooth, HD Radio, and two USB ports. The 8.4-inch central screen comes with the Premium 3 package and brings navigation, three years of map updates, and five years of SiriusXM traffic and weather data. Once you master the COMAND system, you’ll revel in the integrated owner’s manual, the many animations depicting vehicle controls, and the simplified home screen with customized shortcuts. Voice recognition is much improved from earlier Mercedes models, with single-string inputs for addresses plus an in-car Wi-Fi hotspot.
LED headlights and taillights, available on Premium 2, are a must—not only because they look hot at night, but their actual performance is well above the standard halogens. The engraved Burmester markings on those gorgeous speaker covers are legit. With 13 drivers and 590 watts, the stereo cancels ambient noise as well as pumping out our favorite tunes in Surround Sound. As for the “Air Balance cabin fragrance system,” do yourself a favor and take a shower. It’s fun to show off to your friends on the way to dinner, but the perfume holder takes up most of the glovebox and is non-removable. We better appreciated how we could swipe a foot under the rear bumper to open and close the power trunk. We also enjoyed how the adaptive cruise control and self-correcting steering worked to make our rush-hour commutes easier. In general, when it comes to Mercedes tech: If you can pay for it, you’ll find it in the C-Class.
The 2017 C-Class has a five-star rating by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and top ratings by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which tested a 2016 model and gave it the Top Safety Pick+ award. Mercedes goes well beyond the usual airbags, even including rear side thorax-level airbags as standard. The stability control can compensate for crosswinds and gently apply individual brakes to keep the car on course. Those brakes also have special pads—they will periodically get applied in the rain to keep the rotors dry and prime themselves closer to the rotors when the driver lifts off the throttle. An attention monitor attempts to warn the driver of drowsy behavior. Forward-collision alert with auto-braking and Pre-Safe, which prepares the cabin for an imminent crash by closing the sunroof and adjusting the seats, are all standard. Optional safety features include blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist, pedestrian detection, cross-traffic alerts, and a system called Pre-Safe Plus that can detect when someone’s about to rear-end you.
At $59,260, our as-tested C300 4Matic is way up there in price and options. But it’s possible to enjoy a well-equipped C-Class for under $50,000—and that’s how most dealers will order these cars. In the luxury segment, the C-Class isn’t any more or less affordable than the Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series. The Cadillac ATS, Volvo S60, Jaguar XE, and Lexus IS are fine but less-polished alternatives. We wish there were a V6 C-Class that didn’t start at $53,000, because after options, it becomes almost prohibitively expensive without stepping up to the larger E-Class. In any trim, however, the C-Class does so many things right it’s hard to choose a better compact luxury sedan.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer who has spent a good portion of his life driving cars he doesn't own. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
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