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Friday, August 8, 2014

Driving the 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and moving on up


2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class
                         2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class

In the English alphabet, there’s plenty of distance between the letters C and S. Same holds true in the Mercedes-Benz lineup: The C-Class has always taken the low-dollar seat, while the big daddy S-Class was reserved for the elite. But with the introduction of the all-new 2015 C-Class, the distance between C and S has shrunken dramatically.
When the current S-Class was launched just last year, Mercedes called it nothing less than the best automobile in the world. Hyperbole, yes, but by most measures, the S-Class does make a case for the claim, handily leapfrogging competitors and shaming some Bentley and Rolls-Royce sedans with its luxury, safety technology, and performance.

 And the 2015 C-Class is less a cut-rate Mercedes and more a bite-size version of the S-Class, containing most of the flagship’s endless list of techno-goodies and comforts (including the $350 perfume atomizer for the cabin)—at roughly half the price.

This sudden leap in style and swagger was made possible by last year’s introduction of the front-wheel-drive CLA-Class, which now handles luring buyers at the lower end of the luxury market.

 Where the previous C-Class had to hustle on costs and compete with the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4, the new one has been unyoked from its financial plow to gallop with the best in the class.

What struck us first at the U.S. media introduction of the C-Class in Seattle, Washington, is how the C-Class really looks the part. Say what you will about German carmakers’ “one sausage, different sizes” approach to styling, because in this case, what works so well in large-print form on the S-Class looks just as swank in 7/8 scale.

The C dons the new face of Mercedes, with its wide, low grille and lovely internal headlamp jewelry—available in all-LED if you check the right box. Further back, sleek body contours and an arcing roofline visually stretch the car back to a tail end that elegantly drops to the bumper just like the S-Class.

If the previous generation C-Class gained a reputation for cheaper-than-acceptable interior appointments, the new one does everything possible to reverse such thoughts. The space is gorgeous, mimicking the S-Class cabin’s use of subtle, sweeping contours, indirect lighting, classy round air vents and silver buttons, knobs and seat/window controls.

 Leatherette and aluminum are standard issue, while several wood and leather treatments are available, including a stunning, open-pore black ash wood. And a $2,700 Premium package adds Burmester speaker grilles that are works of art in and of themselves.

Regardless what option boxes have been checked, the C-Class cabin expands appreciably, thanks to three inches of added wheelbase and 1.7 inches of width each paying particularly big dividends in the rear seat.

 Further back, the trunk space swells to a massive 17 cubic feet. If there is anywhere that suffers, interestingly enough, it’s in front, where the visors, grab handles and roof feel a bit closer to the noggin than before. Blame that sexy, swept-back windshield and lower roof.

That said, the driving position is perfect, setting the stage for a more intense driving experience than before. The first C-Class we sampled was the C300 4Matic, which is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder churning out 241 hp and 272 lb-ft of torque.

The C-Class has shed some 200 pounds year-over-year, leaving the engine fully able to get the car up to speed in an acceptable pace, though it’s hardly stimulating, either by virtue of its force or its sound. On the plus side, it is utterly silent at speed.

For more enthusiastic drivers, the C400 4Matic is motivated by a turbocharged 3.0-liter V-6 that produces 329 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque, a marked increase from the 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque of the 2014 C350’s non-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6.

 All-wheel-drive is standard on the C400 to help it handle the extra grunt, and is a $2,000 option on the C300. Thus equipped, the C400 is effortlessly swift, making mountain passes and stoplight shenanigans equally satisfying. We only wish it sounded more aggressive.

All models will come with a seven-speed automatic transmission with four operating modes: Eco, Comfort, Sport and Sport+, chosen via a button marked “Agility” next to the shifter. In Eco, the car retards throttle response and shifts quickly and early into the highest possible gear in order to save fuel; nudge it up into Sport or Sport+ for quicker (if somewhat abrupt) shifts at higher rpms for a livelier experience.

 In the city, we found Comfort to be an excellent compromise, as well most drivers, we suspect, but when time comes to kick it up a notch, as we did as we encircled Mount Rainier on the press drive, it’s all about Sport mode.

Dynamically, the C-Class once again does a remarkable impression of the S-Class. The base suspension is taut yet wonderfully isolating from harsh bumps, and delivers outstanding high-speed stability.

 The $1,190 optional Airmatic suspension (which uses air springs instead of coil springs) elevates ride quality to near-limousine smoothness on straight roads, yet keeps the body flat in high-speed corners, lowers it at highway speed for a more planted feel, and reduces diving during braking or rear-end squat while accelerating. The steering feels reassuringly direct and predictable, with actual feedback and solid on-center feel.

All of the above systems, save for the base suspension, are also connected to the “Agility Select” settings, which in addition to Eco, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ modes also includes an “Individual” mode that allows one to tailor each aspect individually.

 For example, you may drive in Eco mode, but add weightier steering and a firmer ride from the Airmatic suspension, should you desire tighter handling. Alternatively, you may select sportier throttle and transmission responses for quick acceleration while keeping the ride super-smooth and steering effort light.

The C300’s starting price of $39,325 includes dual-zone climate control, power front seats, automatic headlamps, keyless ignition, a seven-inch COMAND screen, a power steering column, rain-sensing wipers, power folding side mirrors, leatherette upholstery, aluminum interior trim, and much more.

We should note, however, that all C300s arriving before next spring will come with the $2,000 all-wheel drive system, so don’t expect to see any on the showroom floor with a sticker under $40,000.
The buffet of upgradable items only seems endless; Mercedes sells most in digestable packages.

 The $2,300 Interior package adds leather upholstery, ventilated seats, ambient lighting, and more; the $2,700 Premium package brings heated front seats, satellite radio, a 13-speaker, 590-watt Burmester sound system, and LED headlamps; the $650 Luxury package includes a comfort suspension, stand-up hood ornament, burl wood trim and leatherette-wrapped dashboard; and the $2,800 Driver Assistance package features radar cruise control, blind spot and counter-steering lane keeping assist, rear-end collision mitigation, and cross-traffic alert.

 Step up to the C400 4Matic for $49,515, and you’ll get the powerful V-6, all-wheel drive, bigger brakes, and significantly, all of the Premium and Sport package contents.

While this isn’t chump change we’re talking about, the 2015 is a lot of Benz for the money. While the letters of the alphabet haven’t changed in order, in the Mercedes-Benz hierarchy, the lines are starting to blur.

Disclosure: For this article, the writer’s transportation, meals and lodging costs were paid for by one or more subjects of the article. Yahoo does not promise to publish any stories or provide coverage to any individual or entity that paid for some or all of the costs of any of our writers to attend an event.