Editor's note: This review was written in August 2010 about the 2010 Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2011, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Traditionally the cheapest bed at Hotel Benz, the C-Class sedan has been a success for Mercedes. It's outsold its larger siblings eight of the past 10 years — despite the fact that some versions have presented a cut-rate side to the brand.
Now well into its third generation, the 2010 C-Class is competent, but its cost-cutting interior ranks it below a number of competitors on the luxury ladder.
Trim levels for the C-Class include the C300 Sport, C300 Luxury and C350 Sport; click here to compare them with the 2009 C-Class. There's also a high-performance C63 AMG, which we cover in greater detail in our review of the '09 model. All four cars come standard with rear-wheel drive; the C300 Sport and Luxury offer Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel drive. I evaluated an all-wheel-drive C300 Sport.
German sport sedans aren't a plus-sized group, and the C-Class is among the smallest. With a footprint roughly equal to that of a Nissan Sentra, the C-Class looks like a miniature version of Mercedes' S-Class flagship. Other than the tail's awkward forward-leaning stance, it's a well-proportioned look — and it's aging better than the prior-generation's portly curves.
C300 Luxury models have a traditional three-pointed star hood ornament. All others drape a larger emblem over the grille itself. Seventeen-inch alloy wheels are standard on the C300 and C350, with 18-inchers optional. C300 Luxury models have unique bumpers and side sills, which make for a more formal — if less dynamic — look. The C63 AMG, conversely, has unique bodywork and standard 18-inch wheels. Xenon headlights are optional across all trims.
City drivers will appreciate the narrow 35.3-foot turning circle for C300 and C350 models, but tight alleys reveal limitations thanks to the folding side mirrors. (My garage opens to a tight alley, so it's become something of a pet peeve.) They don't fold completely in, or even close to it — and with integrated turn signals, heated surfaces and available motorized folding, knocking one off would mean a hefty repair bill.
From Capable to Rip-Roaring
A number of sport sedans offer base engines that accelerate enough but fall short of the effortless passing power expected of a luxury car. Such is the case with the C300. Encumbered by an extra 210 pounds versus rear-drive models, our test car's 228-horsepower V-6 moved out with adequate thrust. Pushed hard, the seven-speed automatic dispenses quick upshifts, and the engine emits a satisfying exhaust growl as the tach needle swings right.
The drivetrain's two driver-selectable modes, Comfort and Sport, alter accelerator sensitivity and automatic transmission shift patterns. Even in its Sport mode, the transmission isn't eager to kick down, so passing power is modest. But the engine offers good balance: I loaded up enough weight to simulate three adult passengers plus baggage, and the C300 didn't strain. The BMW 328i and Lexus IS 250 deliver peakier power with lackluster oomph starting out. (As base engines go, the Audi A4's turbo four-cylinder has the group beat.)
Several editors observed some accelerator lag, even in Sport mode. I noticed some, but it's not as pronounced as in some Mercedes with the automaker's 5.5-liter V-8. That king-sized V-8 makes up for the lag with effortless power, however; the C300's V-6 … not so much.
Stepping up to the C350 gets you a 268-hp, 3.5-liter V-6, while the C63 AMG has a 451-hp V-8. A performance package with revised engine calibrations bumps that up to 481 hp. Both the V-8 and 3.5-liter V-6 pack a stronger punch — Mercedes says the C63 can hit 60 mph in just over 4 seconds — but neither will be easy to come by. Of the thousands of C-Class sedans in Cars.com's national new-car inventory, just 5 percent are C350s or C63s. Both cars come with automatics; the C300 Sport also offers a six-speed manual.
Handling, Ride & Braking
More a cruiser than a corner-carver, the C300 handles OK. Despite our tester's sport-tuned suspension, midcorner body roll can become intrusive, and the Continental ContiProContact all-season tires lose their grip quickly. Once unsettled, the C300 plows early and often, with too much nose-heavy understeer for a car with rear-drive roots.
The steering wheel turns with a light touch at low speeds but firms up over switchbacks and during evasive maneuvers, delivering satisfying weight and good turn-in precision over quick cuts left and right. Curiously, prolonged turns — sweeping curves, highway cloverleaves — leave something to be desired. There's too much power assist, lending sloppy, tentative steering motions. Mercedes says the drivetrain's Sport mode enhances steering feel, but I noticed little difference. Probably of greater influence is the Dynamic Handling Package, which is optional on rear-wheel-drive Sport models. It includes an adaptive suspension and quicker steering ratio. The C63 AMG, with unique suspension and steering tuning, handles better, but when I drove one last year I noted a wee bit more steering slop than the segment's performance leader — the BMW M3 — exhibits. Slap on all the performance add-ons you want: A car's pedigree is hard to shake.
Ride comfort with our tester's 17-inch wheels was good; it could be even better with the C300 Luxury's regular suspension tuning. The C300 Sport's setup allows sufficient road feel but soaks up most bumps with muted ka-thuds. In this class, sport packages can render some pretty firm rides — the 3 Series and Infiniti G37 both exhibit this. It's clear Mercedes butters its bread on the comfort side.
One of our editors observed some odd body motions at highway speeds. The effect makes it feel as if the car hasn't settled in yet. I noticed a slight bit of this at low speeds, in a C63 AMG we evaluated last year. Go figure. Either way, it's disconcerting.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard, with cross-drilled front rotors on Sport models. The pedal feels a bit mushy, however; others in this class have more definitive pedal feel. The C63 AMG has larger discs with beefier calipers; in our test car last year, the effect made for a much grabbier pedal.
The C-Class wears the three-pointed star, but closer scrutiny reveals areas of cost-cutting versus the $35,000 competition, let alone Mercedes' pricier cars. It's the sort of thing that requires a closer look. At first glance, the cabin seems upscale — the wood and chrome accents are tasteful; the gearshift pulls with weight and precision from Park to Drive. The window switches and turn-signal stalk impart good craftsmanship. But on closer inspection, we found too many areas that rang cheap. The rubbery armrests haven't the slightest veneer of upholstery. The dashboard has exposed gaps, cheaply grained plastics and flimsy climate dials. The door locks employ the sort of flimsy, roughshod plastic you'd find in an entry-level car, and the three-spoke steering wheel is covered in hardscrabble leather.
Taller drivers may want more front legroom. When the seat was elevated, I had to drive with it all the way back; I'm 5-foot-11. The backseat is tight all around, with limited legroom and narrow doors. A 60/40-split folding backseat is standard on the C63 and optional elsewhere. Considering the trunk's 12.4 cubic feet — class-competitive, but still small — the folding feature is worth getting.
Our tester had leatherette (that's vinyl) upholstery, which some luxury carmakers offer in base models. Certain competitive examples do a good job simulating real cowhide; this isn't one of them. The C300's upholstery is low-rent, rubbery stuff. Real leather seats are optional — but I'm not sure that would improve their comfort. The seats lack lateral support, and several editors found too much lumbar support even with that adjustment dialed all the way back.
One hit: Mercedes' optional Comand system. Comand manages the navigation, audio and other systems via a flip-up dashboard screen and a console-mounted knob. I still find it the best of its knob-based peers: Map scrolling, audio track changes and submenu organization are altogether more intuitive than in BMW's iDrive or Audi's Multi Media Interface.
Nuts & Bolts
Overall reliability for the current C-Class has been average. In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the car earned the top score of Good in front, side, rear and roof-crush tests, making it an IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2010. Standard features include antilock brakes, an electronic stability system and nine airbags; click here for a full list. Seat-mounted airbags for the rear seats are optional, but the car secured its Top Safety Pick status without them.
The C300 Sport starts at $33,600 — at the high end of the segment, but it comes well-equipped. Standard features include dual-zone automatic climate control, vinyl upholstery, eight-way power front seats, a moonroof and a CD stereo with an MP3 jack. The C300 Luxury runs $35,300; it has a standard automatic transmission, which costs $1,490 on the C300 Sport. All-wheel drive C300s command just over $37,000 in Sport or Luxury trim, but both include the automatic. The C350 starts at $39,750 and is available only with rear-wheel drive and the automatic. The same goes for the C63 AMG, which starts at $57,350 — plus a $2,100 gas-guzzler tax.
Climb the options ladder, and available features include a navigation system, genuine leather, additional power seat controls, full iPod compatibility, heated seats and a backup camera. Typical of Mercedes, some common luxury features are optional no matter how high you go: The C63, despite its near-$60,000 starting price, still upholsters its sport seats in vinyl — and charges extra for real cowhide. "Ridiculous" defined.
Check all the factory options, and the C63 can top out over $75,000. That's an eye-watering price, to be sure, but an M3 sedan loaded to the gunwales costs just as much.
C-Class in the Market
Second only to the 3 Series in terms of sales popularity, the C-Class takes a different tack than its BMW rival. The BMW is dynamically talented but, for some, uninvitingly austere; the Benz is soft and stately. Problem is, others have Mercedes beat at its own game. From the Infiniti G37 to the Audi A4, cabins both richer and roomier can be had for this sort of money — and a number of competitors pack better fuel economy and resale values, too. The C-Class is competent, but in a field of excellent contenders, continuing its sales popularity will require some work.
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