With 8.5 million sales since the original 190E was introduced, and with the C-Class taking around 20 per cent of Mercedes-Benz's global sales, this new model is one of the most crucial cars Mercedes will launch this decade.
In the Metal:
Car design is such a fickle thing. One moment it wants to be all futuristic and forward looking, the next, it wants to be all retro and old-school. Often the interregnum between these periods is measured in seconds. The new Mercedes-Benz C-Class's styling seems to have been caught in the fractions of a second between these two periods of influence and therefore seems a little confused at times. There are huge influences felt and taken from both the smaller CLA and the new Mercedes S-Class. Indeed, in Exclusive trim (which has the traditional radiator grille, equipped with an aero-friendly shutter system) and the proud bonnet mounted star, the C-Class looks almost alarmingly like a mini-S-Class. Avantgarde and AMG Sport trims put the star front, centre and large in the middle of the grille, at which point the C-Class looks like a super-sized CLA. To be fair, it's not a bad looking car, but it does seem to lack a clear identity of its own.
Inside, things are much, much better. The cabin is, and there is no other word for it, beautiful. The driver sits in a snugly enclosed space, cocooned by the high transmission tunnel to the left, on some of the comfiest and most instantly supportive seats we've ever experienced. The levels of quality and attention to detail that have gone into the C-Class' cabin are hugely impressive. Everything from the resistance of the rotary infotainment system controller (which is now supplemented by a touch-pad that can recognise the letters you scrawl with your finger) to the Swiss-watch feel of the air vents is as close to car cabin perfection as you'll find. The only bum note we noticed was the fake wood, which looks very, very fake. Still, a trawl through the options list should find you a trim that suits you better.
Space in the back is decent now, and far improved over and above that of the outgoing C-Class, which was always something of a cramped car. The 480-litre boot is also well proportioned, although that will be eclipsed shortly by the arrival of the new C-Class Estate, a car that we suspect may just be the peachiest of the entire C-Class range.
This is something of a tentative mark for the C-Class, as we've only had the chance to sample it briefly and Mercedes almost always perform better when you've had a chance to spend some serious time with them, on a variety of roads. Still, even on brief acquaintance, the lumpy, twisty tarmac of rural Kildare is as stern a test of a car's chassis as you'll find, so we weren't exactly taking it easy on the car.
The C-Class now comes with a multi-adjustable dynamic setup, which, as with its rivals from Audi and BMW, allows you to change the car's settings between different levels of comfort and sportiness. You need to spend the extra for the adjustable suspension dampers (or, better yet the Airmatic air suspension) to get the best from the system. The 'vanilla' version merely changes the gearshift points, steering weight and throttle response and to be honest we struggled to detect much of a difference in any mode.
The good news is that the basic setup is good, with a heavy emphasis on comfort. The C-Class wafts along, in the manner of a much larger car, soaking up road intrusions with a well-damped shrug of the body and proving exceptionally refined. The steering feels a touch remote on this first try (again, Merc's steering often improves with exposure) and there's definitely more in the way of comfort than there is of apex-sniffing hyper-accuracy, but the C-Class feels like a stable, solid platform. It's way ahead, driving-wise, of the Audi A4, and neck-and-neck with the BMW 3 Series, albeit with that different emphasis to the hard-charging Munich car.
The 2.1-litre 170hp diesel engine is familiar, and impressive in its freedom from vibration and smooth power delivery, but it can get a touch too noisy on a wide throttle opening. Fitted with Merc's seven-speed automatic (as most C-Classes will be) it's quiet enough unless you ask for brisk performance, but the problem is that there seems to be a lack of low-down torque thump. The engine has 400Nm of torque, so it should be fine, and Mercedes claims that the aluminium-intensive body is 100kg lighter than before, so it can't be a weight issue. Perhaps in the search for drivetrain refinement, Mercedes has just polished too much of the edge off? Still, economy should be very impressive and there is still an old-fashioned part of me that boggles at the fact that a big, luxurious, brisk saloon such as this can score a CO2 emissions figure of just 103g/km, without a hybrid battery in sight. (The hybrid C-Class, for reference, emits 94g/km...)
What you get for your Money:
As with any German car, the options list is lengthy and potentially ruinous, but there's no doubt that for a small increase in overall prices (around two per cent), you do get an awful lot more C-Class for your cash than previously was the case. For a start, there's that new lightweight body structure, plus the new infotainment system that includes the touch pad and a host of other connectivity toys and gizmos.
Then there's safety. Mercedes always makes safe cars, and as part of that the C-Class can be fitted with the Attention Assist drowsiness detection system and Collision Prevention Assist - an adaptive braking system that activates automatically if the driver fails to respond to danger ahead. Additional offerings include systems to control distance from the vehicle in front, lane keeping assist, active parking, adaptive head beam, traffic sign and wrong way alert systems and a 360-degree camera. Pelvis air bags, a newly developed window bag, side bags and a driver's knee bag also form part of the safety story.
Prices start at a visually impressive €37k for the petrol-engined C 180, but you'll have to pay closer to €50k to get a well-specified diesel for now - the C 220 CDI and C 250 CDI are the only oil-burning engines available until the C 180 CDI and C 200 CDI arrive in the autumn.
Aside from some reservations over the styling and power delivery, the C-Class is a seriously impressive car. In fact, it would almost be worth buying alone for the exceptionally well executed cabin. Old-school Mercedes build quality (makes a bank vault feel like wet lettuce etc...) helps, as does the sheer level of on-road comfort. A little more precision in the chassis would be nice (but then again, we weren't driving a Sport model), but the C-Class makes a pretty good case for itself, and potentially takes the top spot in the small executive saloon class.