by Ian Kuah
Cars have slowly been getting larger over the years. With today’s E-Class practically as big inside and out as the W126 S-Class from the 1980s, it is no surprise that the current C-Class is not far off the size of the W124 E-Class from the same period. Manufacturers will tell you that people have been getting larger so they need more space, but that is not the whole story. It is also about creating and filling new niches above, below, and between existing models in the endless search for new customers and more sales volume.
Thus, while the first ‘C-Class’, the best selling 190E (W201) range, of which around 1.8 million were sold between 1982 and 1993, was only a four-door sedan, today the C-Class badge appears on a sedan, station wagon, coupe and convertible, as well as the C43 and C63 AMG variants of these body styles. Where the E-Class was once the staple Mercedes model, it has now been supplanted by the C-Class, with over 415,000 sedan and station wagon models sold worldwide in 2017. In fact, since the 190E bowed in during 1982, Mercedes has shifted over 9.5 million C-Class cars across five generations.
While the 190E never did well in the US market, the larger models that followed, once Mercedes had officially designated its compact sedan ‘C-Class,’ certainly did, with the straight-six and later V6 engines being especially popular. The rapid rate of advancement in electronics, especially in the infotainment field, means that it is no longer feasible to wait for a new flagship model to debut cutting edge technical features that then trickle down to the rest of the range. For instance, the next generation AI system that made its debut in the new A-Class earlier this year was still undergoing development when the final specification for the revised C-Class reviewed here had already been fixed for production.
While the facelifted C-Class has a new widescreen based infotainment system positioned between the previous generation version and the AI-based one in the A-Class, the most significant changes are the new gasoline and diesel engines that take overall efficiency to the next level. I drove the V6-powered C400 4Matic Coupe first, and this attractive two-door immediately came across as engaging and fun to drive with good performance and refinement and a nimble chassis. Part of the route involved some quite challenging roads in hilly country with a few switchbacks as well as sweeping curves.
Here the unerring traction from the 4Matic all-wheel-drive proved its worth with the ability to deploy all the power of the punchy V6 twin-turbo motor all of the time. With the Dynamic controller set to Sport mode, the car comes to life quite nicely. The steering and chassis turn-in rate are spot on, which makes guiding the car into bends a purely intuitive act, and the good thing with the latest Mercedes models is the Individual mode, so you can set the drivetrain to its sharpest setting yet still retain a good measure of ride comfort if that is how you like things. The rear-wheel-drive four-cylinder C300 sedan I drove next did not fare so well in the balance stakes.
With a narrower track than its Coupe counterpart, yet quick steering, the pointy front end of this car seemed at odds with the more sluggish response from the rear, giving the car a slightly unbalanced feel that I found initially a bit disconcerting. I first experienced this engine quite recently in the new CLS where it came across as quite sporting, with a halfway decent exhaust note under firm acceleration.
However, in the smaller, lighter C-Class with less acoustic dampening it seemed to be more vocal and less refined, and was a big climb down after the cultured V6 in the C400 Coupe.
For Europe and Asia the big news is a new entry-level 1.5-liter petrol engine that uses the Nanoslide coating in its cylinder bores to reduce friction. While the surface is stronger than normal, you can't re-bore such an engine so the block would have to be replaced if there was an incident, say with a broken piston ring that scored a cylinder. “The goal was 2.0-liter performance with 1.5 liter levels of fuel economy,” explained Patrick Hawig, the engineer in charge of the four-cylinder range. Part of a new engine family called M264, this base engine installed in the C200 produces 184 hp from 5,800 to 6,100 rpm, and 207 lb-ft of torque between 3,000 and 4,000 rpm.
The emphasis on efficiency led to this being the first and smallest four-cylinder production gasoline engine in the world to adopt the belt-driven starter generator (BSG) system with energy recuperation normally used on six-cylinder engines. Using this system to boost low-end torque makes sense with the small displacement, and against the stopwatch the C200 shows brisk performance with a 0-62 mph time of 7.7 sec, and a more than adequate 149 mph top speed. More of a European and Asian tax break special thanks to its sub-1.6 liter displacement this model will not make it to the US where the entry-level C-Class will be the 258-hp, four-cylinder C300.
The success of the C43 formula in its sedan, station wagon, coupe and convertible forms certainly gave AMG the impetus to sharpen up its clothing for the second lap. This can be seen from the new twin blade radiator grille in front, while the twin exhaust pipes at the rear that flank the diffuser also help to complete the family connection to the C63. Also new are the more sculpted sill covers and 19-inch alloy wheels with more aerodynamically shaped spokes. In the cabin there is a new flat bottomed sports steering wheel, while the comfortable sports seats are covered in black leather with red stitching.
Typical AMG aluminium highlights and piano black lacquered wood trim complete the upgraded look.The instrument pack has the supersport screen that shows performance related information such as g-force, oil temperature, suspension settings, a stop watch and so on. With engine modifications that bump up its power from 376 to 390 hp the revised C43 AMG is a real blast to drive. The significant numbers are 390 hp at 6,100 rpm and 384 lb-ft of torque from 2,500 to 5,000rpm, that help it go harder and even more convincingly than before. Typical of AMG, the 24-hp increase over the outgoing model does not come from a mere software upgrade.
The development engineer explained that they fitted larger turbochargers and increased the peak boost pressure from 1.0 to 1.1 bar. The intercooler is unchanged as it has enough capacity to serve the higher output. Given its head, the C43 AMG fairly rockets off the line, passing 62 mph in 4.7 sec on its way to an electronically limited 155-mph top speed. Meanwhile AMG’s 9G Speedshift gearbox fires off upshifts with real speed and conviction, and is a far better unit than the old 7-speeder that went before. The larger turbochargers have improved the character of the revised motor. With bigger lungs the engine now revs with noticeably more alacrity beyond 5,000 rpm, chasing the redline with a delightfully crisp V6 howl.
However, what I most love about this car is its fine balance of speed, ride, and handling that makes it a better all round daily driver than the faster, more rumbustious C63 AMG, whose sportier suspension settings inflict a firmer ride on its occupants. And of course its rear-drive only chassis means its turbocharged V8 grunt becomes a liability when the weather turns bad. Interestingly, the solid ‘thunk’ of the doors closing on an AMG model always sounds and feels superior to lesser models, which leads me to suspect that these cars have a bit more sound deadening in their doors to further justify their premium pricing.
This and the better quality stitched leather dashboard covering take the look and feel of these cars to the next level. While entry-level four-cylinder C-Class models in Europe come with a six-speed manual gearbox and cloth trim, the cars coming to the US for the 2019 MY will be well specified and powered by the top four and six-cylinder motors.