In the automotive world – and unlike in nature – the sheer competitiveness of business means that evolution takes place at a very rapid rate. In the compact executive sedan segment, the stakes are even higher. Market research will tell these manufacturers much the same thing and highlight advantages of rival products. In the end it is clear that the three German rivals from Audi, Mercedes and BMW are on evolutionary paths that will soon meet. With each passing generation, BMW sacrifices a little bit of its sharpness for extra comfort, because that’s where Mercedes and Audi historically have triumphed. At the same time, with each new C-Class, the car grows a little sportier, because historically speaking, that’s where it has fallen short.
Take the latest Mercedes-Benz C280 as a case in point. When Avantgarde trim is selected, the iconic Mercedes badge moves off the bonnet, and onto the grille, a position it usually only occupies on the marque’s sports models, such as the SL and SLK. This is because Mercedes wants the new C-Class to be taken seriously by “enthusiastic” drivers – read, those who would otherwise consider a 3 Series – as well. It goes beyond the looks, of course. Mercedes’s marketing material focuses heavily on the topics of agility and driving enjoyment. The question is whether this focus on sportiness comes in addition to the usual Mercedes strengths of comfort and ride quality, or at the cost of them…
A lightness of touch for Mercedes-Benz C280With its crisp lines and subtle hints of sportiness on the outside, the new C-Class is a handsome machine that is unlikely to date too fast. Mercedes doesn’t always get the proportions of their designs spot-on, but it certainly has done so with this car. More conservative customers will be happy to learn that they can still select Elegance trim, which places the three-pointed star back on the bonnet where many believe it should always be on a Mercedes sedan.
The interior design is of a similar “crispness” – the lines are dead-straight, creases well-defined and the overall look quite angular. The lack of curves inside means the cabin can come across as somewhat stark and uninviting, but it’s undeniably modern. Thankfully, most of the surfaces that will regularly be touched are of the soft variety.
Ergonomically speaking, the Mercedes-Benz C280 is not entirely convincing. The button count on the facia is relatively high, so the additional fitment of Mercedes’s iDrive-rivalling Comand control system is somewhat baffling, as some of the functions are duplicated. It seems Mercedes wanted to please both its conservative existing clientele, as well as attracting those who crave the latest technologies. The result is a somewhat awkward marriage of both. This is also evident in the instrumentation. A fairly conservative, silver-backed instrument panel faces the driver, but on top of the facia sits a digital colour display that is linked to the Comand system.
In typical Mercedes fashion, the focus on occupant comfort is still there. The steering wheel features generous adjustment, as does the driver’s seat. A comfortable driving position should therefore be attainable for all. The new C-Class boasts a 3 Series-matching wheelbase of 2 760 mm and consequently boasts similar – perhaps slightly more generous – rear legroom. The boot is not only bigger than the BMW’s, but also accommodates a spare under its floor. Rather disappointingly, but again mirroring the BMW, the Mercedes-Benz C280 does not offer fold-down functionality for the rear seats as standard (it costs over R3 000 extra).
Controlled agilityWhile the previous model was not completely hopeless in the dynamic department, the new model represents a significant step forward. Fitted with Mercedes’s new hydro-mechanical damping system (called Agility Control) the new Mercedes-Benz C280 possesses superb body control, stability and a sense of real agility. It feels nearly unflappable and, importantly, the ride comfort that has become a C-Class hallmark has not been compromised.
Fitted with the company’s proven 3,0-litre V6, the Mercedes-Benz C280 is positioned to make good use of its newfound dynamic confidence. The engine delivers 170 kW and 300 Nm of torque, good enough for a 7,2 second 0-100 km/h sprint time. The engine, however, is mated with Mercedes’s 7G-tronic seven-speed automatic ‘box and, although it offers both Comfort and Sport settings, this transmission is certainly geared for comfort rather than entertainment. Consequently, it really adds to the package when cruising along, shifting smoothly and quickly up and down the ratios, but it never quite transforms in Sport mode. So while one senses the basics are there for the C-Class to rival the 3 Series in terms of driving enjoyment when pushed hard, it never quite encourages that behaviour, due to the transmission’s focus on smoothness and cruising. And, of course, you can’t buy a Mercedes-Benz C280 with a manual transmission, while you can buy a 325i or even a 330i with a six-speed self-shifter.
Mercedes-Benz C280 - VerdictThe new C-Class has evolved into a far more rounded offering. It now offers a superb combination of agility and ride comfort and a design (inside and out) that will please both conservatives and those who want a bit more visual “oomph”. In C280 form it is a fantastically powerful, yet relaxing car to drive, but those who had hoped it would match the 3 Series dynamically may have to wait a bit longer. Price-wise the Mercedes-benz C280 falls somewhat uncomfortably between competitors such as the BMW 325i and 330i, but the ticking of a few options boxes will see it quickly move closer to the latter. Against that vehicle, the Mercedes’s V6 not only lacks power but also entertainment value. If you want your C-Class to back its newfound sharpness with some bite, perhaps the slightly more expensive C350 is the model to go for.
- Laid-back character
- High safety spec
- Overly light steering
- Slightly “basic” facia design
Engine: 3,0-litre, V6, petrol
Power: 170 kW @ 6 000 rpm
Torque: 300 Nm @ 2 500 rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Wheels: 17-inch alloy
Top speed: 244 km/h
0-100 km/h: 7,2 seconds
Fuel economy: 9,4 litres/100 km
- BMW 330i Steptronic (E92): The Mercedes’s fiercest rival packs a more powerful engine and a dynamic balance that certainly sits on the entertaining side of the spectrum. More expensive, but not by much. Steering comparatively heavy and the ride is firm on those RunFlat tyres. For less, the 325i model offers similar appeal.
- Audi A4 3,2 FSI quattro Tiptronic: Ageing now, and this can be seen in its comparatively snug cabin and control interface. Nevertheless, the A4 remains a classy, capable rival and the engine in particular is a peach. We’d skip the cheaper Multitronic model and go for this quattro Tiptronic as the driving experience is significantly enhanced.
- Lexus IS250 SE: A stylish offering with considerable appeal, but it lacks the power of the German offerings, as well as the cabin quality. The standard features list is generous and the driving experience enjoyable. Almost there…