The C220d is our model of choice. With the same 2.0-litre diesel engine as that in the larger E-Class saloon, it offers plenty of low-down grunt and feels fast enough to hold its own against any of its chief rivals. It also comes with a nine-speed automatic gearbox as standard that, while occasionally slow to react, at least changes gear smoothly and crisply.
As for the petrol options, the entry-level mild hybrid C200 never really feels as fast as its power figures suggest. You really have to work it hard to extract what performance is available, especially on hills, and that isn’t always easy because the auto gearbox takes its time to kick down. We’ve yet to try the C300.
More engine options will arrive soon, including two plug-in hybrids, as well as the high-performance AMG C63 and C63 S versions. In the meantime, though, the hottest C-Class is the AMG C43, which will be plenty fast enough for most drivers and has the added appeal of standard four-wheel drive.
There’s a pretty wide range of suspension choices for the C-Class. While entry-level SE has steel springs with passive dampers as before, Sport and AMG Line versions get adaptive dampers as standard.
Even fitted with small wheels, the SE is still less comfortable than you might think. Urban potholes and lumps cause the C-Class to fidget noticeably, and at higher speeds it feels a little uncontrolled over crests. Upgrade to 18in or larger wheels and we suspect it’ll only get worse. Upgrade to a car with adaptive dampers and things improve slightly, but the C-Class is still less comfortable than the equivalent Audi A4.
Alternatively, there’s an optional air suspension set-up called Airmatic. This is a reasonably priced upgrade and does a good job of cushioning the worst imperfections at higher speeds, although the car still gets caught out over really sharped-edged pockmarks and can feel a touch floaty over high-speed crests.
C43 models come with a sportier adaptive suspension set-up that’s comfortable enough when dialled back to its softest mode but feels decidedly stiff over potholed roads in its more aggressive modes. Of course, for performance models, this is what you’d expect.
Despite being pretty firm, the conventionally sprung SE is far from the driver’s choice in this segment. While grip levels are high, there’s a surprising amount of body lean in corners and it never feels particularly keen to change direction in a hurry. Cars on adaptive dampers are better, allowing you to stiffen things up for less lean and crisper responses, although the C-Class is still not a car you’ll want to take down your favourite road for the hell of it.
With the Airmatic suspension fitted, the C-Class is pretty good to drive. Flick it into Sport mode and the suspension sharpens noticeably, giving you strong enough body control to hustle the car along a twisty road at a fair old lick but without making the ride so brittle that the car is knocked off your chosen line by mid-corner bumps.
That said, it isn’t as much fun as a BMW 3 Series or Jaguar XE down a twisty country lane; while the steering is direct and responsive, its weighting is a little inconsistent and doesn’t involve you in the experience as much as it could.
With its stiffer suspension and quicker steering, the C43 feels even more alert when cornering, and four-wheel drive makes its performance usable whatever the weather.
This is the area where the C200 really disappoints. Even when you’re cruising along, it transmits a noticeable hum and even a little vibration into the car; call for more acceleration and, as the revs rise, so does the racket – so much so, in fact, that you’ll have to raise your voice if you want to continue to converse with your passengers. It’s not helped by the fact that the automatic gearbox has to keep the revs high in order to deliver even moderate acceleration, due to the engine’s sluggish performance; this results in the ’box changing down to a lower gear often, amplifying the noise in the process.
True, when you switch to Eco mode, the petrol engine cuts out completely when your foot is off the accelerator to leave just the electric motor, saving fuel and resulting in silent running. Of course, the minute you press the accelerator again, the petrol engine restarts and you’re left with the same problem as before.
The C220d is better; in fact, when you’re coasting or cruising along, it’s whisper-quiet. But, again, ask it to do more than that and it grows somewhat gruffer, proving more intrusive than the Audi A4’s 2.0-litre diesel engine.
At least wind noise is very well controlled at higher speeds. Road noise is less impressive, there being a noticeable hum on coarse road surfaces even with small wheels.
Bigger wheels, stiffer suspension and a rorty exhaust make the C43 the noisiest of the lot at a cruise, although that’s fair enough; it’s part of the fun with this performance model.
Even seriously long-legged drivers should have no problem getting comfortable behind the wheel of the C-Class. There’s plenty of adjustment to the driver’s seat (including electric adjustment for height and seatback angle, plus four-way lumbar adjustment on all models) and the steering wheel moves a long way in and out, as well as up and down.
That said, there’s a bulge down by the footwell that interferes with the position of your left leg and the space around the rest for your left foot is rather limited if you have big feet.
The relatively few buttons on the dashboard are within easy reach, mind, and are simple to use, while everything else is controlled via a rotary controller and touchpad on the centre console – which we’ll talk more about in the infotainment section.
You get a good view out of the front of the C-Class, so it’s easy to position the car’s extremities. Like many small saloons, however, the thick rear pillars and relatively small rear window mean it can be tricky to see over your shoulder.
A reversing camera is fitted to every model, while front and rear parking sensors and a self-parking system are standard from mid-level Sport versions upwards. Sport trim also adds bright LED headlights for better night vision.
Every C-Class gets at least a 10.3in colour screen that is mounted high up on the dashboard for easy viewing and is operated by a rotary controller between the front seats. The system is slick, fast and relatively easy to use, but BMW’s iDrive system is better still. What’s more, the sat-nav can occasionally lag behind your actual location, leaving you wondering whether you’re taking the correct turning.
You can get a rather appealing digital TFT screen in lieu of the standard analogue dials, allowing you to switch your rev counter for one of three alternative displays or, in the C43, a track-focused readout showing g-forces and other performance information. However, this is only available as part of the Premium or Premium Plus packages, both of which are quite expensive and not available on SE trim.
A digital radio is standard on all models, as are two USB sockets in the centre console. An upgraded Burmester sound system is an optional extra, but only as part of the costly Premium Plus Package.
There’s little doubt that the C-Class looks the part inside, with enough cues from the bigger S-Class to make it look like a stylish and premium product. Indeed, for many, the interior is rather more exciting than the more prosaic BMW 3 Series and Audi A4 designs.
But while the A4 may look less dramatic, it’s second to none in this class for solidity and material quality, whereas the C-Class’s perceived quality doesn’t tally with how it actually feels. Start prodding some of those nice-looking materials, such as the centre stack or the silver air vent holders, and more often than not they squeak annoyingly or wobble as they deflect. Look lower down the interior and the plastics become rather low-rent, too.
Even tall adults are unlikely to find major issues concerning room in the front of the C-Class. There’s good leg room and plenty of head room – even in cars equipped with the optional panoramic glass roof.
However, the space on offer is nothing compared with that of some of the bigger, less premium rivals, such as the Volkswagen Passat and Skoda Superb.
There are wide storage pockets in both doors, along with a decent-sized covered area at the bottom of the dashboard and a cubby beneath the central armrest.
There are three seats in the back of the C-Class but, in truth, three adults sitting there won’t thank you on a long journey; the interior is narrow and the large central floor tunnel pinches foot space for the middle passenger.
Two six-footers should be reasonably comfortable, though, because leg room is decent. There’s a decent amount of head room, too, even with the optional panoramic roof fitted. However, the Superb and Passat are much better prospects for anyone who regularly carries adults in the back.
At least storage space is decent enough, with a relatively generous pocket in either door and map pockets on the back of the front seats.
There’s not much scope for seating flexibility in a saloon; even with this in mind, the C-Class offers nothing exceptional. You get rear seats that split and fold in a 40/20/40 configuration, but the front passenger seatback doesn’t fold flat for when you want to carry particularly long loads.
More positively, the front passenger seat gets electric height adjustment as standard, while fully electric seat adjustment is an option on Sport versions and above.
In terms of outright space, the C-Class lags behind both the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4, let alone more capacious rivals such as the Superb and Passat. What’s more, the boot floor is an odd shape, slanting upwards towards the front of the car, meaning larger items of luggage might not sit flat.
On the plus side, all C-Classes have folding rear seats to extend the luggage space, and the seatbacks lie flush with the boot floor when dropped.
The C-Class is one of the most expensive executive cars you can buy; like for like, it’s costlier than a BMW 3 Series or an Audi A4 and a lot more expensive than an Audi A3 Saloon and less premium rivals such as the Skoda Superb and Volkswagen Passat. What’s more, these high prices mean high P11D values; combined with CO2 emissions figures that are no better than those of its most efficient rivals, this means the C-Class is actually quite expensive in terms of benefit-in-kind tax for company car drivers.
Diesel models’ fuel economy figures are impressive, although they don’t quite match the class best; petrol versions, meanwhile, are way off the pace. Fortunately, if you buy a C-Class instead of leasing it, resale values will be relatively strong.
Don’t expect the high-performance C43 to be cheap to run; fuel, insurance and servicing costs will all be decidedly hefty.
Even entry-level SE models get a worthwhile specification, including 16in alloy wheels, sat-nav, man-made (Artico) leather seats, climate control, cruise control and a rear-view camera. However, we’d definitely recommend adding Airmatic air suspension to smooth the ride.
Sport adds larger, 17in alloy wheels, full LED headlights, flashier interior trim, heated front sports seats and front and rear parking sensors. This trim also gives you the option to add the Premium and Premium Plus packs, but they are pricey.
You can pay even more by going for AMG Line trim, but we don’t think the extra (mainly cosmetic) kit is worth the additional cost.
The C43 gets larger alloy wheels as standard, plus a full AMG bodykit, AMG sports seats, a flat-bottomed performance steering wheel and nappa leather upholstery.
The C-Class came mid-table in our most recent reliability survey, with 47 faults per 100 vehicles. As a manufacturer, Mercedes is also a midfield runner, coming in at 23rd out of 32 brands. That’s better than Jaguar or Volvo, but some way behind Audi and Skoda.
You get a three-year, unlimited-mileage warranty and three years of breakdown cover. That’s similar to what most rivals offer.
All C-Class models get a collision prevention system that can automatically apply the brakes to help stop you from running into the back of the vehicle in front. There’s also a tyre pressure monitoring system to alert you if you have a slow puncture. All models get 10 airbags and a system that can detect if you’re getting drowsy on a long journey.
This all helped the C-Class score impressive marks in its Euro NCAP crash test in 2014. It was awarded the maximum five-star overall rating, along with good scores across the board in the individual categories; its 92% adult occupancy protection rating is better than what the A4 achieved, for instance, although its child occupancy protection score of 84% is slightly lower than the A4’s rating.
An alarm and engine immobiliser are standard on all versions, while security expert Thatcham awarded the C-Class five out of five for resisting theft and four out of five for resisting being broken into.
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