Mercedes-Benz’ latest C-Class finally captured the company’s well-crafted ethos into a compact package. Previous Cs tended to ape whatever the S-Class was doing at the time, both in terms of style and substance, regardless of whether or not that translated well to a smaller size. The current generation finally hits that just-right combination of power, poise and technology, and the cars are beyond ubiquitous as a result.
|1. The addition of direct-injection to the 3.5L V6 brings power to 301 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque.
2. Fuel economy also goes up to 20/29 mpg.
3. Cosmetic updates for 2012 include new headlights with LED turn signals and a larger grille, as well as LED taillights and a new rear diffuser.
4. Pricing for the C350 starts at $40,575.
MODEST CHANGES OUTSIDE, MAJOR CHANGES INSIDE
Not wanting to mess with what’s been a popular package, Mercedes-Benz has left most of the 2012 C sedan well enough alone. The overall silhouette hasn’t been altered, but the headlights are re-shaped and now incorporate LED turn signals, and there’s now a wider mesh-covered front fascia flanked by ‘Benz’ trademark LED running lights. The changes to the rear are even more subtle. The taillights use LEDs, and the rear bumper features a re-sculpted faux diffuser. And that’s it, really. In isolation, it’s hard to tell the difference.
It’s inside where the most tangible efforts were made. Replacing the, ahem, durable dark plastics and faux metal are softer, more haptically happy materials and black ash trim in Sport models. The dash is more driver-focused, with sunken gauges, circular vents, and revised radio and HVAC controls. The new four-spoke flat-bottomed steering wheel hints at the C’s performance, and sports secondary controls for the audio system, Bluetooth hands-free and trip computer. While not especially spacious, the back seat is usable by adults, which is on par for the class.
DIRECT-INJECTION ADDS POWER, FUEL ECONOMY
Besides the smoking C63 AMG, the most rapid form of C-sedan transport remains the C350 Sport. Its 3.5-liter V6 remains, but now features direct injection to push horsepower to 301, which is finally competitive. Torque is up to 273 lb-ft, and even without a turbocharger peaks between 3500 to 5250 rpm. The automatic transmission still has seven gears, sending that power smoothly to the rear wheels.
Straight-line performance is markedly improved with plenty of thrust across the rev range. Unfortunately, ‘Benz V6’s sound not terribly inspired and the new DI technology doesn’t help. Infiniti owners would commit seppuku if their G37s sounded this flat. But it does pay off at the pump: the C350 improves its fuel economy to 20/29 mpg, while the least-thirsty G37 combination can only hit 19/27. Cracking that magical 30-mpg barrier – let alone beating the new BMW 335i’s combination of power, torque and 33 mpg on the highway – will need a turbo or two.
Thankfully, the C350 hasn’t ditched its mechanically assisted power steering yet, which means hustling the car along confidently isn’t terribly difficult. The fully-independent suspension uses fast-reactive dampers, 18-inch wheels and wider rear tires (225/40 front vs. 255/35 in back) to keep the car very well balanced. Although not as sharp as, say, a 335i on summer performance tires, the all-season C is ultimately more rewarding and less likely to injure kidneys on frost-heaves and potholes.
Even in nasty weather, the ‘Benz doesn’t force the driver into the ABS zone unless it’s absolutely required. And if you overcook a corner, there are standard traction and stability control systems that will do everything in their power to save the car.
ATTRACTIVE PRICING, BEFORE OPTIONS
Looking solely at MSRP, the $40,575 C350 Sport splits the difference between the $36,300 G37 and $42,400 335i. But getting the Bimmer into its ‘Sport Line’ trim adds $1,700 to its bottom line, and picking the comprehensive $2,150 Sport package for the Infiniti also forces you to buy the $1,850 Navigation package and $2,150 Premium package. Then again, options and add-ons at Mercedes-Benz and BMW don’t come cheap either.
Our tester came with a $2,800 multimedia package that includes a seven-inch high-res LCD screen, navigation, rear-view camera, voice control, and a 10GB hard drive, and the optional 18-inch wheels, which were just over a grand. All in, the C350 Sport hit $46,000, including $875 for destination.
Enthusiasts in cooler, damper – or snowier – US states might be frustrated that Mercedes-Benz will still not offer its 4MATIC all-wheel drive with the ‘big’ engine sedan, preferring to keep that option as an exclusive for the C350 Coupe. Audi, BMW and Infiniti have no qualms about selling 300-plus horsepower all-wheel drive sedans; why not ‘Benz?
Still, don’t let yourself get all stressed out by silly marketing decisions. Drive the revised C350 Sport as it is and enjoy the subtle improvements in its performance and quality. Just invest in quality winter tires and a good roadside assistance package.