Style, luxury and performance. That’s the aspirational trifecta for a compact luxury car.
It’s needed to separate such a car from the usual fray of automotive appliances. Compact luxury shows the world that you’re well on your way to “making it.” Historically, this meant grabbing a small sedan from Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz, but not too long ago, a batch of newcomers burst on the scene looking to level the playing field. Today, speaking about a Cadillac ATS, Infiniti Q50 or Lexus IS in the same breath as the 3 Series or C-Class is the norm.
So the era of German luxury brand dominance is over, right? Nein! For 2015, Mercedes-Benz sent the C-Class to the makeover chamber and it emerged with more style, more luxury and more performance. This is just what the doctor ordered for the baby Benz, but is it enough to hold off the hordes of competitors crowding the compact luxury segment?
IS vs C
To find out, we grabbed a 2015 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport. Totally redesigned two years ago, the IS 350 F Sport occupies the top rung in Lexus’ compact sedan family. It packs a 3.5-liter V6 that produces 306 hp and 277 lb-ft. of torque. Because this IS is AWD, it sticks with an older six-speed automatic transmission instead of the rear-wheel-drive-only eight-speed auto.
The Mercedes-Benz C 400 4Matic matches up against the Lexus in the compact car hierarchy. Using a new 3.0-liter turbocharged V6, the Benz makes 329 hp and a whopping 354 lb-ft. of torque. Like the IS 350, the C 400 sends power to all four wheels, but does have an extra gear in its seven-speed automatic transmission.
Power vs Sound
With more power and more gears, it’s no surprise that the C 400 is a half second faster in the 0-60 mph sprint, clocking a time of 5.2 seconds versus the Lexus’ time of 5.7 seconds. The C 400 isn’t an absolute torque monster like the numbers suggest, though. There’s always plenty more power on tap compared to the IS 350, but the C 400 doesn’t pull as hard as we expected from 354 lb-ft. From a dead stop, the C 400 does launch harder, but as speed builds, the Mercedes’s power advantage is less obvious.
Even with more power and a turbocharger, the C 400 is the more fuel efficient vehicle of the duo. Officially rated at 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway, the Mercedes holds a 2 mpg advantage in the city and 3 mpg advantage on the highway compared to the Lexus. During real-world testing, our observed averages reflected this with the IS 350 returning 20.3 mpg compared to C 400’s 22.8 mpg average.
Even though it’s less efficient, all of the IS 350’s primary controls operate in a smoother, more fluid way than the C 400, making it an easier car to drive. And the IS 350 sounds better the higher the rpms build, thanks to the F Sport’s intake sound tube.
F Sport More Than Just a Badge
But the F Sport package is about more than just making the IS sound fast. It adds style, luxury and performance. Items like an adaptive suspension, staggered 18-inch wheels, upgraded brake pads, LED headlights and a unique front fascia are all included. Inside, various trim bits are altered and the front seats are replaced by 10-way driver performance seats that oddly lose their memory function but are heated and ventilated.
The C 400 does include a memory seat feature, but did not include a cooling function as equipped. It was also missing another feature found in the IS 350, adaptive cruise control, but the Mercedes countered with two items not found in the Lexus – a panoramic sunroof and power tilt/telescopic steering wheel.
|Vehicle||2015 Lexus IS 350||Advantage||2015 Mercedes-Benz C 400|
|Engine||3.5 L V6||-||3.0 L turbocharged V6|
|Horsepower||306 HP||C 400||329 HP|
|Torque||277 lb-ft.||C 400||354 lb-ft.|
|Weight||3,737 lbs.||C 400||3,693 lbs.|
|0-60 MPH||5.7 seconds||C 400||5.2 seconds|
|Rear Legroom||32.2-inches||C 400||35.2-inches|
|Cargo Space||13.8 cubic feet||IS 350||12.6 cubic feet|
|Fuel Economy (US)||19 MPG city, 26 MPG hwy||C 400||21 MPG city, 29 MPG hwy|
|Fuel Economy (CDN)||12.6 L/100 km city, 9.1 L/100 km hwy||C 400||11.1 L/100 km city, 8.4 L/100 km hwy|
|Observed Fuel Economy||20.3 MPG||C 400||22.8 MPG|
|Starting Price(US)||$46,675||IS 350||$49,515|
|Starting Price(CDN)||$49,395||IS 350||$53,475|
|As Tested Price(US)||$50,980||IS 350||$57,675|
|As Tested Price(CDN)||$55,945||IS 350||$60,775|
Interior Game Just Changed
With this redesign, Mercedes-Benz has raised the bar for all compact luxury sedan interiors. The new C-Class is so elegant looking. It really does feel like a baby S-Class. With open pore wood, rich leather and well placed metal trim accents, the C 400 immediately exudes luxury the moment the door is opened.
In isolation, the IS has a nicely finished interior, but when put side-by-side with the Mercedes, it looks tired, busy and less premium. It’s the same deal when behind the wheel. The IS 350 feels quiet and refined, but once compared to the C 400, it’s obvious how much more road noise penetrates its way into the Lexus’ cabin. On the plus side, the IS does include the better, more comfortable driving position for drivers of different sizes.
SEE ALSO: 2014 Lexus IS 350 F Sport Review
With more legroom and more headroom, the C 400 has a minor size advantage when it comes to the rear seating area, but neither car is overly spacious. The IS 350’s rear seat is the more comfortable one to sit on and the trunk of the Lexus offers more space.
The Performance Equation
The C 400 has a refinement and elegance advantage, which isn’t much of a surprise because that has always been the C-Class’s mantra. What is surprising is that it’s also the better handling vehicle of the two. Equipped with the optional airmatic suspension, the C 400 tackles bends with unexpected precision.
Around a decreasing radius, downhill corner, the C 400 always remained composed and semi-neutral in its handling. Kept within its limits, the car never got unsettled and dispatched the corner with ease. Powering out of the corner, the Mercedes goes about its business without drama. The power meets the road and does not try to flex or steer the car. The IS 350, on the other hand, produced minor body roll and was less willing to bite with the front tires, which were much quicker to squeal in protest. Sudden commands for a change in direction were met with minor hesitation. Again, in isolation, the IS 350 handles very well, but when compared side-by-side with the C 400, some weaknesses become apparent.
Both cars come with adjustable suspensions that firm up in Sport+ mode and relax in comfort/normal modes. With more adjustability, the C 400 doubles as a serene highway cruiser that floats down the road like a car twice its size and weight. The suspension soaks up bumps in a way that the IS 350’s coil suspension can’t.
The Verdict: 2015 Lexus IS 350 vs 2015 Mercedes-Benz C 400
As tested, the Mercedes-Benz C 400 4Matic came in at $57,675 after destination charges. That’s nearly $7,000 more than the Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport’s price of $50,980. Seven grand is not exactly pocket change. So that begs the question; is a car with more performance, better fuel economy and higher levels of elegance worth the extra cash? In our opinion, yes it is.
2015 Lexus IS 350 AWD F Sport
2015 Mercedes-Benz C 400 4Matic